2009 National Planning Conference: Opening Keynote Address

Jonathan Alter

By Joseph A. MacDonald, AICP
APA Program Development Senior Associate

Opening keynote speaker Jonathan Alter invoked the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Barak Obama as he called on planners at the 2009 APA National Planning Conference to embrace a spirit of "renewal, possibility, and hope."

Alter, senior editor for Newsweek magazine and contributing NBC correspondent, drew upon traits of the two presidents to remind conference attendees of planning's critical role in U.S. history and the hope it carries for the nation's future.

FDR had the visionary ability to look far down the road and even around corners in anticipation of what was to come, Alter told his Sunday morning audience in Minneapolis. Some of Roosevelt's New Deal programs were resounding successes (Civilian Conservation Corps) and others were equally resounding failures (National Recovery Administration).

The NRA, Alter suggested, is an example of the dangers of "too much planning": over-regulation, price-fixing, excessive and complicated coding. The NRA "cartelized" business practice in the United States and many Roosevelt staff were secretly relieved when the Supreme Court declared the NRA unconstitutional. The message was clear: Planning is a necessary tool to help the country but overuse can cause bigger problems than those originally targeted for solution.

Alter, whose book The Defining Moment is a history of FDR's first 100 days as president, said those days were characterized by hope, action, and self-respect. Roosevelt had vision and compassion but lacked detail orientation and did not focus much on the mechanics of implementation. He was not a planner, Alter said, when compared with an individual as organized, consistent, and level as Barack Obama. While Roosevelt's New Deal programs were often "seat of the pants," Obama's political career, presidential candidacy, and first 100 days in office have been carefully planned, implemented, and strategically adjusted in the face of changing conditions.

In President Obama, Alter said, we "have a president who is committed to the spirit and imagination of what makes planners so important." The Obama administration has framed its agenda around five issues: solve the economic crisis; address the deficit in the long term while maintaining spending in the short term; reform health care; convert to a green economy; and overhaul education. Alter said that in spite of criticism of his early choices, Obama is making down payments on the solutions he knows the nation needs. Planners must make their own investments to help bring those solutions to fruition.

Alter was preceded by APA President Robert Hunter, FAICP, who charged planners with a clear mission: be bold, persistent, visionary, and solvers of the problems they face daily.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak offered an enthusiastic welcome to conference attendees, highlighting the significance of planning in his personal and professional life and underscoring the importance of planning through current initiatives in the host city.

Minneapolis Planning Director Barbara Sporlein painted a picture of Minneapolis "by the numbers" and urged planners to embrace the possible in their work while collaborating with stakeholders and political leaders to develop implementation strategies.

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