No matter what your profession, you’ve probably been to your share of conferences. From professional to academic, trade shows to think tanks, conferences are still the most popular way to share your research and ideas with a larger audience. In academia, paper presentations and face-to-face networking with other academics are still the norm even in our increasingly wired society. Similarly, practicing planners share their policies, plans and tools with each other at the Canadian Institute of Planners/American Planning Association conferences, and their provincial and state equivalents.

I confess that while I gain a lot from these events, and often meet other interesting researchers in the field, I find the whole thing a bit draining. Several days of listening to presentations and networking is tiring. The other thing is that there seems to be a divide in the types of people these conferences attract: practicing planners go to one conference and academics to another. It’s rare that you have that blend of practicing planners, academic researchers, and those working in municipal, regional and federal policy development.

Last March, students at SCARP organized such an event on sustainability, and I wrote in an earlier post about the success of this one-day symposium and our PhD panel on research dissemination. SCARP repeated the success of this event with another one-day symposium on affordable housing funded by the BC provincial government and several key sponsors like VanCity and the Planning Institute of BC. Papers were presented by both Masters and PhD planning students, municipal planners, housing developers, architects, and more. It was a rare confluence of research, policy development and practical planning tools that have impacted the construction of affordable housing in Canada. Some of the sessions I attended included Haley Mousseau (BC Non-Profit Housing Association) on the long-term survival of non-profit housing units in the province; Andy Yan (Bing Thom Architects) on the impact of empty condos on Vancouver, and Vanessa Kay (internship for the City of Vancouver) research on the long-term costs associated with amenity spaces in Vancouver condos.

The breadth of experience in the room was palpable, and it was easy to strike up conversations over breakfast, lunch, and the cocktail hour with (in my case) the director of a shelter, a housing provider in a suburban municipality, a planning consultant working extensively on housing development, an academic researcher looking at sustainable neighbourhoods, a PhD candidate in geography at UBC, and a Masters student who had travelled from northeastern US to attend the symposium. Best of all, the one-day format kept things moving and packed a lot of information into a short amount of time. The only problem I overheard participants discussing was that there were concurrent sessions, so it was impossible to hear all the presentations.

It’s easy for us to become entrenched and isolated in our little silos, whether it’s a municipal department of planning or an academic faculty. Events like this provide a rare opportunity to share our work with a wider audience and to learn from a variety of different viewpoints. The short length of the symposium effectively limited participation to those within a short distance of the host city, forcing people to develop better ties in their own locality. While there is a place for big conferences, and connecting with people over continents who share our interests, it’s a sad fact that few of us have the time to create or maintain local research/practice networks outside the context of our immediate projects.

Next week I’ll be attending another rather unconventional conference, or rather “un-conference” called TransportCamp, which uses multimedia techniques to foster dialogue between participants. A similar event was held in Toronto in April 2008. I’m skeptical, but I’ll let you know how it turns out.

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