What if they had a conference and no speakers came?

Ah, Asheville. Add another feather to her urban-mecca cap: a two-day national convocation on Urban Environmental Design for Community Sustainability, coming to the Asheville Civic Center on March 19 and 20.

The conference will be carried out using the nontraditional “Open Space Technology” method of individual participation, with self-organizing groups and fast-paced, consensus-based solutions—doing away with the speaker-based format of standard conferences.

The some 150 individuals from the community and around the country who are expected to convene will share their own questions and come up with their own answers or plans for action.

“‘Open space’ is a really democratic way of holding a conference,” says Margie Meares, a veteran open-space participant and the executive director of the local nonprofit, Clean Air Community Trust. “You get people together based around a topic, and instead of being top-down, it’s peer-to-peer. People who are passionate about [a subject] convene … figure out who to talk to and how to talk about it. Why make it any more complicated than that?” At a speaker-based conference, Meares adds, “You sit through the presentation until you get to the break and talk to the guy you wanted to talk to.”

Steve Cochran, a partner in Asheville’s Sustainability Strategies, which is facilitating the meeting, puts “open space” another way. There’s “no preconceived notion of what will come from” the assembly, he says. “It can be whatever the individuals taking part want to focus on.

“I would imagine a session creating a national dialogue on urban design,” Cochran predicts, noting that he expects participants from the American Planning Association and the American Institute of Architects, both of which are co-sponsors. “The groups working in town here—they want to help move urban design forward even more in our region. They’re probably going to convene around that,” he adds.

The convocation’s open-space method has “four principles and one law,” says Cochran, ticking off the principles: “Whoever comes is the right people. Whenever it starts is the right time. Whatever happens is the only thing that could happen. And when it’s over, it’s over.” The law? “The law of two feet,” he explains. “When you realize you are no longer contributing or learning, use your two feet” to move on to something more productive.

“The city is all on board with this,” Cochrane noted. “Mayor Bellamy is personally becoming a great advocate for [sustainability]. [Council member] Robin Cape is one of the founding members of SAM [Sustainability Alliance of the Mountains].” As a co-sponsor, the city is providing the Banquet Hall at the Civic Center for meeting space, and other organizations are picking up incidental costs, Cochran said, allowing participation without a fee—another deviation from the norm.

Additional co-sponsors include the D.C.-based nonprofit, U.S. Partnership: Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (which Cochran chairs), the HUB Alliance, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and UNCA.

The event is an outgrowth of last November’s “Regional Collaboration and Action for Sustainability,” a summit held at the North Carolina Arboretum (see sustainablewnc.org). That was also an open-space event, convened by SAM.

SAM is a regional collaboration (see www.sustainability-mountains.org) that grew out of the activities of the local chapter of the AIA and their grant-funded Asheville Design Center. SAM works as a “switchboard,” according to Cochran, connecting organizations, institutions and others working on some aspect of sustainability in the mountain region.

To register, and for more information, visit www.main.nc.us/uedcs. The convocation runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Wednesday, March 19, and from 8:30 a.m. to noon on Thursday, March 20. Registration is limited to 150 participants.

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