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CALC Scholarship Feature: 2023 NACTO Designing Cities Conference

This past May our city had the honor of hosting the 2023 National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) Designing Cities Conference. This conference brought in over 1,200 attendees from across the country. We were privileged not only in hosting and leading some of these events such as the WalkShops and neighborhood dinners. We were also able to send eight participants to the conference with our CALC Conference Scholarship.

When the conference ended we heard back from our scholarship recipients with their top lessons learned, highlights from one session they attended, summaries of themes across sessions, and/or connections to CALC themes of health equity, community engagement, active living, or the built environment.

Highlight one session you attended:

"Transforming Streets for Safety and Sustainability in the Global South"

“Through this scholarship I was able to attend a session that focused on cities in parts of the world that are constantly overlooked regarding urban planning and design: Ecuador and India. The focus of this session was about interventions that could be done in a quick, cost effective, and impactful manner.” -Abner

They shared the excitement they had after attending this session and learning about the importance of community buy-in and the Global Designing Cities Initiative (GDCI). They connected it back to their family and friends who are in underserved communities, and the newly founded hope and motivation they have in hopes of making a mark and strong impact on the communities they interact with.

Another attendee shared their excitement about this session, “As an Academic Advisor in the College of Architecture and Planning and a student pursuing a Masters in International Business, this session was particularly relevant to my interests. The insights gained regarding sustainable urban design, community engagement, and implementation strategies will undoubtedly shape my academic pursuits and professional endeavors.” -Manuel

From another session attendee, “This frames a theme I have been thinking about in the climate action and sustainability realm -Communication and Engagement.” They continued, “Many of us who are passionate about sustainability and the built environment want action as soon as possible and we would like to be a part of an impactful change.” -Mohammed

Although this attendee viewed this session through a different lens. They linked this session to not only the community engagement side but climate action and sustainability. Making the connection to the normal peer city inspiration many agencies use when trying to make a change. They go on to talk about how a shift has occurred, and multi-modal transportation and climate action advocates have begun looking to other regions of the world such as South Asia and Latin America. They go on to talk about the different steps taken by two community engagement strategies from Quito, Ecuador, then the steps project leadership in New Delhi, India took. “I’m thankful for the opportunity to learn with CALC about how I can be a part of the change I want to see in my community. People and communities are alike in more ways than they are different, we can learn from each other, and support one another to live active and healthy lifestyles in sustainable and greener cities!” -Mohammed

Personal impact:

“My biggest takeaway is that the individuals at the event are genuinely interested in making streets safer by taking space from cars and returning it to people.” - James

This quote came from someone who doesn’t work in transportation or city planning as a career, yet they were fascinated to hear about the future of transportation planning. From going to each booth about integrating technology and information into transportation designs all the way to breakout sessions going over stormwater drainage. “Obviously, they are up against guidebooks and policies that are outdated and make achieving that goal difficult, but the interest is there.”

“My biggest takeaway from this four day conference was the intersection of public transportation with economic, social and environmental factors.” - Kinzie

This attendee talked about how their awareness of lower income and underrepresented populations' use of public transportation at a higher rate, but they were unaware of the studies that have been created to track and map hot spots in an urban setting to focus efforts on the efficiency of public transport to and from those areas. Setting in on the session, “Local Policy, Global Impact: Concrete Actions for a Sustainable Climate Future” They got to learn about the current emergency state of Colorado’s air quality, with transportation being the #1 source of air pollution.

They then spoke about a WalkShop they attended through the 5 Points/Curtis Park neighborhoods and were guided by community members Gerald Horner, John Hayden, and Maggie Thompson. Those community members provided a detailed cultural history of the people who migrated to and from of this area. “The conversation around public transportation is always changing as a neighborhood changes. Though the city installed a light rail system in 1994 from downtown to the 5 Points area, many community members no longer support the line. A tree canopy lining the sidewalk isn’t allowed close to the rail wires, making the landscape seem barren, and the road can’t be converted into a two-way road which would reduce speeds and make the central hub more walkable and accessible. The community members are working hard to preserve the “Harlem of the West” and the important cultural history it holds in Denver’s overall story.”

The scholarship attendee went on to end their recap by saying, “Overall, I learned the solution is much more complicated than I was aware, with an endless thread of interconnected economic, social and environmental issues that all weave together to affect the design and future of the public transportation system.”

Summarize themes across sessions:

One of the recipients we sent is a graduate student that started school during the pandemic. “I felt blessed to have a chance to attend a conference in person, especially a conference like NACTO, which aligns so well with my own interests.” - Christa

From the days they were there, they saw the theme of understanding the difference between theory and practice. Based on the two sessions Bus Rapid Transit implementation and bicycle infrastructure. Going back to the theme observed, a lesson that was brought up often was “...not all solutions work everywhere, and you have to understand how people actually use a space.”

“The breakout sessions during NACTO were informative and allowed me to understand various perspectives that I had never heard before.” - Nica

Coming from a Denver resident and community advocate for public transportation and disability rights. They expressed the degree to which they learned from the walkshops, and how grateful they are to see the underbelly of how everything comes together and runs this city. “I was grateful to be able to see the underbelly of our public infrastructure of our traffic management and public library---what a treat to see these behind the scenes!” With so much being done virtually and the vastly different perspectives of everyone involved. They feel events such as NACTO are important opportunities to make progress and bring people together from all backgrounds to make a better future for all.

Keeping Your Eyes Open:

“I’ve recently become passionate about pedestrian and transit advocacy as well as urban planning. This opportunity to attend NACTO has been tremendously formative in my dreams and goals for effecting change in Denver.”- Justin

Two things they were on the lookout for were, how cities pedestrianized streets and how cities have been able to improve bus stop infrastructure. Getting to see poster presentations on how many cities across the country implemented pedestrianization pilots during the pandemic and the push to keep them pedestrianized had a great impact on them. “For example, I talked to a planner in Alexandria, VA, who has been working on two pedestrianized blocks on King St. This reminded me of Larimer Square in Denver, which similarly became pedestrianized during the pandemic. I think using examples from other cities could be a great way to make the case for permanently pedestrianizing more blocks in Denver.” They concluded their NACTO recap by emphasizing how much they took away from this experience and the hopes they have for what Denver can achieve.

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