It was an upside-down conference, where some 150 participants shook their ideas out onto the carpeted floor of the Asheville Civic Center Banquet Hall, then scooped them up in circles and reshaped them into projects to channel storm-water here, grow urban gardens there, and reduce energy demands everywhere.
The occasion was a national convocation on Urban Environmental Design for Community Sustainability, held March 19 and 20. And the conference method was perhaps as big a star as the conference topic: Called “open space technology” (see “What If They Had a Conference and No Speakers Came,” March 5 Xpress), the method convenes people around a subject or a goal, but offers no speakers or established workshops. Instead, individuals post discussion topics in the “marketplace”—a wall of time slots—and attendees pick their subjects and schedules on the spot. They’re even free to move from circle to discussion circle around the room.
Thirty-four topics hit the marketplace, each given an hour for discussion during the five hours of multiple circles. Topics ranged from city/county mandates to revenue bonds for renewable-energy efficiency, from green infrastructure to edible urban fungi, from including young people in planning to something called “the resistance”—a discussion of why there wasn’t a more diverse attendance and how to encourage that in the future.
Viewed from afar, however, most topics clustered into two dominant themes: how to shape policies and initiatives that would reduce the community’s energy use and how to encourage self-sustaining practices in building, food production and land use.
Reconvening at 8:30 a.m. the next morning, the group self-defined various potential outcomes for the conference. Two of the most popular were developing a regional sustainability plan and creating a Community Sustainability Institute, but people signed up to stay in touch and work on other projects such as a sustainable-house tour, a comprehensive meeting of grass-roots sustainability groups, passage of a storm-water and sedimentation-and-erosion-control ordinance that “our children will be proud of,” a regional energy-conservation program, and food cultivation in urban Asheville.
In the end, back in a large, round-up circle, participants took turns offering comments on the event, with many expressing gratitude or excitement for the interaction. Local real-estate consultant David Holcomb captured the group’s attention with a nature analogy: “People are like water vapor or steam,” he offered, “and with help, you can transform steam into water, which provides power, or into ice, which provides structure. … These goals need to be turned from steam into substance.”
The conference was co-sponsored by the American Planning Association, American Institute of Architects, U.S. Partnership: Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, the HUB Alliance, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, UNCA and the city of Asheville. John Stevens, a UNCA chemistry professor and one of the conference planners, said he was pleased with the outcome. “It provides an opportunity for moving forward in a number of ways for our regions,” Stevens told Xpress. But, he added, “the interesting part of this process will be what happens following this two-day convention.”