In February, Dena had the honor of being asked to give the closing plenary keynote speech at the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference. This was a very last minute invitation because it was only that morning when the conference organizers learned that the scheduled speaker couldn’t get to Denver due to the now infamous Polar Vortex that dumped much snow and bad weather on the East Coast, right at the same time as the conference. While Dena’s speech was brief, it was intended to inspire conference attendees to go home thinking about the future in slightly different terms than they might have been coming into the conference, and to inspire people to take on new and different approaches to building healthy, sustainable and just communities.
In her speech, Dena focused on five trends facing the planning and smart growth world– which are all interconnected and can be broken out in many ways, but here is her cut: (1) technological innovation will continue to shape the built environment in ways that will almost certainly continue to create “winners and losers”; (2) there is an increased need for government be to be more proactive in shaping the built environment using a cost/benefit calculus that is more equitable or just than the way we have calculated the costs and benefits of public investment in the past; (3) there is continued fragmentation in the way people define “community,” and a growing interest in funding “what I want to fund,” rather than being willing to invest in a shared future beyond one’s personal interests; (4) there is an increasing tendency of government to be reactive—in “crisis management” mode, rather than acting in ways which encourage sustainability, thus better positioning ourselves to get out in front of rapidly evolving trends, and (5) there is increasing tension across generations—between those who don’t want to change versus those who are accepting of change, and an increasing income inequality within generations that also serves as a source of tension around community change.
To address those needs, Dena suggested, we have to redefine our role to focus on being the implementers of smart growth, not just the dreamers who paint the picture of what a more beautiful world we could have, if we could only grow “smarter.” But to do this, we have to acknowledge the types of barriers to implementation that the trends Dena pointed out will make this a challenging task. Therefore, what we must all do is take on the hard work it takes to understand how to deliver –actually deliver our vision across a wide range of contexts, using a wide range of solutions, knowing that we might not reach our full aspirations, but that we can still have a positive impact. We can no longer merely spout high-minded ideals and produce vague plans that make us feel good, but are in fact, impossible to execute. In a word, we need to focus on what works for people in a particular place, and not get mired in the intricacies and ideology. We must learn how to make the vision of smart growth an implementable reality for all people and all communities.