APA 2013: Dispatches from Chicago

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Scroll down for earlier posts from the 2013 APA National Conference

Ending on a Positive Note

On Tuesday morning, I attended a session on "Emerging Trends & The Future of Planning." For an overflowing crowd, Eugenie Birch, FAICP, Lawrence C. Nussdorf Chair of Urban Research and Education at the Unniversity of Pennsylvania, summarized some of findings of a task force she's leading to identify the emerging issues and trends impacting planners. In a concise but powerful presentation, she described the national and international trends that planners will need to address over the next several decades.

Organized around the subjects of Global Scene, Economy, Governance, Environment, and Demography, she provided a broad overview of the daunting challenges that will impact planning in the United States. A sampling of these include:

  • Declining infrastructure
  • Demand for 20 million new jobs by 2020 to accommodate the growing labor force
  • The need to restore our "industrial ecology"
  • NIMBYism vs "Citiwidism"
  • Drop in state aid and property taxes
  • Pension and health care liabilities for retirees
  • Changing energy sources
  • 60% of global large cities in hazardous areas
  • Aging populations
  • Increasing inequality

She went on to explain how tools that increase resilience, livability, and inclusivity will be key to addressing this formidable list.

At the end of the session, Eugenie asked the audience to add their own thoughts on the trends and challenges confronting planners. More than a dozen attendees contributed compelling observations, including: the lack of design education in planning, the need for resiliency beyond climate, the increased speed of miscommunication and misinformation, and the cutthroat competition between cities and regions. One commenter identified the lack of optimism as a challenge, and called for a sense of positivity in our ability to solve these profound issues.  

Towards the end of the session, the gentleman sitting next to me ambled up the aisle to join the group of commenters. George A. Hinds, FAIA, FAAR, AICP, a World War II veteran who's had a distinguished career as an educator, author, planner, and architect in Philadelphia and Chicago, among other places, spoke of the need to reform the education system to recognize the need for specialization and collaboration in architecture and planning. He also spoke of his admiration for the skills of the younger practitioners that he mentors.

At 90-years-old, Mr. Hinds' continued interest in writing, mentoring, and learning about the future of the profession are inspiring. As long as there are practitioners as passionate as he is about improving what we do, I, for one, am hopeful that we can meet the challenges that confront us.     

Making the ROI Argument for Parks and Open Spaces

Outgoing APA President Mitchell Silver brought his crusade for reconnecting planning to economic development to a policy plenary session early Monday morning. For anyone confronting thrifty decision-makers who want to know the value of the projects they're being asked to fund, his call for making return on investment (ROI) analysis a part of the planning process, is sure to resonate. ROI is a useful tool, for example, in making the argument for leveraging the existing infrastructure of urban environments to generate economic development and tax revenues, versus throwing good money after bad into the "ponzi scheme" that is sprawl-based development.  

With Steven Snell's recent blog post about the financial benefits of parks in mind, I wondered how open spaces fit into this ROI framework. Certainly most of us recognize the qualitative mental, physical, and aesthetic benefits that parks and open spaces can provide, but their economic contributions are difficult to quantify.

Snell's observations, and comments delivered by Eric Fladager, of the City of Fort Worth, at a session titled "Is the Built Environment Making Us Sick?", made clear that the preventative role open spaces can play in controlling health care costs is fertile ground for examining the return on investment of recreation spaces. As Anna Ricklin from the APA noted during the same session, the United States spends much more on health care than our peer countries, with poor results in prolonging lives. 

Chart from the UC Atlas of Global Inequality

Framing an investment in policies and projects that have a positive public health impact as an investment in lowering our health care costs should make the argument for the true value of our parks and open spaces a potent one to deliver to our elected officials. 

Is a More Standardized Approach Needed for HIAs?

Out of a curiosity in the ways in which public health and planning are increasingly being integrated, I attended a panel titled "Applying a Health Lens to Transportation Planning". Carissa Slotterback from the University of Minnesota provided an introduction on the potential range of health impacts, both positive and negative, of transportation projects; Celia Harris of Human Impact Partners and Shireen Malekafzali of PolicyLink examined case studies of Health Impact Assessments (HIA) that their teams had conducted for transportation projects in Los Angeles and Minneapolis, respectively; and Anna Ricklin, of the APA, concluded with a broad look at her organization's work in this area.

Each presenter touched on the need to involve public health professionals, and identify public health outcomes, earlier in the planning process and touted HIAs for their ability to bring multiple voices into the planning process. The use of HIAs as a tool for integrating health outcomes into planning processes is growing across the United States, as communities seek to understand, evaluate, and mitigate the impact that proposed projects with have on public health. If public health outcomes are going to become a standard metric by which to measure our projects, HIAs seem to be the most promising vehicle to do so.

So it was concerning to see the different parameters of analysis used in the two HIA processes described in the session. Lacking a common framework for analysis, it would seem that HIAs could benefit from the same sort of standardization that has brought reliability, and comparability, to the environmental assessment process. Shireen, however, sees the lack of standardization as a benefit, allowing each community to define what health issues matter in their area. For her, the methodological process, which is more clearly defined, provides the necessary framework.

Health is an amorphous topic. The ways that the physical environment impacts physical and mental health are difficult to define, constantly changing, and linked in complex ways. HIAs are a relatively young tool, so perhaps in time a consistent approach will emerge, as it has for environmental analysis. If they're going to reach their full potential for improving the planning process and the health outcomes of our projects, HIA standardization may be the key to encouraging more widespread adoption. Whether such regularity would benefit all the parties involved, though, is hard to say.    


More Thoughts on Chicago's Ability to "Plan Big"

I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the comprehensive regional plan called "GO TO 2040" that was completed by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) in 2010. The plan, which the agency celebrates as the "first comprehensive regional plan in more than 100 years," organizes the long-range vision for the seven counties and 284 communities that comprise the Chicago metropiltan area around four key subject areas: Livable Communities, Human Capital, Efficient Governance, and Regional Mobility.

Boosters cheer the plan's emphasis on implementation and the agency's subsidization of local planning efforts throughout the region to help achieve its goals.

Skeptics like the Chicago Tribune's Richard Wronski have a different take: "Whereas legendary Chicago planner Daniel Burnham is credited with the famous quote, 'Make no little plans. They have no magic …,' the message from Go to 2040 seems to be: 'Make no big plans. We have no money.'"

Chicago + Rio = An Unlikely Comparison

Please indulge me as I try to make a comparison that few, if any, have attempted before.

As anyone who's been to Chicago can tell you, much of the city's downtown development keeps its distance from Lake Michigan, seperated from the waterfront by Lake Shore Drive and 2,000 acres of parks built on landfill. As Joseph Schwieterman explained at a session this morning, thanks to the Burnham Plan, the lakefront is enshrined in the city as a sacred place.

Believe it or not, while driving through Lincoln Park during an orientation tour yesterday, the area struck me as similar to the waterfront in Rio de Janeiro. The boulevard meandering along the ins and outs of the coastline, the extensive parks adjacent to the water, the wall of dense development fronting on the open space, and the beaches with their individual character and user groups, all spoke to me of the Marvelous City.

To be clear, I'm not thinking about Rio's world famous beaches such as Copacabana or Leblon, but rather the waterfront adjacent to the Botafogo and Flamengo neighborhoods, where less expansive beaches sit next to large linear parks that are popular among the city's middle-class residents. I'm sure there are plenty of other similar examples, but for some reason this was the first to come to mind.

Looking north from the John Hancock Tower. If you squint, you can see Rio right? By Bonfire2k4 at Wikimedia Commons.

Can Chicago Still Plan Big?

Prior to traveling to Chicago for this year's APA National Conference, I'd been considering the idea that planning in the city is "in retreat," a theme explored by D. Bradford Hunt and Jon B. DeVries in their new book, "Planning Chicago," and a topic we discussed in a recent interview. The irony, of course, is that comprehensive planning has been eroded in one of the birthplaces of modern planning; a city indelibly shaped by the "Plan of Chicago" authored by Daniel Burnham and Edward H. Bennett, and the setting for an APA conference with the theme of "Plan Big." 

The reasons for the decline of planning in the city are various, and the manifestations many. The city hasn't produced a comprehensive plan in 47 years. The political culture puts power in the hands of a strong mayor and local alderman (effectively 50 head planners). The city no longer has a Department of Planning, and only employs 6 city planners. Chicago is more focused on "quick hits," as DeVries notes, than long-range comprehensive planning. 

During a tour of the city I joined this morning, expertly narrated by Dennis McClendon, it was clear that while planning has been in retreat, Chicago has been reviving and re-envisioning itself. Although the book notes, and the tour confirmed, that the recent growth of the city hasn't been evenly spread outside of downtown, it's not just limited to the area inside the loop either. Areas like Wicker Park, Bucktown, West Loop, Pilsen, and other neighborhoods are in various stages of revitalization.

To be sure, the emigration of the city's African American population in the last decades is a troubling trend. Maybe a more prominent place for planning could have averted this, but maybe not.

Jeanne Gang's Aqua Tower shows that Chicago can still build big, but can it "plan big"?

Chicago has been able to complete notable successes such as Millennium Park, which has done tremendous things for the city's image and economy, and continue to push forward with progressive projects, all without a having undertaken a comprehensive plan for the past 47 years. So what exactly does that say about the need for "planning big."

The city is facing significant challenges, including the need to increase transit capacity, support the evolution of its industrial base, and continue to attract new residents. But does it need to plan big to solve them?

Chicago was once a model for how to plan big. But could the city's recent resurgence make the case for planning small? 

Stay tuned to this space. I'll be updating it daily with more takeaways from the conference.

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