Earlier this year, a cohort of students (myself included) from the Department of City and Regional Planning at UNC skipped class in the middle of the week to go to the beach. However, it was for a good reason–the 2019 North Carolina Planning Conference. Every year, the North Carolina Chapter of the American Planning Association (APA) has a conference in a different city in the state. This year, the conference was held in Wilmington from October 8th to the 11th. The overarching inspiration for the conference was “Envisioning Opportunity in the Face of….”
Given the impact of Hurricane Florence and other weather events on coastal communities in North Carolina, natural hazards resilience was a major focus. The keynote speaker of the conference was Jim Schwab, a former manager of APA’s Hazards Planning Center. However, given the multi-faceted nature of the planning world, natural hazards resilience was only one of many diverse subjects covered. As such, there were presentations on everything from “Zoning and the Opioid Crisis” to “Creating Delight: Artsy Alleys, Plazas and Streetscapes, and Santa Houses.” There was even a presentation by the Carolina Planning Journal. Authors from the 44th volume (Changing Ways, Making Changes) discussed their pieces, which was facilitated by Natalie Swanson.
Because so many concurrent sessions were offered over the four days of the conference, it was impossible to attend every presentation. However, there were a few notable standouts from Thursday which hopefully provide a fair representation of the conference.
Equitable Engagement and the Durham Beltline
This presentation by Aidil Ortiz and Laura Stroud focused on the community engagement efforts surrounding the Durham Beltline project. The Durham Beltline, as proposed, is a 1.76 mile multi-use path built along an abandoned rail bed corridor that would connect portions of North Durham to Downtown. However, many of the neighborhoods adjacent to the Beltline are formerly redlined communities which are still suffering from chronic lack of investment. The presenters were quick to point out that trails and parks are not agnostic nor apolitical and often quicken gentrification. One quote in particular stood out strongly: “Communities that have been underserved need to be super-served.” Both presenters emphasized the importance of understanding the historical context of a place and using tools such as redlining maps to determine which areas need extra investment. They also stressed the importance of civic education about planning documents such as the Beltline Master Plan.
Lightning Round Session: 5 Small Zoning Changes That Make a Big Difference
This presentation by Nate Baker of Clarion Associates gave an extremely practical overview of how small tweaks in zoning policy can be used to create more walkable, vibrant, and successful places. For example, one proposed zoning change was to have maximum parking requirements instead of minimum parking requirements. Nate provided a case study to demonstrate the ease in which this can be done.
In 2015, the city of Graham enacted this change through a revision of the wording in their ordinance. Another proposed change was to ensure right-sized connectivity and block length standards. Many of the pre-WWII ear neighborhoods that are associated with walkability have block lengths of 200 to 300 feet. Blocks in modern subdivisions range from 1200 to 5000 feet, making walking extremely difficult. Many cities have adopted connectivity indexes, which help measure how well street networks connect destinations.
Nate also mentioned simple design standards, simple green building standards, and new zoning districts such as potential modifications. All of these proposed changes can act as a catalyst towards more complex and politically difficult zoning policy changes.
Downtown Parking: Less is More, If It’s Managed
Although parking is not always perceived as a riveting topic, it is one of the most central issues which planners face. The first presenter, Timothy Tresohlavy of Stantec, emphasized that “parking is personal.” Many people believe that parking is an innate right, and even the suggestion of parking restrictions can elicit anger and frustration. Timothy also acknowledged that excessive and unmanaged parking is usually at odds with walkable, enjoyable environments. He summarized this with the following quote from Rollin Stanley, the former planning director of Montgomery County, Maryland: “No place is worth caring about that doesn’t have a parking problem.” Timothy’s main focus was on the importance of data collection through field work, focus groups, and surveys, saying: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”
Next, Ellen Hoj discussed her work around downtown parking reform in the city of Wilson. In an attempt to revitalize downtown and attract more mixed-use development, the city decided to reform its parking. The city completed a comprehensive parking study in 2015. Recently, the city has seen some short term successes such as identifying a lead department to manage parking, deterring on street parking by downtown employees, and reviewing and modifying vehicular parking signs for clarity. Through the process, Ellen identified a few key suggestions. She emphasized the importance of getting buy in from all departments on the front end so there is a clear initial vision on how to manage parking. Next, she said to argue for greater resources, especially human capital, from the city or other agencies to combat parking issues. Finally, she implored the audience to challenge legacy thinking with data and to have a thick skin when dealing with the inevitable emotions that will arise.
Overall, the conference was a great experience. For myself and several other DCRP students, this was the first planning conference that we had attended. Through the presentations, we had ample exposure to topics both within our specializations and in other fields. We also had the chance to interact with a wide variety of professionals working in state government, local government, non-profits, and the private sector. Additionally, in our free time, we got to explore downtown Wilmington, walk along the River Walk, and try new places to eat and drink such as Front Street Brewery. For those who are looking to attend a useful planning conference, I highly recommend the NC-APA conference.
Featured Image: Cape Fear River from the Wilmington Convention Center. Photo Credit: Luke Lowry.
About the author: Luke Lowry is a first-year master’s candidate in the Department of City and Regional Planning with a specialization in Transportation. He is particularly interested in pedestrian and bicycle planning as a means to increase equity and create vibrant communities. A lifelong resident of North Carolina, he enjoys spending time in the mountains near his hometown. He also enjoys reading, staying active, and finding new coffee shops to fuel his caffeine addiction. Luke received his undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering from UNC Charlotte.