Planning in the USA – tweet for nicer, greener suburbs

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.

Tweet, tweet

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).

  • Very interesting to read the perspective from a planner outside of the United States. And by the way, you did a fabulous job with all the Twitter terminology!

    I’d love to do an analysis of tweets from the next big EU planning conference and compare it with the analysis of tweets sent from the APA conference. It would be enlightening to see which topics are being discussed by both groups versus which topics are being discussed by just one group.

    If you’ll let me know a few days before the next big EU conference, I’ll set up an app to collect the tweets for analysis. And then we’ll have really fun data to play with!

    My contact info is here: http://www.cubitplanning.com/data/contact

    • Thanks Kristen. Yes it would be fascinating to do a US / Europe comparison. The obvious nearest equivalent to APA would be the RTPI Annual Convention. This year it is on 14 and 15 June, and as usual it is in London. I won’t be there myself this year, but maybe I can find somebody from RTPI or somebody in the Planning magazine team to collect the British tweets for analysis. A little later there is the World Planning Schools Congress in Perth, Western Australia. That could also be fascinating to work on, though the participants will be mainly academics.

  • Jennifer Evans-Cowley

    I love the idea of capturing the world planning conference at rtpi conference. I think at next year’s apa conference you’ll see lots of discussion around migration as this is the theme the apa divisions council decided on.

    Your observations on what we didn’t tweet about is important. Looks like the 4% of twitter users sent all our time in social media sessions rather than in sessions on important topics such as affordable housing. I suspect many of these terms are naturally part of our planner switch. Perhaps what we tweeter about is what wasn’t part of switch and created excitement and sharing among our planner community.

    Your blog post points to the power of technology helping bridge planners across oceans. I like to follow @thisbigcity to learn about planning issues in the uk. Twitter just provides one more way to keep up with different ways of thinking about planning.

    Thanks for following along with us.

    • Hi Jennifer. Thanks for posting this comment. Just to be clear, the World Planning Schools conference and the RTPI annual convention are two quite separate events. The RTPI one mainly draws practitioners from within UK, while the other will attract mainly academics but from around the world. That makes the RTPI convention the best comparator with APA. Also, the bulk of the tweets at the RTPI event will be in English (incidentally, Kristen, were there APA tweets in Spanish that you translated into English?). The multiple languages likely to be used in the Planning Schools meeting would make analysis more difficult, I suspect, though it might be possible to recruit some volunteers to translate. We’d also have to recognise that some tweets might be sensitive under some political administrations.

      It’s interesting to hear that migration will be a big theme at APA next year. I reviewed a major European research report about migration in a recent “World View” blog. The theme of migration and is implications for action by planners is also likely to be discussed when the Ministers responsible for spatial planning in the 27 European Union countries hold an informal meeting in Hungary in May, where they will agree a document called the EU’s Territorial Agenda. It would be good if we could get more trans-Atlantic discussions amongst those involved in planning and development. Hopefully blogs and Twitter could be a way to do it.

  • Jennifer Evans-Cowley

    Yes, I was hoping to attend the World Planning Congress this summer and had a session accepted. Unfortunately budget cuts will prevent my attendance this summer. Even if the World Planning Conference isn’t the best venue, perhaps AESOP for an academic perspective vs ACSP. I suspect you’d get a pretty different set of tweets.

    • Sorry you won’t be going to Perth, but, yes, AESOP and ACSP would look like a fruitful comparison. Of course that will have to wait until 2012 because of the GPEAN in Perth this year.

  • Mike Hayes

    Hi Cliff
    Great post. I chair the organising committee for the RTPI Planning Convention ‘Planning in the Big Society?’ – for more information go to http://www.theplanningconvention.co.uk . We meet on Thursday (April 28th) and we will discuss tweeting!
    Last year the President tweeted from the Convention – lets see if there can be more of us this year!

    • Thanks, Mike. I hope the Thursday meeting goes well. Maybe you can file an update as a Comment here after it?

  • Jennifer Cowley

    I’m sure that Kristen and I would be happy to help as American ambassadors to RTPI to organize the analysis of the Twitter activity.

    Kristen has some fantastic handouts that she could provide for the conference, including Intro to Twitter, Twitter for Novices and Twitter Pro versions. Here is a link to the Intro to Twitter.

    http://www.slideshare.net/kcarney/twitter-handouts3

    • Many thanks, Jennifer. As you may have seen, Mike Hayes, chair of the group organising the RTPI convention in June has picked up on this, so hopefully we may be able to put a bit of US/UK cooperation into practice. Now all I need o do is work ou just what a “hash tag” is…. er, it’s nothing illegal is it?

      • RTPI have now announced that they will be tweeting with all the latest news on their Planning Convention before 14 June, as well as from the Convention itself. They say “If you’re tweeting about the Convention please use the hashtag #plancon11 to share your thoughts”.