Although the byline states Madison Empey-Salisbury, this post is actually a collaboration (the first one on Aging Playfully!) between Madison and Rachel Barber. We are excited to tell you a bit about our experience at the OPPI (Ontario Professional Planners Institute) & OALA (Ontario Association of Landscape Architects) 2GETHER Conference back in September. Before we get started, if you have not had the opportunity to read our colleague Ellory’s post about this conference, we highly recommend take a look as she does an excellent job recounting the conference and our trip to Regent Park one day earlier. Now let’s travel back in time to late September…

September 20, 2022
One more day until OPPI. What better way to distract yourself from being nervous than to spend your morning exploring Regent Park and visiting the World Urban Pavilion, where we had the opportunity to meet a long-time member of the community. After listening to a series of presentations at the World Urban Pavilion, we broke into smaller groups and explored all that the space had to offer. On one wall, there was an exhibit showing the history of Regent Park and those that lived therein. It included photographs, sourced from old newspaper articles, showing how Regent Park has changed over the years. It was a beautiful homage to the community and to everyone who has ever called Regent Park home. On the other side of the room stood a model of the Regent Park community, equipped with existing and proposed buildings, green spaces, and roads. To say this model had our classmates in awe may be an understatement. This experience is exactly what we needed to set the tone for the days ahead.

September 21, 2022 (Rachel Barber)
I woke up with butterflies in my stomach, knowing I would be presenting at the conference later in the day. Many people are confused as to why I get nervous public speaking – it certainly isn’t my first time in front of a crowd, given my experience as a solo musical artist. For me, the two experiences are incomparable. With music, I’m performing music that I’ve been showcasing for years. If I decide to perform something new, I have the opportunity to practice it many times before I go on stage. When preparing a spoken presentation, I still have the opportunity to practice, but there are some things you can’t practice for, like the Q&A session after the presentation. Needless to say, I was pretty nervous a few hours before my first conference presentation.

After breakfast and a few welcoming remarks was the Opening Keynote. Wanda Dalla Costa, the director and founder of the Indigenous Design Collaborative at Arizona State University and the first First Nation woman to become an architect in Canada, presented “Walking Backwards into the Future: Indigenous Design Thinking”. I was particularly drawn to the urban design examples she gave that are centered around value systems that have been instrumental to Indigenous social practices for generations. One example was the Te Aranga Māori Design Principles, developed by Māori people in New Zealand and which are now part of the Auckland, NZ Design Manual. These design principals include belonging, conserving the environment, and holistic hospitality, to name a few. In Western culture, we tend to focus on applying the urban planning “rules” we’ve become accustomed to for all our projects. Wanda’s presentation made me realize that this mindset is causing us to forget some of the key values that shape our society.

Instead of attending the following sessions and the Networking Lunch, I made my way to a meeting with Dr. Patricia Collins and her team to discuss the status of the “Communities Left Behind?” project. Since I worked with Dr. Collins over the summer on this project, I presented an update of my quantitative findings regarding school closures impacts at the neighbourhood level. While I was nervous prior to this presentation, the feeling melted away once I began presenting – I felt confident with my findings and was excited to share them.

This feeling of newfound confidence followed me to my conference presentation. After watching my colleague Ellory present – and crush it, of course – I went to the podium and gave my presentation. There was no room for nervousness as I passionately shared my findings. I looked forward to providing the planners in the room with important information regarding the disproportionate impacts of school closures on shrinking cities. My hope is that my presentation provided them with the same sense of urgency I felt while conducting this research, so that alternatives to school closures are considered and community recovery plans are created to mitigate social, economic, and cultural impacts if a school must close. Although I was dreading the Q&A session, I felt adequately prepared to answer the audience’s questions – or, if I didn’t know the answer, I found the correct words to express it. Ultimately, I couldn’t imagine the presentation going more smoothly than it did.

Rachel Barber presenting at the OPPI & OALA Conference (Rachel managed to get a photo of her hometown in there!)

With my presentation completed, I was able to relax and enjoy other sessions for the rest of the afternoon. One session I attended was called “Cross-sector collaboration between school boards and municipal planning departments”, presented by the Thames Valley District School Board and the City of London. While the level of collaboration between these entities was admirable, I, along with other audience members, were surprised that no mention was made of collaboration when school closures are being considered. In my opinion, although I think it’s essential to establish protocol for collaboration when contemplating school closures, it was also clear that London schools are dealing with the opposite issue: finding space for children in growing schools. I’m interested in learning more about enrolment projections in London and the demographic change they are facing that is causing their schools to become overpopulated.

With the conference sessions complete for the day, Queen’s University professor Dr. David Gordon invited us and all Queen’s University School of Urban and Regional Planning alumni to a 50th anniversary celebration. I had the opportunity to spend time with two planners from the Thames Valley District School Board, a planner from Owen Sound, and an urban designer from Ottawa. The discussions we had were incredible – an enlightening mix of school board planning, school closures, shrinking cities, and aging cities. We also came to the conclusion that we’re all Habs fans!

Finally, with the evening to ourselves, a few people from SURP and a planner from the City of Kingston went downtown to enjoy some drinks and appetizers. The walk there allowed us to take in the pedestrian-oriented streets and the amazing murals spread across downtown. From presenting, to networking, to simply enjoying London, this day will be one to remember.

September 22, 2022 (Madison)
After two jam-packed days of travelling, networking, and exploring, it was finally my turn to take the podium at the OPPI conference. When yesterday’s SURP reunion came to an end and people began going their separate ways, I decided to turn in early myself. I managed to snag some office space at the hotel to get some extra rehearsal time in before the big day. I called my partner over zoom and delivered the presentation (several times I might add – massive shoutout to him for being such a good sport). Sometimes no matter how many times you practice and how well you know your material, you are still going to wake up feeling nervous. Fortunately for me, these nerves turned to excitement as I walked from our hotel to the conference hall. I arrived around 8am, which left me about two hours before my presentation was set to begin. To pass the time, I grabbed a light breakfast, walked around the exhibition floor, and then headed over to my first session of the day. Before sitting down, I found myself analyzing the room. First thing I saw was the podium, which was situated directly at the front of the room, in perfect view of both the cameras and the audience members. Then, I noticed all the people. There were a lot of people here – I wondered how many more were watching online. I wondered how many people were going to watch my session. A million thoughts and questions, which were thankfully interrupted by the start of the presentation.

An hour passed and suddenly, it was time for my presentation. I made my way to the room where I was greeted by my colleagues Stephanie and Grace, who were set to present right before me. Grace and I made ourselves comfortable at a table at the front of the room. I then watched Stephanie and Grace both crush their presentations and before I knew it, it was my turn to do the same. As I headed up to the podium, I realized that I have never actually used a microphone before. 24 years on this planet and somehow, I have never encountered a microphone (I should really do more karaoke). This realization made me laugh and that, combined with the fact that so many of my classmates were supporting me in the audience, rid me of any lingering nerves.  

Madison Empey-Salisbury presenting at the OPPI & OALA conference .

Before I knew it, 15 minutes had passed, and it was time for questions. For me, the question period is often more stressful than the presentation itself. In the days leading up to the presentation, I tried to come up with answers for as many potential questions as I could. The funny thing is, I did not accurately predict a single question that was asked to me during the question period. However, I was confident in every answer I gave, which awarded me with a sense of accomplishment larger than any level of preparation could have. After the session was finished, I was greeted with kind words from planning students and practitioners from across Ontario. These interactions are what the 2GETHER conference is all about.

Now that I was finished presenting, I could relax and enjoy the rest of the conference. I had the opportunity to attend some fantastic sessions, including one regarding parking lot pop-ups, which I found especially interesting. When the conference came to an end that day, I found myself reflecting back on my experience. This was the second OPPI conference that I have attended (the first being in Toronto in 2019), but the first I had the opportunity to present at. I am proud of how far I have come since my first conference, and I cannot wait to see where I am at by the next one. Until next time OPPI.