Field Report: APA Conference 2011

Last weekend, I weaved my way through the annual American Planning Association (APA) National Planning Conference in Boston, where over 5,000 urban and regional planners convened for four days of workshops, panel discussions and events. Major topics covered included cities, Delta Urbanism, technology, social media, urban agriculture, and the Dutch model. The vibe was engaging and forward-thinking — an all-around good time. Here’s my take on some of the highlights of the weekend:

Floating Pavillion, Rotterdam, NL, 2011 | Photo by Flickr user William Veerbeek

Bonnie Harken, the president of consulting group Nautilus International, gave a talk with Piet Dircke of the Rotterdam-based design/consultancy/engineering firm Arcadis and Christopher Zeppie of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on the Brooklyn-Rotterdam Waterfront Exchange vision for Sunset Park and Red Hook, a new program set to share knowledge about and strategies for economic development and environmentally sustainable industry in port areas. The City of Rotterdam has embarked on an ambitious climate change adaptation program that gave rise to some compelling and pseudo-radical ideas for water-based development, some of which are now being applied internationally.

One of the most inventive waterfront development ideas discussed was the potential use of barge-based structures, which are already being tested in Rotterdam and are being considered for inclusion in the Sunset Park and Red Hook visioning plans. Dircke discussed Rotterdam’s already implemented series of hydrofoil ferries, floating learning labs (transparent geodesic domes on the water) and luxury residential structures that support the city’s new Research, Design and Manufacturing (RDM) Center. This concept can inform plans for other uses as well. For example, Dircke suggested barge-based sports fields and stadiums for future Olympic Games as a solution to the wasteful creation of structures that so often lie unused in cities once the games are over.

There was a lot of buzz on the growing nexus between planning, technology and social media tools — especially the role open-source sites may play in the future of advocacy, government transparency and the sharing of best practices in planning. Judith Layzer led a great panel on the current work of MIT’s Urban Sustainability Project to develop an open-source, wiki-like resource for monitoring municipal sustainability programs nationally. Although the project is still a work in progress, the team has working papers for feedback and collaboration and is looking for research partners, and is definitely something to keep an eye on.

The entire weekend tapped into the growing bubble of “tech-ish minded” (young) planning professionals who seek to capitalize on the potential technology has for planning, and the skills of what Frank Hebbert of OpenPlans dubs IMMBYs (I Mapped My Back Yard) or “data and tech savvy non-planners, better informed, more technically capable and more agile than the ‘pros’.”

Plannovation graphic on most often used words in tweets at the conference using WordlePlannovation’s graphic on most often used words in tweets at the conference using Wordle

A few workshops were dedicated solely to the usefulness of social media tools, like FourSquare, Twitter and Facebook, and real-time blogging in the planning world. New methods of technological communication are being seen as catalysts to participatory planning and valuable tools for public interaction with people who can’t or don’t attend public meetings. Twitter was being promoted full-scale this weekend with a whole APA booth dedicated to setting up planners with new Twitter accounts. The #apa2011 hashtag was full of good information over the weekend and was used for conference-goers to reflect and gather more information than was possible by simply attending a handful of panels. Kristen Carney (@cubitplanning) published a summary of all the Twitter activity at the conference on her blog Plannovation, with an in-depth look at the weekend’s Twitter trends and a slideshow documenting a complete Twitter transcript from the event.

Jennifer Evans Cowley of Ohio State University shared her take on the role digital micro-participation plays in Austin, Texas on transportation planning methodology. Another popular panel, with speakers from PlaceVision, SeeClickFix and Urban Interactive Studio, asked “What’s New for Planning Technology” and discussed the use of crowdsourcing, social media, interactive data and other digital tools in planning today.

ArcGIS | via

ArcGIS | via

Some of the most well-attended sessions were offered by Esri, the makers of ArcGIS, to present their developments in mapping and data visualization. Highlights included a workshop on GeoDesign (ArcMap’s software tool combining urban design and mapping) and one the growing use of GIS as a public participation tool. The use of GIS in public participation has already taken off in NYC, one example being the Municipal Art Society’s CitiYouth program, in which local high school youth attend community board meetings to facilitate public discussion using GIS.

Harvard’s political philosopher Michael Sandel kicked off the weekend with a keynote calling the field of planning “a noble profession,” responsible for undoing the erosion of civic-mindedness in America today. As technology increasingly intersects with most aspects of daily life, it was heartwarming to see so many planners excited about the age of digitally-aided advocacy, communication and participatory planning and prepared to use these tools to further that noble ideal.

For more on the conference’s other topics, check out APA’s coverage and Marisol Pierce-Quinonez’s recap on Then explore for yourself some of the many planning tools that were discussed at APA2011:

Cityscape & Mapping:
By the City/For the City, a new initiative by the Institute for Urban Design and PPS
Urban EcoMap
City Forward
Grown in the City’s Interactive Urban Agriculture Map

Citizen Complaints:

How to Raise Money for New Urban Planning Technology

ArcGIS extensions:
Marine Map

Alicia Rouault is a Project Associate for Urban Omnibus, a Fellow at the Pratt Center for Community Development, and Masters candidate at the City and Regional Planning Department at Pratt Institute’s Program for Sustainable Planning and Development in Brooklyn, New York.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.

5 Responses to “Field Report: APA Conference 2011”

  1. Planner guy says:

    This summary really captures the positive energy and hopeful attitude of the conference. There was a general sense among young planners there that through new tech and data-driven analysis, long-standing, and emerging, urban problems could begin to be solved. The tools listed and topics listed above are representative of that belief.

  2. Alicia – Thanks for your coverage of Grown in the City’s interactive zoning map. We have others at:

    Also, glad you enjoyed the Green Tech/Clean Tech session as part of the Delta Urbanism symposium. ( We will be continuing the symposium series in Los Angeles and this type of feedback is helpful as we develop the program. Expect many more innovative solutions in Los Angeles from the Netherlands, Brooklyn, Vietnam, Indonesia, Italy, and beyond.


  3. urbandata says:

    The topics you’ve highlighted seem to dovetail really well with the themes discussed by Michael Sandel (not Sengal). In the age of transparency and we-government, the planning profession either will need to become a “noble profession” or risk irrelevancy. Great analysis of the events and thank you for posting links to the slideshows.

  4. Varick Shute says:

    @urbandata – Thanks for the correction, the typo has been fixed.
    -Varick, UO

  5. Kristen says:

    Awesome overview of the APA 2011 conference! Planning and Technology was definitely a central theme of the conference–whether that technology is social media, GIS tools or green tech.

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