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Planning Conference

18 October, 2007; 12:00 Leave a comment Go to comments

Last week I attended the annual conference of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (the conference is colloquially named after the organization’s acronym, ACSP). ACSP the organization consists of the urban planning academic programs throughout North America. I attended as a presenter, giving a short paper on the differentiation in travel choice responses, across incomes, to a hypothetical increase in the cost of driving, using data from the Seattle metro area….

This trip was significant for me because it was my first trip back to the Motherland after moving to Sweden. Even though it was Milwaukee, a mediocre city I had never been to before, and even though it was for professional reasons only, it was still an enormously relaxing break, and that really comes down to language. Although I usually enjoy the mental stimulation that comes from living in place where I’m surrounded by a language that’s new to me, it’s also very draining. The week-long respite from that did wonders for recharging my brain.

I also reconnected with some colleagues from the University of Washington, with the four of us sharing two adjoined hotel rooms. To maintain their anonymity, I’ll just refer to them as Brandy, Vivian, Lucy, and of course me. They are actually all male. As “Vivian” put it, we had in those rooms: a “jet-lagged chap (me), another in the throes of his diss (Lucy), another recovering from his 3rd-year review (Brandy), and the last who is slowly losing his sanity (Vivian)!” It was a hoot to hang out with those crazy loons (do loons hoot?). And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

The organizers of ACSP have made a habit in recent years of locating the conference in what some call 3rd-tier American cities: Cleveland, Baltimore, Portland, Kansas City, Ft. Worth, and now Milwaukee. I didn’t go to Cleveland, but I can say that all of the others, with the notable exception of Portland, saw us in a hotel right in the middle of a downtown cultural wasteland where all of the activity seems to be on weekday daytimes, and on nighttimes and weekends you wonder if the city has been entirely abandoned. Some were more desolate than others…Kansas City seemed like a biological bomb had gone off, with very new buildings but nary a sign of life, even during rush-hour. Ft. Worth actually had some pockets of life downtown, but one would do better to cross one of the rivers out of downtown. Milwaukee was like Baltimore: this was a once-proud city that was struggling to keep its national relevance, especially in the shadow of nearby, dominant city.

mam025.gifThere were some efforts to reintroduce cultural activity in to the downtown area, but they met with mixed success, and there remain huge physical gaps between. Milwaukee’s most famous recent effort is the Milwaukee Art Museum, designed by Santiago Calatrava. The building is really beautiful, and distinct in having wings that flap. No, really! At noon each day, as long as the winds aren’t terribly strong, part of the roof structure slowly recedes to cover the dome of the atrium, then lifts again to its normal outstretched position. It’s impressive, but somehow the effect is thwarted by the overly pompous orchestral fanfare music that’s piped in through a cheap outdoor sound system just before the wings close, and again just after they finish opening again.

To be fair to Milwaukee, though, I have to admit that we did find, a bit away from downtown, a Cajun restaurant with really delicious food and excellent service. This is probably the essence of the problem with many American cities like Milwaukee: the city as a whole isn’t so bad, but if all you see is the downtown, then you probably aren’t getting a very promising view.

For the next couple years, ACSP is kicking it up a notch. The 2008 conference will be in Chicago, a much more vibrant city (stay tuned for a couple posts about that), and that will be a joint conference with the European counterpart, AESOP; and 2009 will be in Washington, DC. Something to look forward to.

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Categories: academic, travel
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  1. 3 November, 2007; 16:45 at 16:45

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