PN 2001 in Rochester : Voices of Change

By Ken Reardon

Nearly four hundred neighborhood leaders, professional planners, planning students and planning academics participated in this year’s national conference, which was held at the University of Rochester in New York on June 21-24. Nine local colleges and universities and the City of Rochester joined Planners Network in hosting the conference. The primary focus of the conference was the critical role grassroots activists are playing in mobilizing residents across race, class, gender, religion and ideology to address important environmental, economic and social problems.

The conference began with a welcoming reception on Thursday night at which Mayor William A. Johnson and City Council President Lois Geist spoke. Friday morning began with a keynote address, “The Six Myths of Urban America,” by Professor William W. Goldsmith from Cornell University. Responding to his presentation were: Alejandro Rofman of Buenos Aires, Barbara Rahder of Toronto, Hank Herrera of Rochester and Leonardo Vargas-Mendez of Ithaca. [Excerpts from Goldsmith’s presentation will be printed in a future issue of PN]. Another highlight of the day was Mayor William A. Johnson’s formal remarks. In his presentation, “The Road Less Traveled: Rochester’s Neighbors Building Neighborhoods,” Mayor Johnson explained why his administration instituted this highly participatory approach to municipal planning and governance that involves thousands of Rochester residents in the policy-making process. The Mayor’s speech is the lead article in this issue of PN.

Following the Mayor’s remarks, conference participants had the opportunity to spend the afternoon with neighborhood activists involved in a variety of community-based planning, development and design efforts. During these community-building site visits local residents described the thrills, spills and chills of “bottom-up” planning. Conference attendees had the opportunity to spend time with residents struggling with the effects of rapid development in Rochester’s Charlotte area, neighborhood leaders pursuing urban agriculture as an “import substitution” approach to local economic development and civic leaders seeking to address the devastating impacts of uncontrolled sprawl. Other site visits examined Ithaca’s recently launched participatory neighborhood planning program, the commercial revitalization efforts of Rochester’s Sector 8, the waterfront revitalization initiative along the Southwest Genesee River and the neighborhood preservation efforts of religious leaders and museum activists from the Susan B. Anthony House.

The community site visits ended with a remarkable visit to the A.M.E. Zion Memorial Church, one of the main stops on the Underground Railroad as well as the home church of Frederick Douglass. Following a welcome by Reverend Errol Hunt, participants were treated to a one-act play called “Emancipation” in the church sanctuary that featured a dialogue based on the words of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, and John Brown. The play was followed by a moving history of the church by an 87 year old elder of the congregation. The evening ended with a marvelous meal prepared by the congregation and served under a large tent erected in the church parking lot, followed by a leisurely stroll back to the U of R Campus along the South Genesee River pedestrian path.

The second day of the conference began with a presentation on “The Competitive City” offered by Susan M. Christopherson from Cornell’s Department of City and Regional Planning. Conference participants had the opportunity to attend one of eleven workshops covering such themes as: environmental justice, community/university development partnerships, regional planning and local economic development. Norm Krumholz, former APA and AICP President, gave the luncheon talk, which focused on “Changing the Culture of Planning Toward Greater Equity” [see page 4 of this issue]. Following lunch, ten more workshops were offered on topics such as regional workforce development, alternatives to prison development, sustainable development, affordable housing and moving the planning profession to the left.

Following the afternoon workshops, participants had the opportunity to take one of six mobile tours. The tours went to: Mt. Hope Cemetery, Highland Park, the Susan B. Anthony House, the George Eastman House, Rochester’s Artist Walk Neighborhood, and the urban agricultural projects of the NorthEast Neighborhood Alliance. In addition, Eric Mann, founder of the Los Angeles Labor Strategy Center and lead organizer of the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, and his wife Lian Hurst Mann offered a special intensive workshop on “movement organizing” which forty people attended. The conference ended with a banquet dinner followed by a keynote address by Eric Mann, who described the heroic struggle of poor inner city Los Angeles residents to secure basic access to mass transit services through direct action organizing, and used this experience to raise questions for PN regarding its current and future organizing challenges and opportunities.

The conference was followed by the Planners Network Annual Organizing Breakfast Meeting. During the meeting plans were discussed to transform Planners Network, our bi-monthly publication, into a quarterly urban affairs, policy and organizing magazine. In addition, plans were made to organize Planners Network events at the 2001 Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning meeting to be held in Cleveland, and the 2002 American Planning Association conference to be held in Chicago. Individuals were recruited to participate in PN’s newly-organized Speakers Bureau. Shortly after the close of the conference, Ann Forsyth arranged for Ken Reardon to speak at the Harvard School of Design, which will be the kick-off event for this new outreach and fundraising effort. Finally, Tom Angotti announced plans to hire a staffperson to advance PN’s organizing effort. For more details on the organizing meeting, see PN News on page 19.

The 2001 Planners Network National Conference was a terrific event due, in large part, to the student volunteers from Cornell University, our Local Host Committee and the more than sixty PN members who participated as presenters in the conference’s twenty-one workshop sessions. Attendance was very strong and included representation from Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and the United Kingdom. We received very positive feedback on the keynote addresses by Goldsmith, Johnson, Argust, Christopherson, Krumholz and Mann. In addition, participants valued the community-building site visits. We plan to publish a booklet on “principles of good practice for democratic planning arts” based on these sessions. Many who attended the Conference’s Annual Organizing Breakfast Meeting felt PN was moving towards a more serious commitment to organizing with its new publication format, speakers bureau and outreach activities at the upcoming ACSP and APA conferences. We invite all of our members to help advance PN’s progressive planning agenda during the coming year by:

· Encouraging friends and colleagues to become sustaining members of the organization.

· Inviting a PN speaker to your campus or community by contacting Ken Reardon of the PN Speakers Bureau at:

· Organizing a local chapter of PN in your community to create a forum to discuss and take action on important urban planning and policy issues confronting your community and our society!

In doing so, we will be honoring these famous words of Frederick Douglass which appeared on the cover of our 2001 Planners Network National Conference booklet, from an 1849 letter to an abolitionist associate:

Let me give you a word on the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all absorbing, and for the time being putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what people will submit to, and you have found the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.

Ken Reardon is Professor of Planning at Cornell University and was the main organizer of the PN 2001 conference in Rochester.

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