The American Planning Association annual conference in Boston provided a fascinating insight into the concerns and perspectives of US planners. The angle that particularly caught my attention was the blitz of presentations and activities about how planners and developers can use social media and new information technology in their work. Whether you want to tweet, trip or ClickFix, or just browse in the urban interactive studio, the APA was the place to be. Or not to be, maybe that was the question, for you didn’t need to be in Boston to be connected to this virtual planners’ world.
I wasn’t there myself. I’ve been to a couple of APA Conferences. They are mega-events by the normal standards of the planning profession. Even in these depressed times, this year’s jamboree drew about 5,000 participants. I was at the one inSan Francisco that had about 7 or 8,000. Trouble is, when I’ve been at a big conference like this, I’ve usually missed most of the presentations. That’s because I’ve been sucked into a series of closed meetings where international representatives of planning bodies get their heads together to explore how they can cooperate to promote planning. So this year I’ve saved on the carbon emissions but can still give you a flavour of what you missed and what you can still catch on the internet.
Kristen Carney volunteered to run the Twitter Table. If you are of an age where you thought tweets were what Violet Elizabeth Bott lisped that she deserved for being good, please don’t give up now. All will be made clear. At the Twitter Table you could learn how to tweet, and see on a big screen the tweets being sent out by others at the conference. You could also get a Twitter name tag to wear, a sure fire way to get spotted and then followed by other tweeters. You could then tweet your new friends during sessions or get to follow their tweets. Skip the bits in the Help Boxes if all this makes sense to you.
|Help Box 1If you are still struggling, tweeting is a bit like sending/receiving a very short email. If that’s still not enough demystification, think of it as the electronic equivalent of writing a note to pass on to a pal sitting in the row behind you at school or in a lecture. Got it? Now impress your friends by calling tweeters “microbloggers”.|
So if you slept in and missed the opening keynote by Harvard’s Michael J. Sandel, but followed Twitter, thanks to RT@d_rovillo, you’d still know that he forecast that “Those communities who practice good planning will recover first #apa2011 opening keynote”. From RT@jenhoverstad you’d find out that “As a planner, you are a salesperson of ideas. Communication is a key skill – Mitch Silver #apa2011”.
|Help Box 2You may be spotting a pattern here. So why not learn the lingo? RT@d_rovillo means “I am forwarding a tweet from somebody at d_rovillo”. So d_rovillo is that person’s “twitter handle”. Practice saying “twitter handle” slowly until it comes naturally and sounds cool. Then try “#apa2011 was the hashtag for this year’s APA conference”. A “hashtag” is… well it’s like… I’m quite new to this sort of thing myself acually…. You’re on your own now. Best of luck!|
So what were the most re-tweeted tweets, the tweets tweeters felt were sufficiently interesting to forward on to others? Kristen’s analysis suggests that they were about: social media & technology, food systems, open data, how to plan for shrinking communities, jobs & entrepreneurialism, and what role do planners serve in today’s economic climate. Kristen also created a Wordle (don’t ask, just click on the link: as Krisen says, it’s “awesome”). It showed graphically the most used words in tweets from the conference.
There was also an analysis by @EvansCowley of the content of tweets. Top of the list was “social media”, followed in descending order by food, technology, transportation, sustainability, public participation, suburbs, climate change, design, and economic development. Then we get economics, energy, infrastructure, green, employment, disaster, public private, skyboxification (more on that later) and diversity.
Inner city? Agglomeration? Region?
Only 4% of those at APA were tweeting. So we don’t know whether these same passions were shared by the other 96%. As @cubitplanning observed, “Avg Twitterer: makes $50-75K, some college, age 35-44 http://bit.ly/cAAhpX #apa2011”, so they may not be representative. Certainly the fact that social media came out top amongst the tweeters suggests that, as McLuhan observed with stunning insight all those years ago, the medium is the message. Setting that one aside, the rest of the list strikes me as being pretty representative, from the vibes I have picked up at previous APA events and at the equivalent annual gathering of the Canadian Institute of Planners. Employment, economic development and economics are concerns that have probably risen up the charts because of the recession.
So the picture I get from these tweets of the American planning profession is that it is made up of people primarily concerned are with trying to make the suburbs more environmentally sustainable and better designed. They would like people to eat more locally produced food (RT @GrownInTheCity Conard: demand for local food in NYC exceeds supply by $800M annually #apa2011^al), get out of their cars, even use public transport, and so help save the planet, and to do all his while also getting involved in planning in their community. After all, “RT @jenhoverstad Transpo isn’t only about infrastructure-it’s about linking travel to community values, furthering value priorities#apa2011”, even if that is not always the sentiment most vocally expressed on a late night bus on Saturdays in the UK, or from the human sardines squeezed into the informal minibus taxis across the rapidly urbanising world.
So far, so good. Most planners in the US are involved in the daily application of zoning ordinances and regulation of plot sizes and set-backs. This gap between the relentless march of American suburbia and the world that American planners dream about shows that there is indeed some idealism left in the planning profession. This is also where “skyboxification” comes in. A “skybox” is the baseball equivalent of the Executive Box at a “soccer” game. Once long ago, rich and poor were literally side by side at the games: if it rained they all got wet together. Now, as we know only too well in the UK, the corporate crowd sip champagne in their boxes, the people on decent incomes sit in the rest of the ground, and the poor can only afford to watch on TV in the local pub.
Despite the buzz created by Michael Sandel’s rather bemusing new word, and his argument that the widening rich-poor gap, along with privatization, undermines public life, there are plenty of missing words in the tweet lists that show what planning in the USA is NOT about. Here are some that come to my mind: affordable housing, regional strategy, urban policy, urban conservation, migration, urban poverty, agglomeration, metro-region, access to services, integration, impact assessment, inner city, social inclusion, regeneration.
I did not ponder and carefully craft that last sentence. As one who works mainly in Europe, they are words that just come naturally when I flick on my planner switch. I also suspect that in the centralised governance system of England, “DCLG” would figure in tweets in a way that “HUD” does not in the USA. Somehow, I doubt that the promised dose of localism will purge English planning from its dominance by central government. However, I do think that the kind of suburban subdivisioning of land for development, and the locally defined regulatory codes typical of US planning, are the kind of planning that English Ministers hope to see under localism. Bring on the nice, growing suburbs (though hopefully they’ll be a bit greener too).