On August 3-7, 2020, Project for Public Spaces held its first ever virtual conference—Walk/Bike/Places 2020 Online. This five day event consisted of over 50 concurrent sessions and activities with over 500 participants attending for the week.
While the coronavirus pandemic led us to postpone our in-person conference in Indianapolis to 2021, the Project for Public Spaces team decided to shift this year’s event to an online format. We felt it was important to provide our participants a platform to gather during an otherwise isolating time, both professionally and personally. As a result of this change, we were also able to welcome many first-time participants, including the most international roster of attendees ever at Walk/Bike/Places.
This has been a tumultuous year, not only because of the virus, but because of a national uprising against systemic racism and police brutality against Black people. When everything feels so urgent, Walk/Bike/Places 2020 offered a much-needed time to step back and reflect together on how transportation planning and placemaking can meet this current moment and address our historical shortcomings.
Attendees shared their own communities with each other, showing off their local landscapes, biking and walking companions, and the state of their streets.
In fall of 2019, when the conference team decided on implementation as the conference theme for Walk/Bike/Places 2020, we had no inkling of just how relevant it would become. The coronavirus pandemic suddenly pushed public space into the limelight, since avoiding crowding and poorly ventilated indoor spaces are two of the most effective ways to reduce infection. Cities across the country began urgently retrofitting streets and other spaces for users to social distance and for restaurants and other businesses to move their operations outdoors.
However, this flurry of implementation also raised a vital critique: Getting things done is important, but not at the expense of doing things inclusively, fairly, and sustainably. This tension between urgency and equity was most evident during our Monday afternoon plenary session, Does Planning Care About Black Lives? Moderated by Robin Abad-Ocubillo, this conversation brought together anthropologist-planner Dr. Destiny Thomas, one of the key voices behind this critique, Olatunji Oboi Reed, founder of Equicity, and Mitchell Silver, Commissioner of New York City Parks and President-Elect of the American Institute of Certified Planners.
In one of the session’s most insightful exchanges, Dr. Thomas recounted the racist roots of city planning, and suggested that we should consider abolishing the profession as we know it and pursuing reparations. As she pointed out regarding the confluence of the pandemic and renewed calls for racial justice, “This is a great moment to imagine the ‘what ifs’ that we had never imagined before.” Oboi Reed agreed with Thomas’s prescription, concluding, “I am not of the opinion that institutions that harm us have the right to exist.” Silver, on the other hand, responded by pointing out the concrete reforms that progressive planners of color like himself have been able to accomplish. For example, in Silver’s time as Parks Commission in New York City, his team has identified parks that had not seen investment in over two decades, unsurprisingly located in communities of color, and prioritized improvements to 60 of them in the parks budget.
The Indianapolis Cultural Trail, Indianapolis, IN.
Our second plenary of the day showed a different side of implementation, examining the long and ongoing story of the well-known Indianapolis Cultural Trail. Brian Payne, President and CEO of the Central Indiana Community Foundation and founder of the Cultural Trail, shared the story of how it grew from an idea for an urban version of the nearby Monon Trail to a $63 million circuit of trails through six cultural districts in the city. Next, Kären Haley, Indianapolis Cultural Trail, Inc. and Andre Denman and Gretchen Zortman from the City of Indianapolis discussed how the Cultural Trail has served as a hub for a citywide network of trails, and their current focus on expanding access and benefits in communities of color. We look forward to exploring Indianapolis’s expansive trail system in person during our 2021 conference!
Breakout sessions fell into seven tracks that explored different aspects of the theme of implementation: Place, Planning, Transit, Health, Infrastructure, Excellence, and Advocacy. Session topics ranged from promoting deeper forms of accessibility to building a local and national advocacy movement to understanding global perspectives on bus rapid transit to integrating emotional and cognitive factors into transportation planning.
Mobile workshops, which would have been led by locals out in the streets of Indianapolis, also went virtual. Thanks to our local partners, the City of Indianapolis and Big Car Collaborative, participants were treated to a tour of the nitty gritty details of functional and dysfunctional streets in the city, public space highlights, porch parties, crowdfunding and tactical urbanism projects, and an effort to revive the idea of utopia as a real-life experiment in alternative living.
While we couldn’t all come together in Indianapolis, a wide range of virtual conference activities gave participants a unique opportunity to share their own communities with each other.
Sessions took place over the video conferencing app Zoom with long breaks between sessions to allow participants to balance work, life, and the conference over the course of the weeklong event. Meanwhile, our conference app Whova offered opportunities for participants to organize their own meet-ups and chat channels on the fly, leading to conversations about pandemic community engagement and street design for kids, daily walking groups, and bicycle education social, among other things.
People attended the conference from a variety of circumstances, from family meals to parks to workplaces to camping!
This year’s poster sessions also took place virtually through the Walk/Bike/Places website. During an hour-long period, conference participants could speak directly with the presenters through a drop-in Zoom call, and vote on their favorite poster. The winning poster session was “Big Changes to Little Street: Lessons in Pop-Up Safety Demonstrations from LADOT Safe Routes to School,” presented by Jeri Stroupe at Nelson/Nygaard, which documented a pop-up demonstration in Los Angeles of safety improvements at one school to build awareness of upcoming streetscape changes and test the impact of new design ideas on traffic flow.
In the closing moments of the conference, local partners from Walk/Bike/Places 2018 in New Orleans, LA, passed the torch to our local partners from Indianapolis, who helped organize this virtual event and will welcome everyone next year for a hybrid event in the city. Participants were able to reflect and share thoughts about the virtual conference experience, and we all enjoyed a virtual conference from Indy-based musician Bashiri Asad, performing live from the Tube Factory, the home base of local partners Big Car Collaborative.
Many of the virtual sessions also featured inventive formats to keep things interesting. At a public space happy hour, for example, representatives from across North America spoke live and on site about how their favorite places have been adapting to the coronavirus. Our popular “Beers with Engineers” happy hour also returned virtually, featuring Tom Bertulis from KTUA, Dan Burden from Blue Zones, LLC, Billy Hattaway from Fehr and Peers, and Gary Toth, Project for Public Spaces.
Conference partners AmericaWalks also hosted a two-part virtual walk audit, where participants were sent out on a walking scavenger hunt using a walk audit tool developed by AARP to take photos of “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” of streets in their own neighborhoods. The next day, participants reconvened to share the results.