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'Expose, Propose & Politicize': The Planners Network Conference, Winnipeg, July 17th – 19th, 2008

As a grassroots North American organization for “people involved in planning,” Planners Network (PN) attracts not just professionals and academics but laypersons and activists as well. This year’s PN conference was a dramatic debut for the Winnipeg chapter of PN, which was only formed in January of 2006. The conference title, “Flat not Boring” was an amusing reference to southern Manitoba’s notoriously unvarying geography.

Michael Dudley | July 28, 2008, 10am PDT
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As a grassroots North American organization for "people involved in planning," Planners Network (PN) attracts not just professionals and academics but laypersons and activists as well. This year's PN conference was a dramatic debut for the Winnipeg chapter of PN, which was only formed in January of 2006. The conference title, "Flat not Boring" was an amusing reference to southern Manitoba's notoriously unvarying geography. More revealing was the theme of this year's conference: "Planning in Challenging Climates." Topics included planning for food, alternative transportation, storytelling in planning, Indigenous planning, creative practices, alternative economics, teaching climate change and political activism.

The PN conference was just one of two major planning events held in Winnipeg between July 13th and 19th: the Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP) national conference, "Planning by Design in Community: Making Great Places," which drew over 700 participants and dominated the city's convention centre, ran earlier that week.

The PN conference was a somewhat smaller meeting, attracting some 200 participants for a free public event, a day of mobile workshops across the city and and one day of sessions at the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Manitoba.

The free public "kick-off" event was an evening on alternative transportation featuring Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute and Will Toor, former Mayor of Boulder and current Boulder County Commissioner. Litman's ideas of shifting focus from the personal auto to other modes through price restructuring, infrastructure improvements and upgrades to transit technology served as inspiration for what could be. Toor, on the other hand, presented the practical application of some of these ideas: the changes made to transportation during his tenure as mayor of Boulder in the 1990s are a practical precedent from which any city can learn. That city's efforts to improve infrastructure and technology for alternative modes resulted in marked increases in transit ridership, cycling and walking. Both men also reiterated that, far from "bashing" motorists, investments in walking, cycling and transit actually benefit drivers.

On Friday attendees could choose between 10 different mobile workshops, ranging from inner city tours to Aboriginal initiatives to an examination of Winnipeg's ecology. They focused on local examples demonstrating how the engagement of community-based non-profit organizations and activists can challenge dominant planning assumptions. For example, the ecology workshop showed how NGOs are addressing local environmental issues, and that community engagement is crucial for improving and protecting environmental integrity and bridging the gap between people and natural environments in urban settings.

This focus on activism was also a key element of "Writing for Progressive Planners," the purpose of which was to provide planning activists with the tools to write effective opion pieces for alternative and mainstream media outlets. Session leaders Tom Angotti, (co-editor of Progressive Planning Magazine) and Louise Dunlap (author of Undoing the Silence: Tools for Social Change Writing) stressed that, while urban issues are extensively reported in various media, the essential "understory" of social and environmental injustices is often missing.

At two sessions on creativity and "urban know how", participants discussed how, as planners, we need to regularly revisit the ways in which we interact critically with our surroundings; what once seemed creative can quickly become stale. Whether engaging the public in community design or spearheading walking tours, it is important that we avoid simply seeking evidence to reinforce our existing beliefs: a stereotype is a stereotype, be it held on the fringe or not. Panellists showed how they are using film, photography and informal gatherings as lenses to interpret our surroundings. In the process, they are finding that space can be used in very complex ways in the most unexpected places, with everything from the sidewalk to the screen sparking the imagination.

The lunch-hour plenary was a tribute to long-time planning scholar and social critic Peter Marcuse, perhaps most famous for his 1978 article on the "Myth of the Benevolent State[1]," which provided critical counternarratives for key American housing policies. He has also contributed numerous articles to PN's flagship journal Progressive Planning; one of his best-known articles critiques as "delusional" most of the discourse on sustainability. Throughout his career, Marcuse has sought to highlight inequalities in society through a unity of theory and practice. As one of the conference Co-Chairs Richard Milgrom stated, his favourite Marcuse quote could be a motto for Planners Network: "Expose, propose & politicize."

In that spirit, participants could take in an art installation of decorated t-shirts and other apparel that exposed "planning's dirty laundry", which catalogued such harmful practices as redlining, restrictive covenants and anti-immigrant ordinances.

Like the CIP conference earlier in the week, there was a focus on planning for agriculture and food security, which is so essential for addressing poverty. Governance structures and urban policies – such as food charters – were shown to be key to supporting such innovations as community-supported agriculture, Tribal agriculture on reservations, and even farmers' markets, which are often impeded by inflexible municipal permitting. The urban ecology tour of Winnipeg's ecosystem also highlighted the surging interest in community gardens on campuses and the inner-city, while also illustrating cross-cultural values and community engagement in land reclamation and food security initiatives.

Another session looked at the potentiality for making planning accessible and inclusive -- rather than crisis-oriented -- through the use of community design centres and public-interest planning that take a "storefront" approach. While such initiatives require a great deal of support from their communities, they also need to avoid appearing to duplicate the city's planning functions. But they could go a long way towards addressing information disparities in planning, which can cause citizens to fear that decisions about their communities are being made behind closed doors.

Case in point: the City of Winnipeg has recently announced a controversial proposal for a new football stadium in the inner-city neighbourhood of South Point Douglas, which sits in a V-shaped bend in the Red River. If built, the stadium would require extensive demolitions, a huge investment in new infrastructure and would make surrounding areas not only unaffordable, but subject to intense vehicle traffic, all of which have local residents very worried. PN members were given a tour which involved a lengthy round-table discussion on how to fight such proposals effectively -- a very real example of planning in a challenging climate. (Interestingly, PN delegates were prominently featured in the local press for their uniformly negative appraisals of the proposal!)

Other progressive topics included housing and workers' co-ops (Manitoba's provincial government was lauded for its strong support for co-ops and the workers' co-op movement); and strategies for dealing with gentrification. The renewed Winnipeg neighbourhood of West Broadway was seen to dance a thin line between urban revitalization and gentrification, through ensuring that landowners, residents and government agencies work closely together to accommodate all needs.

Throughout, attendees were challenged to look at planning in new ways, through the eyes of others, and in terms of how planning can contribute to addressing societal power imbalances. Coming as it did immediately following the CIP conference, the PN conference was a stimulating and celebratory way to cap to an exciting week of planning deliberations in Winnipeg.

(Many thanks to Institute of Urban Studies Research Associates Katy Walsh & Art Ladd for their contributions to this Interchange entry!)

[1] Marcuse, Peter. 1978. "Housing policy and the myth of the benevolent state." Social Policy 8, 4: 21-26.

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