NPC18: Perspectives from an Emerging Planner

By Eric Borcher

Comprehensive Planner

Department of Planning and Zoning


300 years and counting. This year’s National Planning Conference, my first, converged on a city simultaneously honoring three centuries of rich history and culture, the City of New Orleans. While the Crescent City was celebrating its tricentennial with performances, dignified gatherings and community reunions, planners across the country like myself were taking it all in and delving deep into the issues facing our communities now and in the future. Of course, New Orleans, rife with immeasurable challenges over the last ten plus years, was an appropriate host to a conference for a profession centered on striving for resilience and equity in the built environment. For those grappling with how to tackle flooding without straining local resources, as many Maryland localities are, New Orleans showcased its leadership in that realm and how to thrive in cooperation with water, but not without major setbacks along the way.

The conference itself was a much-needed oasis of optimism in looking at managing current local states of affair and the near-future. An insightful reminder, to paraphrase a speaker - planners ought to look at the world as a motion picture, not disregarding the past, present or future. Faced with new roadblocks to local buy-in and consensus, one theme at the conference was to dust off shelved planning methods like advocacy, communicative and collaborative planning. Forward-thinking practitioners dedicated to engaging broad audiences in their efforts held the realization, in light of divisiveness, planners at least have the ability to attempt to bridge gaps in perspectives and chisel away at public discontent of bureaucracy, from the ground up. Speaking of roadblocks, often times we may view our own barriers to success as localized issues, but as is typically the case, these roadblocks are just manifestations of factors outside our boundaries that appear in many shapes and forms. Motivated to overcome these threats in addition to global environmental threats like climate change, many of the sessions were bound by the common thread of inclusiveness and social justice. In the case of environmental threats, carrying out environmental justice as a means for social justice.

Planning success stories weren’t just about the highlights from the LAs or NYCs of the country. Jurisdictions across Maryland demonstrated that local inclusive buy-in can be achieved in our own neck of the woods. A few examples of the recent triumphant stories coming out of our state on display:

  • A partnership with the faith-based community in East Baltimore in a session affectionately titled Restoring People While Rebuilding Properties, held on the first afternoon of the conference, where a Baltimore Reverend emphatically outlines the importance of community-first approaches to revitalization and a private practitioner presents the current product of their cooperative exchange

  • The Montgomery County Planning Department breaks down barriers to engagement by setting participation from their Latino communities not as a goal but an inevitable outcome, in a session on the second morning of the conference titled Engagement Strategies for Hard-to-Reach Communities

  • On the final morning of the conference, the former Historic Preservation Chief for the City of Annapolis illustrates in fine detail the steps she and her fellow colleagues took to attract regional resources for their climate adaptation initiative in the Weather it Together: Communicating Climate Adaptation session, that other jurisdictions can adopt for their own use

All of these case examples along with those featured from across the country were a reminder of the profession’s obligation in serving people first no matter the differences between those planning and those being planned for, and no matter the difficulty in doing so.

After participating in these state-of-the-profession sessions it would be amiss to refer to planning as improving the built environment. Perhaps improving the human environment would be more appropriate. Aside from the speaking sessions themselves, there was abundant opportunity to unpack these newly minted lessons and experiences with planning workshops, social gatherings and spontaneous exploration across the host city. Each breathing new life into one’s own embrace of a change-making profession that can at times lead us down paths of stagnation.

Check out some photos from the event HERE.