Mountain and Resort Town Planners Summit
By Eleni Gibson
Lake Tahoe, October 16-19 2019
From October 16 to 19, I had the chance to attend the Mountain and Resort Town Planners Summit in Lake Tahoe, USA. For me, a student who has yet to land their first mountain town planning job, the event was a crash course in the unique and pressing issues faced by resort and mountain towns. For the other attendees (which included both planners and elected officials from Canada and the US), it was a chance to connect, share, and create a network of people trying to solve these issues.
The event was spread over several days, with a combination of speakers, panels, workshops, walking tours, and networking nights. The bulk of the activities were on Thursday and Friday and included opening remarks, keynote speakers, Pecha Kucha presentations and panel discussion, then break-out workshops and walking tours after lunch. The conference was opened by an Elder of the Washoe Tribe, whose traditional territories encompass and are centered on Lake Tahoe.
There were many memorable moments through the week, from presenting my thesis research on e-bikes during Pecha Kucha presentations to getting stunning views of the lake. The keynote speakers on both Thursday and Friday were inspiring in very different ways. Thursday we were treated with a talk from Joanne Marchetta, the Executive Director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. She managed to introduce the huge range of issues faced by mountain towns – housing, climate change, and transportation, and more – in a way that was realistic but hopeful, and with humour. Friday’s keynote was Maddie Bowman (a highly decorated freestyle skier) who drove home how climate change affects us all in very real and personal ways.
The rest of the event was a blur of riveting discussions and learning. I decided to attend break-out sessions on indicators of well-being in mountain communities and on transportation futures of mountain towns. Both sessions involved lots of brainstorming and sharing experiences from different towns. I especially enjoyed the transportation discussions – many towns are moving towards ramping up transit service and encouraging electric mobility.
We also got a chance to get outside with walking tours in the afternoon. I participated in the Urban Lake Tahoe tour – where we learned about some of the history of that section of South Lake Tahoe, which straddles the state line between Nevada and California. The Nevada side has several major casino resorts, while the California side has been redeveloped to resemble an alpine downtown village. I also got a glimpse of Van Sickle Bi-State Park during Friday’s walking tour and learned how it is uniquely managed between bi-state jurisdictions and what their vision is for its future.
There were 3 recurring themes that kept coming up during the conference and during conversations: housing, over-tourism, and climate change.
Housing is a universal and pressing need in mountain towns. Housing prices in many of these communities have skyrocketed; much of the stock of single-family homes and condos has become second homes for the wealthy. This means that professionals of all kinds (from town planners to service industry workers) cannot afford to live in their communities without assistance. No matter where a conversation began, it often strayed to workforce and affordable housing, with attendees sharing strategies to provide more housing.
Over-tourism is also universal. A global increase in tourism has definitely reached the mountain towns of North America. While year-round populations generally range in the 1000s, daily or seasonal visitors may increase the population by two, three, or even four times. In some cases, it seems the capacity of the community – and its resources – is reaching its limit. Transportation was a central theme of the discussions about over-tourism, and how to get people out of their cars.
Finally, climate change was the elephant in the room even when discussing other topics. Joanne Marchetta reiterated the sobering message that the IPCC has given – that time is running out to address climate change. It was acknowledged that mountain towns, and the lifestyle they provide, is energy-intensive, and also that climate change will have a profound effect on the viability of mountain towns. Because much of their economy depends on their natural resources, changes and variability in the climate will impact their ability to keep visitors and jobs.
However, the conference was very solution-oriented and was by no means doom-and-gloom. I had the chance to pick the brain of Chris Menges, Aspen’s Sustainability Programs Coordinator. Aspen is a world leader in setting and achieving concrete climate goals. They have been addressing climate change through policy since the early 2000s and have been managing to decrease their carbon footprint even as their population grows. Chris is at the forefront of many of their current initiatives and was part of a panel discussion about various community’s climate action plans. The resounding message of the panel when it comes to climate change action was: “just do it”.
My final day in Tahoe was when I finally got to experience the lake. Devin Middlebrook, a planner with the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (and a council member of the City of South Lake Tahoe) stepped up to drive myself and two other attendees around the lake when the planned bus tour was cancelled due to low registration. We got to see the famous Emerald Bay, spawning salmon, and wonderful vistas of the lake. It was the cherry on top of an amazing week spent with inspiring people working towards a brighter future.
I hope to keep in touch with many of my new friends, and I took so much away from this event. Ultimately, I learned that mountain towns face many of the same issues all communities and cities face, but often in a more acute and immediate way. However, the immediacy creates an opportunity for innovation and there is a potential for mountain and resort towns to lead us to a more sustainable future.