It’s been a couple of weeks since I returned from New Orleans and this year’s Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference, which we titled, “Remaking America for the 21st Century.” In that time, I’ve been reflecting on what an audacious title that was for us to put forward and how pleased and proud I am to say that I think we met the challenge it offered.
Looking around the Hyatt Regency, seeing everyone who’d come in for the conference, it was clear to me how much our field has grown in recent years. This truly was an event for America, not just the industrial Midwest, and not just a few cities facing particular challenges. We hosted more people than ever from the southern part of the country, drawing much larger delegations from Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia and Virginia. But, even more significantly, we welcomed a diversity of attendees that went beyond mere geography: participants came in groups that represented the whole cloth of their communities. While, in the past, we might have been joined by the director of one community development group from a neighborhood, this year, we were pleased to see whole delegations: neighbors, elected officials, regional philanthropy and partners from many different areas of endeavor all attending together, using the conference to identify resources and strategies to support and improve the efforts they already have underway.
And there were so many of those resources and strategies to choose from: more than two dozen workshops, many with panels of presenters, representing the shared expertise of over 100 top thinkers and practitioners in our field.
Within the sessions, in the hallways and at breakfasts and lunches, I heard people talking about our work, and this mission that we all share, with contagious enthusiasm. And the best part was that they weren’t just talking about theory or about the philosophical debate over whether to demolish or redevelop. They all had actual best practices to share and modes of working that go way beyond the old binary choices.
That we can acquire vacant land and problem properties is old news. Now, the air is buzzing with conversations about all kinds of uses – intermediate and permanent – for spaces that are not yet ready to fully redevelop, initiatives including green space projects, interesting environmentally restorative landscapes and urban agriculture.
This is how we’ll realize the “21st Century” part of our vision for this conference. It struck me that some of those hallway conversations were at least as important to advancing our agenda as the formal programming. Community Progress has reached a point in our development where we’re not just the people lecturing on these topics, getting the word out to others. Instead, we are increasingly becoming facilitators of real peer-to-peer learning. That’s where I see the organization heading, making it our mission to bring together groups who’ve done great work in one place with groups that might just be getting started in another. That’s how we remake America for the 21st Century. I’m thrilled to be part of the effort.