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Tales from a Texas Planning Legend: See You in Waco?

As we head into the fall, it is once again time to decide about attending the APA Texas annual conference.  Are you going?  Often, that choice is determined by immediate realities – whether there are public hearings you have to attend that week or if the City’s budget includes funding for training and travel.  I’ve been to many, many conferences in my 40+ years of planning, but I still plan to make time for this one.  Here’s why.

I went to my first APA conference (a national one) in San Francisco in 1980.  At that time, I worked for the City of San Jose, CA so attendance did not involve travel or overnight stays.  But our department’s policy was clear: only the Director could register for the full conference.  Since the conference was local, though, the department got four or five extra registrations.  So all the planners in the department had to take turns.  (You can see there was a lot less concern about security and conference profitability back then!) I think I got to go for two half-day segments.  But I had just been promoted into my first supervisory-level job, and I wanted to see what the conference was all about.  I was managing our first Energy Element for the General Plan (the CA term for a comprehensive plan), so I recall sessions about how to design subdivisions to support solar energy.  But I also remember how interesting it was to hear from the San Francisco planners about what was happening there.  Even though I’d lived in The City (as it’s called) a few years earlier and visited it fairly often, it was that conference that gave me new insight into the dynamics that were then shaping early revitalization of Victorian-era neighborhoods.  And the experience of traveling up and back with colleagues was part of their transition from co-workers to long-term friends.

For the next several years, I went to the national conferences when they fit in with my professional and personal path.  A Boston conference introduced me to mobile workshops and sealed my decision to go to Harvard for graduate school.  A conference in Montreal led to my recruitment by the City of Austin, which is why I’m in Texas at all!  My first APA Texas conference, a few months after I moved to Austin, was my first visit to Dallas, which has now been my home for over 25 years.  At each conference, I found practical ideas that I could use in my current projects as well as visionary ideas that inspired me to think bigger about what planning can do.

During my time in Austin, there were other memorable conferences.  I was part of the group that planned the state conference in Austin during the booming ‘80’s and still reconnect with others from that group, even though it’s been decades since we worked together.  When the national conference was in Los Angeles, our compadre Jim Duncan was taking office as APA President.  So that conference was a whirlwind – with a big Austin contingent attending and constant running from session to party to event.  (And try to imagine coordinating that when the only way to contact one another was by leaving messages on the land line phones in individuals’ hotel rooms, when you knew that the hotel room was the last place the person you wanted to reach was likely to be 😊.) I also began presenting at conferences during that time, and found it was challenging but also rewarding to share my projects with planners from communities who often were dealing with the same issues.

My approach to conference attendance has evolved along with my career.  There are a few constants, though.  The first is that I make a point to go, unless my schedule really won’t allow it.  I try to bring something to share.  Often that’s a presentation about a current project or emerging issue.  But even when I’m not speaking, I like to have ‘snapshots’ of my current work in my mind.  Sharing those with the person next to me at a luncheon or session has led to some really interesting conversations that expanded both our perspectives.  I attend sessions that are related to my projects, of course, but I generally pick a session or two on topics that sound interesting and are not related.  Inevitably, I learn things I can indeed apply to current or future work.  If the schedule permits, I do mobile workshops to see what’s happening on the ground.  All those experiences energize me about my work and our field.

I find the conferences’ role in my relationships is equally important.  From the friends I only see in person once a year, to chatting with colleagues and clients in an informal setting, to staying in touch as former staff and colleagues advance their own careers, the conference brings us together and strengthens the professional and personal bonds that become ever more valuable over time.

Together, the professional content and the personal connections give the possibility of my top conference goal – serendipity! When I can return from a conference with a story about an unexpected meeting or a completely new idea that makes perfect sense for a client community, I really feel like I’ve hit the jackpot.

Having said all that, I hope you’ll be in Waco to share ideas, friendships and whatever serendipitous experiences the conference brings. See you soon!

Karen S. Walz FAICP is the Principal of Strategic Community Solutions LLC.  She is the first Baby Boomer recognized by APA Texas as a “Texas Planning Legend”.