The last time the American Planning Association held its national conference in Los Angeles, the Lakers were playing in Inglewood, the only trains to serve Union Station were Amtrak, and the only people who spent the night downtown were homeless or business travelers. Today, attendees of the 2012 APA National Conference – to be held at the Los Angeles Convention Center April 14-17 – will find everything from light rail to lofts to Staples Center. A lot has changed in Los Angeles since 1986. Likewise, a lot has changed in the planning profession—and if this month's conference goes off as organizers hope, there are more changes yet to come.
Under the theme, "ReImagine," conference organizers hope to introduce planners to the contemporary Los Angeles, with a host of tours and California-specific sessions, among 200 total sessions. CP&DR spoke with APA President Mitchell Silver, planning director for the city of Raleigh, NC, and local conference chair Marissa Aho, a planner with Rosenheim & Associates, about the upcoming conference, its relationship with California, and what it portends for the planning profession.
What sort of attendance are you expecting for the APA conference?
Marissa Aho: We expect approximately 5,000 people from around the world. Many California APA members will be in attendance and more than half of the 1,200 APA members in Los Angeles will be participating.
What are the main themes of the conference?
Mitchell Silver: We're naming it "Reinvent, Reinvigorate, Reimagine": Reimagine the City, Reimagine Your Career, Reimagine the Possibilities. The purpose is to get planners to see their value and what they offer to communities, this country, and the world in a whole new way. It's a very different conference than past conferences. It's going to be a big celebration of planning.
What unique tracks are going to be featured in the program?
MS: First, we have this overall strategic plan, which challenges planners to "Lead, Inspire, Innovate. We believe that now, after 100 years of the planning profession, is the time to prepare planners for what we see as the next big movement in the planning profession. The need for this new direction is due to demographic change and the new economy. We want to challenge planners to step up and be leaders and prepare for this new planning movement that is underway.
Second, a track will focus on communication. We want to challenge planners to step up and be leaders and prepare for their communities for the emerging issues in the 21stcentury. To lead, planners must be effective communicators as they work with their communities to understand and plan for the future.
Third, we have a whole track on "Changing Faces of America." Believe it or not, there are still some planners who do not recognize the enormous change we're seeing in our country, from the graying of America to the browning of America. It's more pronounced in different regions of the country than in others.
Fourth, sustainable places was a huge initiative by the APA, so this is our way to recast the comprehensive plan based on green principles.
Do you think most planners are going to embrace these messages? Will some find it unfamiliar, or challenging?
MS: Certainly some are going to find it unfamiliar. There are a lot of planners across the country who are—I won't say "stuck," because it's not their own doing—working as planning and zoning administrators. For some, either their local government won't allow them to think big, but it will be new to some.
I travel around the country and challenge planners: "What are the trends? What's going to happen 5, 10, 20 years ahead? Are you preparing your community for those changes?" Most haven't even thought about it. For some this will come as a compete surprise because they're dealing with current planning and day-to-day administration of planning and zoning.
Are there any connections between these themes and the location of Los Angeles this year?
MS: There's no question that LA had a reputation of being a sprawl city. But LA is doing a lot of wonderful things to emerge as a 21st century city. We hadn't been to LA for very long time. So "reimagine" also fits into LA. We want to take full advantage of these transformative changes that have been undertaken in LA and the surrounding region.
MA: When the Local Host Committee started planning for the conference, our goal was to show Los Angeles off to the nation. The last time the National Planning conference was in LA was 1986. Los Angeles is very different than the planning community experienced in 1986 and there is a lot to show off.
The Local Host Committee track will feature sessions on the social strip and how the Sunset Strip has rebooted its image using a BID and social media, the 20th Anniversary of the LA Riots, and how Survey LA is integrating historic preservation into local planning. The Planners Guide features the different neighborhoods in Downtown LA and the places that people are able to easily walk to from the Convention Center and conference hotels.
What can planners learn from California?
MA: They can learn from our diversity and we can show people who think of Los Angeles as "suburbs in search of a city" that there are 88 independent cities and many more neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles.
I would encourage planners from smaller municipalities to explore the neighborhoods in Los Angeles. For instance, South Pasadena's Mission Street Gold Line station. Breaking down LA into neighborhoods may be the best way for planners from smaller towns to learn from Los Angeles.
I think that we're going to show people not only what they may expect, be it SB 375 or any of the green building principles and so on. I think that that's something that people look to California to model. There are also more unexpected things that people may be interested in, such as the food truck phenomenon. Food trucks are now all over the country, but they more or less started here and the policies and the questions about land use versus mobile uses are still being discussed here. We have a mobile workshop on food trucks so people can go into neighborhoods and see them in action.
How might this conference aid those planners who are concerned about the economy and the job market?
MA: The APA Los Angeles Section held a program last month on the book APA is releasing as part of the 2012 National Planning Conference, Planning in Los Angeles edited by David Sloane. Participants at the end of the presentation, by Anastasia Loukaitous-Sideris and Sam Gennawey, who both have essays in the book, were discussing how the presentation reminded them of why they got into planning and how much fun planning school was. And how, despite challenging times, exciting planning can be.
This enthusiasm was because of one presentation. So, to have four days where the world is looking at Planning in Los Angeles; despite redevelopment, despite other challenges, I am hoping that it will turn into a celebration. It is an opportunity to be cheerleaders of our profession and celebrate what we have accomplished and what we can accomplish when we keep working together.
2012 American Planning Association National Conference
Los Angeles Convention Center
Sat. – Weds., April 14-17, 2012
These interviews have been edited and condensed. Interviews were conducted separately and combined.