This is the second installment in an ELGL original content series titled “A Tale of Two Internships” by University of Kansas MPA graduate Ashley Graff. Graff recently obtained a shared internship with the City of West Linn and the City of Sherwood. In this series, Graff provides perspective on the experience of working for two communities and the similarities and differences she experiences in each.
I’ve now spent almost four months as a Public Affairs and Economic Development Intern, splitting my time between the City of West Linn and the City of Sherwood, Oregon. I am incredibly grateful for this experience and for the chance to learn from some of the best in the business. Just two weeks ago I was given the opportunity to expand my learning further and attend the 50th International Making Cities Livable Conference in Portland.
The theme of the conference was Reshaping Suburbia into Complete, Healthy Communities, though presenters often spoke of cities and suburbs in tandem. The northwest United States was well represented, but the gathering also attracted attendees and speakers from Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Italy, Germany, England, Australia, Israel and Singapore. This international perspective, along with the diverse mix of professional backgrounds like planners, architects, elected officials, social scientists, doctors and consultants, made for an exciting event. Since Portland is often referenced as a livable city, local and regional authorities spoke about Portland’s experience, including Mayor Charlie Hales, Metro President Tom Hughes, Director of Portland’s BPS Susan Anderson and many others.
What I found most remarkable and energizing about the gathering was that such a broad array of people could distill such an expanse of topics into a singular, inspiring vision – livable communities. What are the characteristics of a livable community in your mind? Can you think of an aspect of our lives that isn’t touched by the place we live? Some of the week’s presenters commented generally about health and quality of life. I learned that the medical community is now recognizing the built environment as an important solution to issues like social isolation, depression, stress, obesity and other chronic disease. We also heard how the built environment can play a significant role in healthy child development and how support behind concepts such as universal design and lifetime communities is strong. Other speakers delved deeply into action steps to address climate change, best practices of bicycle transit, facilitating walkable communities, ensuring equity as communities are reshaped, and the redevelopment, retrofitting and regreening of suburban infrastructure. Still others presented case studies of their own cities, including Salt Lake City and Carmel, Indiana. I was impressed with the diversity of topics and the quality of presentations.
While I observe significant divergence in theory and opinion regarding the planning or revitalization of cities and suburbs, I believe there is common ground to be found around issues like health, civic and social vitality and equality. The speakers shared many examples of thriving, healthy communities, and just as many examples of communities with no core, no connectivity, and isolated residents. The veracity of a “quote” by Alvin Toffler shared at the conference is uncertain, but he did author similarly powerful ideas and they are relevant in this context. He is often quoted as saying, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”. The message is that change is happening at a rapid pace. We must recognize that what we’ve done in the past may not be appropriate for the future. Our physical health, mental well being and the health of the environment stand to gain or lose based on our ability to unlearn past patterns and relearn new ones.
Having just finished my MPA degree in May, I’m not too far away from the classroom setting. Still, it is easy to forget about the thrill you get when you listen to an inspiring speaker, hear a new idea, or discover a puzzle piece that fills a spot in a system of thought. It was motivating to listen to the informed exchange of ideas between experts occupying distinct niches in the livable cities movement. If you haven’t participated in a workshop, listened to a presentation or attended a class or conference lately, I’d encourage it. Be refreshed!