Smart Growth Summit returns with focus on pandemic recovery, climate change 

One of the silver linings of “going virtual” during the pandemic, at least for local organizations, was being able to reach a broader digital audience, and, in turn, gathering ideas from experts who might not have been able to visit Baton Rouge otherwise.

Such was the case with the Center for Planning Excellence when it turned its annual Smart Growth Summit—focused on planning, urban design and community resiliency—into a virtual conference last year.

The event attracted 1,500 participants from six continents, according to President and CEO Camille Manning-Broome. And perhaps the biggest draw was that Louisiana is primed to be at the forefront of plenty of smart growth discussions.

“We’re having some of the most relevant conversations right now here in Louisiana,” she says. “We’re on the frontline of climate change. We’re dealing with a variety of economic disparities. We’re really at the nexus of all these things.”

Going into 2021 and this month’s iteration, the CPEX team knew it would have to continue the summit in a virtual format again. And with this year’s theme of “Shaping Our Future,” there are plenty of new ideas to explore.

Up for discussion: how mayors and civic leaders are rethinking access to parks and pedestrian infrastructure following a season of people eager to walk or bike outdoors. Or how distance learning has kept more people at home and made them rethink what an attractive neighborhood means to them. And how that personal “bubble” made us prone to patronize restaurants and businesses within a mile radius rather than drive across town.

“There’s been a growing awareness about these things for the past two decades, but the pandemic really was the tipping point,” Manning-Broome says. “It’s shown us that the ways in which we need to recover (from the pandemic) and think about the future are one in the same.”

The pandemic, she says, provided almost a trial run of how our communities will deal with infectious diseases, which are predicted to increase with climate change and extreme weather events. It also showed how far we have to go to diversify our economy to fit a world where supply chains might get disrupted and travel restrictions may affect access to services.

If anything, this year’s harsh freeze and summer floods proved the state’s infrastructure still isn’t up to snuff.

“We’ve got these cascading crises stacking on top of each other,” Manning-Broome says. “But within that exists a lot of opportunity.”

So the summit aims to shed light on some positive solutions and new ideas. Local and national speakers from as far as Boston and Wyoming will discuss best practices in everything from solar farming to stormwater management to public green spaces.

Over three days of free virtual programming, participants can hear from the deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, fellows with the Brookings Institution and Kresge Foundation, and even the mayors of Opelousas and Ville Platte about how communities are transforming and investing in planning solutions to prepare for an uncertain future.

The Smart Growth Summit is set for Nov. 16-18. Find out more information about the lineup and schedule, and register for free at summit.cpex.org.

This article was originally published in the November 2021 issue of 225 magazine.