Reflections from Having Served as President of National APA

It was a busy few years. During my time as President of APA, I was invited to speak at 23 state chapters.  I represented APA at national conferences of allied organizations and international conferences such as the Royal Town Planning Institute (celebrating their centennial in London), the Planning Institute of Australia in Sydney, and the World Urban Forum in Medellin, and was hosted by Energevie, a clean tech European convening in Strasbourg, and Greentech Asia in Kuala Lumpur.   I had the honor of meeting with HUD Secretary Julian Castro, Surgeon General Boris Lushniak, former Deputy Secretary of HUD Ron Simms, and dignitaries from the United Nations, the UK and Australia.  Seeing the Surgeon General explore the Exhibit Hall at the national conference in Atlanta after his speech and hearing him describe his growing realization of how planning communities can influence public health was a proud moment.   Ron Simms’s opening speech at the national conference in Seattle, more like a church revival, was as energizing a kick-off to a conference as I’ve ever seen.

We collaborated with the Presidents of AIA, ASLA, ULI, and the American Collegiate Schools of Planning, developed new partnerships with AARP, the American Public Health Association, and the Center for Disease Control around the topic of healthy communities, and rekindled our relationships with CNU. I met many planning students and faculty when I was invited to speak at the University of Michigan, Georgia Tech, Ball State, Sonoma State, and Harvard, and was invited to participate in a Pacific Rim gathering at the East/West Center at the University of Hawaii.  During my last year, I also had to manage the process of working with the Board of Directors and AICP Commission to recruit and select a new APA Executive Director with the direction to grow partnerships and give our members the infrastructure needed to be leaders in their communities and areas of specialization. Did I say it was a busy few years?

My time as President was a tremendous learning experience. I met hundreds and communicated with thousands of planners from many different places – large cities and small towns, progressive and conservative states, and different countries.  Talking with planners from so many different places reinforced how universal are the aspirations and challenges that we address as planners.  In London, they’re debating the need to make housing more affordable by increasing supply, while neighborhoods are resisting density – sound familiar? The notion of creating healthier communities is popular from Oregon, celebrating its landmark state growth management laws, to Alabama (just don’t have the Federal Government or even the State tell them how to do it). Firsthand experience with natural disasters motivates resiliency discussions in Texas, Louisiana, Colorado, and Indonesia.   The challenges of integration and social equity are ever present; with many people questioning society’s and planning’s real commitment.  I learned that the challenges of rural towns and big cities need their own solutions, and how we communicate planning to people differs depending on your audience and their values and traditions.  I also enjoyed working with and learning from APA staff and my colleagues on the Board, the AICP Commission, and leaders in the chapters, divisions, and student council.  There are a lot of thoughtful and dedicated people in APA.

In my presentations, I often made references to the planning process in the San Diego region, particularly when I talked about the inter-relationships of different scales of planning to address regional issues. I  am confident in saying that despite our self-criticisms, needs for improvement, and the political messiness of implementing planning policies, many planning approaches that we take for granted here would be remarkable in most but a few other places – the notions of an integrated regional habitat network, a coordinating Regional Plan (albeit without land use authority) linked with a Regional Transportation Plan, community plans with associated public facility financing plans, a regional economic development strategy that is supported by general plans, inclusionary housing policies and fair share allocations of responsibility for providing low and moderate-income housing capacity, impact fees (I made the mistake of talking about  impact fees at length in Iowa before someone politely told me that they’re prohibited under State Law),  requiring zoning and capital improvement plans to be consistent with General Plan policies, incorporating sustainability objectives in plans such as reduced GHG emissions and VMT per capita, and the practice of preparing a General Plan Implementation Strategy that is held accountable in annual public hearings to report progress.  While a few places do more in certain aspects of planning, there is much to be proud of in our region and among many, the San Diego region’s national reputation exceeds our local image of our progress.

As I saw planning practiced elsewhere, however, it is clear that there is more than one way to skin and implement a plan and make it effective, and we in the San Diego region can learn from others as well, such as techniques for value capture, TOD entitlements, TDRs, street design, historic preservation, communication, and the scope of impact review. Some places are effective at creating sustainable infill development in walk and bike friendly places, near transit — without CEQA! Imagine that.  Places such as Indianapolis’s Cultural Trail, Denver’s TODs, Seattle’s South Lake Union, Boston’s South End, to name a few.  Most states, even conservative ones, use tax increment, but in ways that are more focused on specific projects than the large area project areas allowed under our prior Redevelopment Law.  Design matters, and some places are better at it than others because they care and talk about it more, and have champions not just amongst the design community, but among the development community and within local government.  There are various models of design assistance, from Vancouver to Raleigh, from whom we can learn.

Planning is under attack in some places and planners in those places are more sensitive to certain terms because their elected representatives have taken issue with them – such as “climate change” and “sustainability;” while other places, like California, have these terms embedded in their laws. Those places that have been able to articulate the economic importance of planning, together with environmental importance, and have organized political support for planning (I emphasize “political”) tend to have more sustained commitments to planning that transcend changes in administrations over time. However, even places with historically progressive planning – such as Wisconsin – have seen a political backlash.  Our colleagues in Australia and the UK sometimes felt under siege.  Often the opposition to planning became stronger when planners struggled to make the economic case for planning, or was seen as responsible for social challenges such as the lack of affordable housing.  I did observe a desire among both supporters and critics of planning to make it simpler, and to make plans more accessible, focused on outcomes more than process.

I met many dedicated planners working hard for better communities and a better world. I had not realized how much established planning organizations in countries such as the UK, Australia and Canada look to APA, as the largest professional planning organization in the world, for global leadership, or how countries that are urbanizing rapidly, such as in Asia, Africa, and Latin America look to APA for guidance as they develop their own planning professions. Delegations from China, the Caribbean, and Nigeria came to our national conference to see how we were organized and what topics we discussed. The UN sought out our input to their climate action planning guidelines.

The young inspired me the most, whether attending their first APA national or chapter conference, or idealistic students who are considering this profession because of its attempt to achieve the public good. At the World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia, where APA had a presence with our partners in the Global Planners Network, there were young planning students and professionals from countries around the world – looking for forums to network, learn, and collaborate.  Globally, planners are a diverse group; we need to do better here at home. Issues of sustainability, health, and equity brought them together and the enthusiasm of the next generation to tackle these issues was energizing, reminding us seasoned and sometimes tired planners why we entered this field in the first place.

Did I say it was a busy, perhaps exhausting few years? It was also a rewarding few years.

I’m grateful to the members of APA for giving me the opportunity to serve.