Conference Report: The 13th National Conference on Planning History, (SACRPH), Oakland, 2009

Article excerpt

Europeans, especially, may be forgiven for assuming that planning history in the United States must be a limited subject and a frail intellectual endeavour. After all, urban regions there are noted neither for their age nor for the rigour and consistency with which they have been planned. However, since 1986, the continuing vitality of the Society for American City and Regional Planning History (SACRPH)1 has challenged sceptics and perhaps even surprised its own membership.

Attendance at SACRPH's latest biennial conference, in Oakland, California from 15 to 18 October 2009 reached an all-time high of about 300.2 Those present supported, and required, eight concurrent paper sessions spread over two days. These were bookended by field trips, paralleled by an academic book display (with free coffee), and interspersed with lunchtime plenaries or panels, breakfast and evening meetings, corridor kibbitzing, and evening bull sessions in excellent local bars.3 On this evidence, planning history in the United States is very much alive and well.

Its conferences have been the lifeblood of SACRPH, sustaining the organisation and indeed the field of study itself. Continuing a tradition established by a founder, Laurence Gerckens, they have always been stimulating, well-organised, eclectic and welcoming. The Oakland gathering was typical. Optional field trips included a food tour of the Oakland waterfront and tours of housing and housing projects in West Oakland (once home to the Black Panthers), of ethnic districts near the downtown, of Berkeley's architecture, San Francisco's urban renewal and of recent agricultural development (including vineyards) in Marin and Sonoma counties. (One vineyard - Ravenswood, if you must know - was a conference sponsor.) In between were squeezed plenary sessions on regional equity and San Francisco Bay Area planning initiatives; an end-of-term address by SACRPH president, Robin Bachin; 54 conference sessions that included roundtables on publishing and cultural sustainability; a dissertation workshop, and a poster session for undergraduate or Masters students; and a concluding awards ceremony and reception. Everything that I observed ran smoothly, while conversation hummed, notably at the three evening receptions, courtesy of excellent food and, on two occasions, complimentary drinks.

The eclecticism of the conference, noted by President-elect Alison Isenberg in her introduction to Bachin's Presidential Address, was apparent in the fact that it attracts planners and preservationists, as well as urban historians, in significant numbers. To be sure, many of the planners were from the Bay Area, and spoke about local issues, while the historians came from across the United States and Canada.4 None the less, many sessions and one plenary brought the two groups together, and this did promote dialogue. In part, such exchange is possible because, despite the everyday pressures to focus upon the present and immediate future, some planners have a concern for the long-term implications of public intervention. In part it also reflects the fact that a high proportion of urban and planning historians - who in Oakland included a sprinkling of historical geographers like myself, as well as those employed to teach urban, architectural and planning history - have interests that are focused on the recent past, or upon the connections between past and present. Thus, for example, Lawrence Vale enumerated the parallels between the slum clearance programs of the 1930s-1950s era and the HOPE VI initiatives, which are meant to revitalise public housing, sometimes through demolition. In addition, a whole session, for example, was devoted to an historical assessment of recent policies of Smart Growth.

The linkages between planners and historians were nicely exemplified at the concluding awards ceremony. The organisation's most prestigious award is the Gerckens prize. In Oakland the names of the two latest recipients were announced. …