Canadian Association of Planning Students 2010 Conference at University of Guelph

Phewf! Between all the running around with the start of the second semester of school, the first month of the year is already week-old history, and I’ve just wrapped up one of the major milestones for this year: the Canadian Association of Planning Students (CAPS-ACEAU) annual conference at the University of Guelph, hosted by students of its Rural Development program.

The theme for this year’s conference is, “Progressive Planning.” There were a lot of different interpretations and thoughts on this theme; here are the ones that struck me.

  • Public Participation in Rural Planning. I got a chance to chat with Wayne Caldwell, who gave a very engaging opening address about the conversations and relationships he formed with citizens in rural areas. I noted to him that the challenge with public engagement in urban areas is to adequately convey to people that their input and experiences are valuable and required, and that they would make a meaningful difference to the process. In dense cities with large populations, I think there’s a tendency to think that someone, surely, must be conveying something similar to what I think, and they also, surely, must be successful and articulate enough at doing so to make sure my interests are being represented. And when it doesn’t work this way, we vote with our feet — and often end up between a rock and a hard place. This also relates to Matthew Alexander, who gave an awesome presentation on the use of comedy in planning to connect with audiences around cliches and expectations. Being so serious is clearly not working as well as we’d like. This reminds me of Phillip Jeffrey‘s PhD…
  • Retrofitting what we’ve got to do what we’ll need it for. I heard good things about a presentation on re-purposing abandoned greyfield sites (i.e. shopping malls). I was also generally interested in a presentation about the city of North Bay and its success in revitalizing its downtown — so well that Sudbury did it too. Jed Kilbourn from York also had some interesting thoughts around the urban revitalization projects in Toronto happening through towers in the inner suburbs. My comment at the end of is presentation was that I could easily see what’s happening in Vancouver being repeated in Toronto — the coupling of livability with class, i.e. a dense urban lifestyle of active transportation and good access to transit, greenspace and amenities becomes marketed so well that demand, and thus the price of it, goes up. We’ve had a lot of angst about this in my classes here at SCARP about this challenge, and whether subsidized housing is the answer. I admittedly have not jumped into learning as much about housing issues as much as my other interests, but I know housing is intricately tied to the price of land, and hence the price of all development and infrastructure.
  • The role of technology in urban planning. Of course, I was very happy to see it get played out. It received a lot of attention, naturally, in Matt Blackett’s closing keynote about the success of Spacing Magazine; I wouldn’t be surprised if, like myself, some students were prompted to go into urban planning precisely because of the perspective presented by Spacing. That said, I think it’s interesting to note that the brains behind Spacing are firstly journalists and advocates; they are urban issues thinkers second. Hence they have never been through the rigamarole that most the students at the CAPS students are getting through their education now, whether that’s sitting through classes about the role of law in planning, urban design studios, or hearing about the trials and tribulations of decisionmakers. Meanwhile, many students I spoke with shared their ambivalence about the promised benefits and inevitable downsides of technology. While I empathize with their reticence, I also sense a fear of actually diving in and mastering the technology — which I consider a very central skill for avoiding being a victim of it. Even as the technologies change, the intentions and motivations (positive and negative) of the people using it will almost certainly remain as helpful and hurtful as they were when paper was king.That said, there was also one person playing a stereotypical technological determinist so well, I almost did a double-take.

I thoroughly enjoyed meeting and connecting with people at the conference, and hope I get to make it out east again at the CAPS Conference next year in Waterloo!

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