As thousands of planners gathered in New York City for the 2017 National Planning Conference, they could have been forgiven for being in a foul mood.
Political uncertainty, a looming fight over the federal budget, and ongoing work of finding a path forward on advancing inclusive growth and equitable communities are certainly enough to dampen spirits.
Instead, the common theme at the conference was determination and resolve. Planners were eager to talk about ideas for local leadership in the face of an era of division and popular dissatisfaction. The optimism was grounded in the idea that good planning may be essential to healing the nation's politics.
A Time of Change
The conference opened with Peter Leyden making the case for a coming period of economic and social renewal. In his view, the country and the world are working through a time of structural challenges ranging from the nature of work to the fundamentals of the economy.
Leyden argued that economic and technological changes were driving political instability. But, instead of despairing, he suggested that planning could be restorative.
Standing for Planning
Attendees paired this optimism with a new commitment to standing up for open and inclusive communities. Advocacy and activism was much discussed.
APA President Cynthia Bowen, AICP, renewed her call to defend critical federal investments and policies targeted in the Trump administration's budget proposal. In remarks, she urged planners to raise their voice in support of APA's policy priorities — advancing smart infrastructure funding, social equity and critical data.
Planners heeded her call in a variety of ways. Attendees worked on new policy proposals on housing, inclusive growth and healthy communities. A record number signed up to be grassroots advocates. These advocates are poised to push Congress to incorporate APA's infrastructure principles into anticipated legislation and support critical planning programs from CDBG to census data.
Grappling with Growth and Equity
In conversations and sessions, many argued that the forces driving political uncertainty and conflict are rooted in questions of place, opportunity, and fairness.
Planners are continuing to grapple with two realities of equity and economy: how to handle the consequences of rapid growth and concentrated prosperity in some areas and how to restore and expand opportunities in places struggling with slow growth and economic restructuring.
A much-asked question seemed to be can great communities with rapid growth also be fair, just communities that support opportunity for all? Far from being just a rhetorical concern, this question drove discussions of what tools are needed and how to advocate for the policies that can help communities thrive.
These issues were also discussed as a global concern.
In remarks at panel of APA's international partner organization, APA President Bowen argued that a "trio of crises" — too little opportunity, too little faith in community, and too little trust — are gripping politics around the world. Planning, she argued, "when done boldly and well, has the potential to address each of these problems."
Confronting the Challenges
Throughout NPC17 people seemed to agree that planning has a special obligation to confront these challenges.
When you consider the big issues that we face in the U.S. and around the world, you find that in each case that at least part of the problem has a connection to quality of place and quality of community.
Many of the big drivers of today's uncertainty — persistent inequality, climate change, housing, migration, rapid urbanization, slow economic growth, accelerating technological change, and limited policies for inclusive growth — you will find that how we build our cities, neighborhoods, towns, and infrastructure all have a direct bearing on how we solve those problems.
Far from shying away from these issues in the face of today's political climate, planners at NPC17 were eager to be stronger advocates. Leaving New York, planners seemed dedicated to tackling big problems with practical, powerful local actions and demanding better planning policy from Washington and state capitols.
Top image: A conference attendee captures a photo of the gathering on the first day of NPC17. Photo by Joe Szurszewski.
About the Author
Jason Jordan is APA's director of policy.