The Art and Planning of Creating APA's Newest Division
"My hope is that our work at the intersection of arts and planning will enable both, artists and planners, to collaborate, share experiences and ultimately support each other in order to 'make it.'"
A fond memory of growing up in Mexico City was discovering my ability to draw. It was as fun as when I first learned to ride a bike. It was a liberating act — and I still feel that when I doodle. I also discovered the pleasure of getting lost in thought while daydreaming. That was an act of envisioning alternative worlds.
These two aptitudes prompted me to one day confess to my mother that 'when I grow older' I wanted to be an artist. Although she did not discourage me from my consideration, she warned me about artists' struggles to 'make it.' So I discarded that idea, but never really abandoned it.
As I write this post, however, I realize that my mother was an artist in her own right. Although she worked at a garment factory, she was a talented seamstress. She gets the credit for giving me my first formal design and drawing lesson — teaching me how to draw perfectly to scale.
My first grand project in seventh grade was a mural-sized map that I copied from a textbook of the Mexican Republic depicting the location of every oil-producing state in the country. Little did I know that my future career in planning would depend on making, reading, and using maps. But most importantly — I would combine art and planning to be more effective at my craft.
The power of art
Almost 20 years ago, during my first planning job, I attended an art exhibit connected to sustainable suburban development in Riverside County, California. All the artwork depicted the artists' observations and criticism of urban sprawl and the decimation of nature. Each piece was an open book for reflection and criticism of my profession. At that moment, I wanted to create artwork. Just like them, I wanted to exert the same kind of power.
I began to conceive the project Art as Vehicle to Understand Land Use Planning and Sustainability (Art VULUPS). Instead of making the art myself, I invited planner and artist friends to join me. Together, in 2009, we organized 10 artists and 10 planners to collaborate in creating 10 pieces of art that would depict urban planning topics. When the collection was completed, we exhibited it throughout Riverside County. We held lectures, workshops, and special events to share with the community what planning is all about. I even presented it at APA's National Planning Conference in 2011 during the annual Diversity Forum.
Art as a connector
I give credit to Art VULUPS as one of those instrumental facets of my persona that led me to get appointed to the APA Diversity Task Force (now the APA Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee).
While serving on the Diversity Task Force, I got to meet and work with extraordinary planners. Jennifer Sien Erickson was also a planner and an artist like me. After discovering our affinity, I remember her vision of forming an APA interest group dedicated to arts and planning. She set about convening other planners in 2016 and invited me to join her steering committee. Together we set the initial foundation for the group to move ahead.
During this time, Jen also secured funding from the Kresge Foundation to hire a fellow who would help the interest group's educational programming, expand our network, and assist with becoming a division.
NPC19 was a pivotal conference. I facilitated an informal panel discussion with prominent art and culture leaders from the Bay Area. Additionally, the opening keynote illustrated the power of art. Social justice advocate and violinist Vijay Gupta shared his experience of bringing joy to the homeless in Los Angeles' Skidrow through the power of music.
Jen's innovative approach and dedication garnered her the 2020 APA President's Award — a distinction made biannually to one planner out of 40,000 members. At this time, Jen asked me to lead the Arts and Planning Interest Group. It was an offer I was not able to refuse.
Journey to Division
Unfortunately, COVID-19 impacted our initial plans. It took about two years until APA's board approved our petition to become the 23rd division.
Our long-range vision aligns with APA's ideal of having a just and equitable planning profession. One where arts and culture are integral parts of a thriving community. Our mission is clear: Transform the planning profession through arts and culture.
This milestone has created positive excitement and hope for the future of APA. President-elect Angela Brooks, FAICP, believes that "any truly cultural approach to planning must include the arts. The arts have been an important part of communities since the beginning of time and help tell the story of a community and to preserve its history."
The formation of the division according to APA CEO Joel Albizo, FASAE, CAE is an avenue "to help the profession increase its impact, and to address our members' needs in a rapidly changing world."
And APA President Leo Asunsion, Jr., AICP, also sees the critical role that this division will play as APA continues to evolve in a more complex playing field. "Looking at planning through the lens of arts and culture — or using arts and culture in planning — advances equity, diversity, and inclusivity, which is critical to our profession and a priority for APA."
"For me this highlights what myself and colleagues have known for years, that planners find value in engaging in the arts. The arts are very much a part of planning for and building out whole and healthy communities regarding culture, history, and creative expression." — Patricia Walsh, director of Creative Community Advancement at Americans for the Arts and Arts & Planning Division board member.
The NPC22 opening keynote speaker, Michale Ford, AIA, NOMA, also shares the spirit of the Arts and Planning Division. He will explore the intersection of architecture and urban planning through the lens of Hip Hop culture.
Join us to celebrate at NPC22 in San Diego. The event features San Diego's Continuum Arts for an interactive dance performance. This house-inspired hip hop piece aims to remind us that dance can be a source of collective healing and joy during trying times.
My deep gratitude goes to many for their support along this journey. In addition to those mentioned above, I'd like to acknowledge a few others for their involvement and dedication: Sakina Khan; Mark VanderShaaf; Maggie Kraus; Ethan Ellestad; Dr. Annis Sengupta; Leonardo Vazquez, AICP; Mike Welch; Suzanne-Juliette Mobley; Jessica Wallen; Patricia Walsh; Julie Burros, AICP; Cheryl Derricotte, AICP; and Brittany Delany.
The Arts & Planning Division's mission is to transform the planning profession through arts and culture.
Top Image: Millennium Park Fountain, Chicago, by Vanessa Smetkowski (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)