Post-conference report

Below is a report on where things are at following our very successful Open Strategy Meeting at the APA national conference in Los Angeles a few weeks ago.

APA-SCP Chair’s report to Core Group, 4/30/12

  1. Summary
  2. “Division or Interest Group?” issues to consider
  3. Conference event report
  4. Mission, objectives, history, statistics, and sponsors
  5. Notes from conference event breakouts

1. Summary

Our event at this year’s APA national conference was a 90-minute strategy meeting on Sunday April 15th open to all conference attendees. 83 people signed in, three different areas (communications, structure, and a ‘clearinghouse’ project) were discussed, and about 20 people expressed interest in being more directly involved with the group.

The big news from the conference, however, is that APA is apparently now ready for us to become a Division if we want. Although we have not been interested in this since we were first rejected for Division status in 2007, it seems worth considering now because (a) the Interest Group structure has not helped us do much other than hold the annual conference events, (b) APA’s approach to sustainability (and possibly to Divisions) has improved in the last few years.

There’s a lot of context and considerations around this question, and I’ve tried to cover the most important points in the next section. Then in the section that follows that, you’ll see some of the top ideas that arose out of our conference event — and I ask you to consider whether becoming a Division or not would help us enact those ideas.

In summary, however, the main question I would like you to consider is this: “Will becoming a Division make us more effective in fulfilling our mission to help APA become a national advocate and leader for sustainable community planning?”

I would like to resolve this question in the next two weeks because it will obviously impact how our work continues — and we have a closing window of time to engage the people we connected with at the conference. After collecting arguments for and against (please submit to me by 5pm Pacific on Wednesday May 2nd) I will send a survey to the entire APA-SCP Core group of ~40 people together with the collected arguments.

Finally, I had a lot of conversations about APA-SCP at the conference, including with Core members, sponsors, APA staff, APA leadership, current and past APA Presidents, New Urbanists, folks completely cynical about APA but still coming to conferences, and so on. I’d need a whole second report to describe everything, but my takeaway boils down to this: Sustainability is rapidly emerging within planning whether APA is ready for it or not — and since we now have the ear of APA leadership and have had some success in connecting with APA members, we’re in an exciting position to push some big ideas about sustainability in the planning profession.

2. Division or Interest Group?

As shown in the APA-SCP History later in this report, we originally wanted to become a Division — but APA would only allow us to be an “Interest Group” at first.

Our Coordinating Committee and some members of our Core group have occasionally discussed whether to press on becoming a Division. The majority feeling has always been that the cons of becoming a Division would probably outweigh the pros, and that we were better off being small and flexible as an Interest Group. Indeed, what we’ve accomplished so far as an Interest Group is notable: We’ve attracted around 2,000 planners to our cause, and APA leadership is now seeking us out as a partner on APA’s next steps on sustainability.

Unfortunately, we’ve been unable to accomplish much that is tangible other than (a) holding an event at the annual APA conference, and (b) getting some of our people involved in APA initiatives like Policy Guide reviews and the Sustaining Places Task Force. Given the diversity of things we’ve tried (see this report from last year), I see no reason to expect the future will be any different if we retain our current structure. Put simply, it’s hard for people to make time for volunteer work that neither creates professional value for them nor carries real professional consequences (contractual, reputational) if the work isn’t done.

Moreover, in the last year I’ve begun hearing some positive things about Divisions. I’d often heard concern that becoming a Division would lead to irrelevancy, or being burned by byzantine APA requirements. But a few folks I spoke with at the conference –including two people currently involved with Divisions, and APA staff Mike Welch– argued that a lot depends on how the Division itself chooses to run, that APA now keeps a pretty hands-off approach, and that APA’s requirements are essentially limited to reporting of basic activities and finances (which I do anyway).

Here are the three top possible pros and cons about us becoming a Division that I’ve gathered from conversations with folks within our group over the years:

PRO: More collaborative relationship with APA (Divisions can get assistance from staff, plug in more directly with APA procedures, influence AICP exam questions, etc.). Receive perks like a by-right session at the conference, and direct notification re things like Policy Guide revisions.

PRO: Probably will be easier to get volunteers to do work since there is professional benefit to being in Division leadership.

PRO: Receive funding via APA membership dues

CON: Danger of sustainability becoming a ‘silo’ within APA if we are a Division.

CON: Danger of getting sucked in to APA’s less-than-user-friendly structure and procedures.

CON: Would probably restrict our ability to ability to act independently outside APA (e.g., undertaking projects with counterparts at other organizations, like USGBC or APWA).

3. Conference event report

At our Open Strategy Meeting we broke up into groups to focus on the three topics that our organizing group felt most needed discussion. Here are the groups and the key takeaways:

Communications: How do planners get information about sustainability? How do they use APA for this? What do they want to see? (Facilitated by Ben Herman and Rob Kerns)

  • Dedicated website or portal for this group — but build in ability to connect by topic area or area of interest (not just one single, large group). Access to experts (consultants or other) with opportunities to connect for questions or information.
  • Focus at the state or APA chapter level — local committees, or perhaps replicate this session (at APA national) at chapter level. Ability to connect by topic area or area of interest (not just one single, large group).
  • Communications forum independent of APA — to enable broader access outside of APA structure. Should be set up for specialized topics of interest; library.

Organization: How APA-SCP should function to meet its stated mission? How should members interact and participate in the process? (Facilitated by Christopher Ryan)

  • Have regional or state-level subgroups to facilitate communication on common issues; regional seminars? Each APA chapter should have a SCP subgroup?
  • Consider meet-ups for face-to-face interaction…maybe base on subgroups. Create opportunities for student/professional and student/student connections.
  • Online, develop sustainability topic “rooms” for information and dialogue

Project: For years we’ve heard planners express a desire for a ‘clearinghouse’ to collect and organize sustainability resources for urban planners. The intention of this group was to gauge interest, brainstorm, and strategize. (Facilitated by Nathan Storey)

  • What urban planners interested in sustainability need is a “Clearinghouse of Clearinghouses.” We should not reinvent resources that already exist.
  • Crowdsourcing is important, as well as a rating mechanism to have a way to evaluate the usefulness of a particular resource. There was general excitement that Clearinghouse would be a useful thing, and there was optimism that funding and volunteer hours could be found to implement the project.

Notes from each of these groups are included at the end of this report. I’ll point out that probably the biggest common theme to emerge out of this meeting was “connections.” I heard over and over again (also throughout the conference) that people want ways to connect to other planners: practitioners want to connect with others doing similar work, students want to connect to professionals as mentors, etc.

Final thoughts: Among the folks who expressed interest in working with us on projects are datadrivenplanning.org (a sponsor), mindmixer.com, and openplans.org. And I want to highlight a very valuable idea that Doug Farr (a sponsor) brought: Get big action by setting big goals (for APA / for planners)! For example, what if we inspired planners by campaigning for a goal of getting one LEED-ND project in every county of the nation by 2020.

4. Mission, History

APA-SCP Mission & Objectives (adopted April 2011)

MISSION: To assist the American Planning Association (APA) in becoming a national advocate and leader for sustainable community planning, within the planning community and beyond.

OBJECTIVES:

a) To advance the integration of sustainability principles and applications within city, town, and regional planning so that planning for sustainability becomes the conventional way of planning.

b) For the APA to continue to engage its Board of Directors, Executive Director, staff, and members in advocating for and leading the sustainable community planning movement.

c) For the APA to fully implement its Planning for Sustainability Policy Guide and use sustainability principles as a lens through which the other policy guides are evaluated.

d) For the APA to be a leader in identifying and promoting best practices in sustainable community planning within the planning profession and allied professions.

e) For the APA to promote and advocate for best practices in sustainable community planning to its chapters and membership.

f) For APA-SCP and the APA to network and partner with other organizations interested in and working toward sustainable community planning.


APA-SCP History

2007, at the Philadelphia conference Sharon collects 600+ signatures in support of a new Sustainability Division. Sharon learns that APA is not allowing new Divisions and will get back to us with an alternative.

2009, after coordinating with Divisions leadership, Sharon and Daniel submit a proposal to be a Division in March. In July we are told that we may become an “Interest Group.” We begin organizing a launch event for the 2010 conference, and a Coordinating Committee to run the group.

2010, we throw a launch party at the New Orleans conference, attracting a few hundred folks. Some of our Core folks start thinking through projects they want to do, and some of our members are invited to be on APA’s Sustaining Places Task Force.

2011, we throw a showcasing party at the Boston conference, attracting a few hundred more folks. We solidify a mission and structure at a business meeting, and continue building relationships within APA.

2012, we hold an open strategy meeting, drawing in 80 people. APA tells us they’re ready for us to become a Division if we want.

APA-SCP Current Stats

Over 1,800 LinkedIn members. Over 1,000 mailing list subscribers. Over 250 Facebook friends.

5. Notes from conference event breakouts

See the last pages of the PDF report.

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