One of the things I love about my job is that I have the opportunity to engage with planning professionals across the nation. Not only do I participate in American Planning Association on a national level, but oftentimes I will attend many state chapters that provide insight into unique regional planning challenges and nuanced approaches to common topics. While the National Planning Conference is held in the Spring, Fall is when most of 47 state chapters hold their respective annual conferences. Some states, such as California, Washington, Oregon, and Minnesota chose virtual conferences, but a larger number supported in-person and hybrid events. Over the last couple of months, I’ve had the pleasure of attending state chapter conferences in Florida, Illinois, and Texas, and the projects, issues, and topics discussed at these events is something I think every county leader needs to be aware of.
The Topic of Housing Takes Hold
It should be no surprise that one of the consistent themes across these state chapter conferences has been housing. Specifically, planners are dealing with acute shortages in both affordable and market-priced housing. For clarification, affordable housing isn’t just referring to federally-subsidized housing, but also referring to first-time home buyers, younger residents and recent college graduates needing housing near employment, and so forth. Planners are trying to avoid long-term situations where those that need more affordable housing are living farther away from employment and services, which inevitably causes increased traffic congestion and limits economic mobility at a crucial time.
What COVID-19 Practices Will Remain?
Another common concept is figuring out which temporary adjustments that were made during the COVID-19 pandemic might remain permanent. This is particularly the case with curb management, limiting traffic to accommodate more outdoor seating and shopping, and even outright closing certain blocks for exclusively pedestrian use. It’s clear from the numerous presentations I saw that a strong connection to the local business community and residents is key for planners and the support of elected officials is absolutely key to the success of these types of projects.
Resilience Moves Beyond Acute Shocks
The other common theme was resilience. As we’ve discussed before, resilience has a broad scope, in that it will involve different issues and apply different metrics from county to county. Will County, Illinois isn’t worried about planning for hurricane resilience any more than Monroe County, Florida is worried about planning for blizzard resilience. For many counties, though, it was clear from these presentations that planners are dealing with economic (particularly in supporting local businesses) and housing resilience issues, along with the other acute shocks like flooding (very prevalent theme in Florida and Texas).
The Next Generation of Planners
Of the many organizations with which I work, I don’t think any of them have the level of participation from college students like APA does. And this is at both the national and state levels. These students are passionate people, learning the latest GIS technology who want to make a difference. NACo members should not discount these groups and should reach into state APA chapters to find new hires as interns or full-time hires. Accompanying their passion, these students are up-to-date on the discipline and are active in the community. County leaders would benefit from hiring these soon-to-be graduates. Further, county leaders need to have the geospatial infrastructure in place to keep the next generation engaged and empowered to make a difference.
GIS Further Engrains Itself in the Planning Profession
Almost every presentation I saw had some facet of GIS in it, whether it was for spatial analysis, map generation, public engagement, or scenario planning and design. The planning profession has come a long way in its use of GIS, particularly over the last decade. It’s also been over a decade since I’ve met a college student that had not yet taken at least one GIS class as part of their curriculum. The reason for this is simple. Location drives planning. It’s the reason why developers choose specific locations. It’s the reason why planners make the long and short-range plans that they do. It’s the reason why the public and elected officials react to these plans. GIS not only helps counties manage spatial data, but visualize, analyze, and model it in order to take a data-driven approach to planning, housing, and economic development. It was clear from these events that GIS is recognized as an essential tool and system for planners, and that with the focused, web-based apps many of them are using, they don’t need to have GIS experts to use GIS tools. In the end, these events reminded me how planners are using GIS every day to create and implement more sustainable, equitable, and justifiable designs.