Trends from the APA 2016 Conference

The American Planning Association 2016 National Conference included a wide variety of topics and a significant amount of tweeting. This blog shares the highlights from the conference.

Read Time: 7 minutes

April 10, 2016, 1:00 PM PDT

By Jennifer Evans… @EvansCowley

[Updated 4/11/2017] The APA National Conference in Phoenix featured a wide variety of planning topics that all planners could learn from. This is the sixth year that I (@evanscowley), along with Patrick Holland (@p18holland), have analyzed the conference using Twitter (see the analysis of the 2014 conference, 2013 conference, and 2012 conference, with @b_kubinski, and 2011 conference with @cubitplanning). To help us comb through all the tweets from this year’s conference we used NodeXL software, a free and open sourced software package that helps to visualize Twitter interactions. Using the hashtag, #APA16, all the tweets related to the conference were well organized into an Excel spreadsheet. From there we could look at which topics were receiving the most interactions, and which topics were developing trends. More information about scrapping data from Twitter can be found here.

Throughout the conference attendees were actively tweeting. This year 4,300 people attended the conference and tweeted over 4,000 times, an increase of 1,700 tweets since 2011. Twitter interaction at the APA conference has been progressively climbing since we started tracking data back in 2011. 203 people were tweeting in 2011, 691 in 2012, and 1,089 in 2013.

Highlights from the conference included housing, data, and how planning has impacted the city of Phoenix.

The most retweeted tweet from the conference came from @urbandata, "US urban policy: Free housing & infrastructure for cars & inadequate housing for people. This image depicts a massive parking crater in downtown Detroit, Michigan. It is similar to highlights from last years conference where Donald Shoup said, “We’ve got it all wrong, by providing free housing for cars, and expensive housing for people." The image represents how our urban cores still have a long road to recovery.

Source: Sarah Lewis, AIA, CNU

Other visual highlights included how sidewalks will change as transportation continue to shift toward multi-modal options. This image created by Sarah Lewis of @GreaterPlaces expresses a sprawl retrofit model that implements several transportation modes like on-demand rides. Complete streets of the future could continue to look more and more like this.

Topics of Conversation

There were numerous topics discussed throughout the conference. Since the conference was held in Phoenix, the city was focal point of conversation. Bikes and transportation were hot topics at this year's conference as several people shared pictures of them using GRID BIKES and Phoenix's light rail system.

One of the newest topics for this year's conference was the missing middle—housing that is denser than single family homes, but does not feature the high rise density. Missing middle housing includes townhomes, duplexes, and courtyard apartments. Here you can see a breakdown of the 25 most popular topics found on Twitter at the conference.

Topic # of Tweets APA2016
data 546
cplan 544
phoenix 491
bike 370
housing 351
techzone 174
downtown 143
apps 140
innovation 128
infrastructure 120
public participation 112
transportation 110
equity 78
neighborhood 72
water 66
phealth 54
development 47
missing middle 46
sustainability 45
economic development 41
stormwater 39
civic 33
zoning 30
apps4planning 28
uber 25

One topic I was expecting to see a lot about was the coming of autonomous vehicles. It could likely be the most impactful technology on urban form in the next few years, but the conversation on Twitter was almost nonexistent.

Meaning of our Tweets

Sentiment analysis helps us to understand the climate and meaning of our tweets. It can be used to convey information about a large number of people’s reactions to how a conference went. To learn more about sentiment analysis I have a publicly available article on the topic.

Reaction's to this year’s planning conference were overwhelmingly positive. This particular set of tweets was taken near the end of the day on Wednesday and portrays participants' holistic view of the conference. Although there were other negative tweets found throughout the conference, the majority of people enjoyed their experience at the conference. The sentiment analysis could have looked much different during other portions of the conference, but the end of the conference was analyzed to show peoples overall perception of how they felt.


Who Participated

A total of 813 people tweeted while at the conference, generating a great deal of interaction on social media. Some people were heavy tweeters, but others only tweeted a handful of times. Throughout the conference, over 4,594 tweets were recorded, including 1,904 retweets.

Listed below are the top 12 most retweeted tweets from the conference.

Tweet # of RTs
RT @urbandata: US urban policy: Free housing & infrastructure for cars, unaffordable & inadequate housing for peoples. #APA16 #cplan 315
RT @transportdata: spotted outside #apa16: a meeting of traffic engineers who haven't yet approved the @NACTO urban street design guide 57
RT @APA_Planning: Sea level rise is both a wicked problem and an opportunity for "wicked good planning." @johnglander #apa16 21
RT @VictorDover: No surprise cyclists take sidewalks when many streets remain like this @GridBikes #apa16 @BikePhoenix #whatnottodo 17
RT @MobilityLab: Can we extend the disruption in transportation to a disruption in urban design, #apa16? 15
RT @VictorDover: Two corner buildings, downtown Phoenix. Which habitat better supports human life? #whatnottodo #apa16 15
RT @tooledesign: this downtown Phoenix bike lane was a litter over capacity this morning #apa16 15
RT @Boenau: Sometimes that "killer project" showcased at a conference is a menace to society. #apa16 #visionzero 14
RT @jgmoore: In asking why a there's a concentration of race/poverty, "they can't afford anything else" isn't a good reply #apa16 14
RT @ SFJ_Transit_News: @GridBikes @SocialBicycles #bikesharing makes getting around downtown Phoenix easy, fun, and healthy #apa16 13
RT @MKSK_Studios: The Downtown Columbus Riverfront takes home the #apa16 National Planning Excellence Award!! 9
RT @SF_Transit_News: Phoenix Metro #lightrail is very well designed. Curb separation from traffic, seating, shade, and solar A/C #apa16 8

There were clearly some key, heavily tweeting influencers at the conference. MKSK (@MKSK_Studios) tweeted heavily about the resurgence of Midwestern cities, including Columbus, which received Ohio's Award of Excellence for a downtown waterfront implementation plan. Jessica Garrow (@GarrowJessica) tweeted throughout the conference about several topics happening at APA ranging from small town development to the future of agriculture. Andy Boenau (@Boenau) focused his tweets around the pedestrian and bicycle experiences found in Phoenix and coupled it with other transportation topics.

Blogging the Conference

A few other people have blogged about the 2016 APA conference. The American Planning Association broke down the conference using social media as well. Their findings are located here. One cool feature they have is a gif map visualizing where tweets were coming from during the conference.

APA also shared a 9 things planners love about Phoenix.

Resources from the Conference

Conference attendees did a wonderful job distributing a breadth of content. There were several links depicting a wide variety of planning related content so we grouped highlights accordingly.


Big Data





Public participation




My takeaway from the use of Twitter at the conference is that a significant number of people were able to use this medium to share and engage in conversations around planning topics that resonate with them. It provided a platform to engage in social conversations that helped people meet each other both on and off line. What more could we ask for from social media in a conference? I look forward to even more participation at the 2017 conference in New York City. APA has also shared a breakdown of the conference by the numbers.

[This post was updated with proper credit for the photographer and location of the photo.]

Jennifer Evans…

Jennifer Evans-Cowley, PhD, FAICP, is the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at th eUniversity of North Texas. Dr. Evans-Cowley regularly teaches courses to prepare candidates to take the AICP exam.

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