APA PA Chapter News: May

The Latest News from PA Chapter of APA…

There are a lot of designated days and months to acknowledge various topics of importance, and May is no exception, when historic preservation, biking, and mental health are recognized. So, our newsletter this month has background information on these recognitions, but that isn’t all. We also have excellent in-depth articles on taking the AICP exam and systems thinking. Enjoy!

The Impact of Large & Medium Scale Solar Projects on PA Communities
June 5 from 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM

The webinar will provide a comprehensive discussion of large and medium scale solar developments on the PA landscape including where and why they are being sited, common concerns in communities, zoning and land use considerations in ordinance development and proposed legislation that could impact solar in PA.

Deadline to register is Tuesday, June 4.

CM credit is pending approval. You must attend the webinar live to earn CM credit.

If you’re interested in sponsoring a Webinar Wednesday or have a session for Webinar Wednesday, please contact us. Send your request to info@planningpa.org

APA PA Conference 

The 2024 Annual Conference, Investing in a Dynamic Culture of Planning, will be October 13-15, 2024 at the Erie Bayfront Convention Center in Erie, PA.

The Annual Conference provides a unique and effective opportunity to showcase your work and capabilities to planning professionals and policy makers from across the Commonwealth. It’s also one of the ways to support planning in Pennsylvania by providing valuable networking, education, and development for planners.

The sponsorship brochure will allow you to choose the marketing opportunity that best suits your needs. 

Our conference committee are working diligently to plan a creative and innovative event, one that will pair both educational and provide networking opportunities. We look forward to including you in the continued success of the APA PA Annual Conference!

Planning Webcast Series

Earn over 50 CM credits each year online – at no cost to members of participating organizations that support the Planning Webcast Series. Webcasts take place live on Fridays from 1:00 – 2:30 PM ET and are worth 1.5 CM credits (for live viewing only) unless otherwise noted. More information online.

Communication and Membership Committee

We are always looking for volunteers to contribute articles for our monthly E-News and LinkedIn page. It’s a great way to share your work and local news with a statewide audience! Authors are credited with a by line and tagging on social media, if applicable. If you are interested or would like more information, please contact Amy Evans or Amy McKinney.

Opportunities for Giving

Each year the Chapter offers a scholarship to support individuals seeking funds for academic degree programs, internships, and professional development activities.  If anyone would like to contribute to the Chapter’s Scholarship fund, donations can be made here. We accept all major credit cards, or you can send a check. Please make your check payable to “PA Chapter of APA Scholarship Fund” and mail it to P.O. Box 4680, Harrisburg PA 17111.

Annual Awards

The Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Planning Association is pleased to announce its Planning Awards Program for 2024. It is one of the most popular programs organized by the Chapter. A select group of the “best and brightest in Pennsylvania planning” will be recognized for their transformative initiatives and projects. Winners are announced at the Chapter’s annual conference, this year in Erie October 13-15.More information online.

Mid-Atlantic Collaboration: Planning for Clean Water Webinar Series

The Mid-Atlantic Planning Collaboration webinar series explores the vital connections and partnerships between planners and the health of our water resources and the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

Each webinar features local planners who are engaged in initiatives that serve their community and further water quality and living resource goals. Each webinar also includes resources available to planners that may be relevant or helpful. All webinars are recorded and posted to the Mid-Atlantic Planning Collaboration’s YouTube page.

APA PA Central Section Workshop
All 4 One: Law, Ethics, Equity, & Sustainability/Resiliency

Friday, May 17, 2024 | 8:00 am to 3:30 pm | Giant Food Store Community Center (Camp Hill)

All 4 One will focus on the key pillars of planning: equity, ethics, land use law, and sustainability and resiliency. The experienced presenters will provide valuable information to help planners and others make an impact in their work and in local communities. Register by: Thursday, May 9th. More information online.

Great Places in Pennsylvania!
By Pam Shellenberger, AICP

Nominations for the 2024 APA PA “Great Places in Pennsylvania” program are now open. We are seeking nominations for Public Spaces and Transformations. Both are essential components of successful communities, whether they are rural, suburban, or urban.

  • What is a Public Space?  A public space may be a formal or informal gathering space within a neighborhood, downtown, district, waterfront, or other area of a community that is within the public realm, promotes social interaction and community engagement, and fosters a sense of community.
  • What is a Transformation?  A transformation involves revitalizing a place that was not thriving or converting community threats into assets for positive community change. Transformations, which typically begin with a vision, strengthen communities and the local economy.

Pennsylvania is full of amazing Public Spaces and Transformations that help to make it a magnificent place for people to live, work, and play. Now is the time to begin thinking about special places that may merit designation as a Great Place in Pennsylvania. For inspiration, visit the APA-PA website where you will find archives of the 2014-2023 designated great places. More information online. Nominations must be submitted online by Friday, May 17.


The Pennsylvania Municipal Planning Education Institute will be offering courses online and in person in 2024. Please check their website for the most up to date schedule online.

Taking the AICP
By Riddhi Batra , AICP

When given the option to take a test that consists of facts, dates, people, and other fiddly details, my first instinct is to walk in the opposite direction. Yet, despite my best excuses and attempts to procrastinate, I took the AICP exam in November 2023. I was certified by January 2024.

Why Take the AICP At All?
There were a few reasons why I chose to take the AICP only a few months after graduating from a Master of City Planning program at Penn. A lot of planning information was fresh in my mind (Professor Daniels, if you’re reading this, thank you for all the public finance lessons, I now see APFOs everywhere). My decision was enabled by the recent change in the AICP certification process. Earlier, a candidate had to meet their planning experience requirements before giving the exam. Now, the exam can be taken at any time. If you pass, you earn the title of an “AICP Candidate” and can continue to build the experience needed to apply for full-fledged certification.

Perhaps my greatest incentive to take the exam was the chance to learn things that I simply couldn’t squeeze into two years of graduate school. In planning school, I was pulled in different directions by the sheer number of choices and course constraints. Every semester, I would try to craft a combination of courses that would be simultaneously enjoyable, informative, and relevant. There were so many ways I could set up my career path. I graduated with a longer resume, but I still didn’t think it was enough to navigate the ever-changing landscape of professional planning.

With its breadth of topics, the AICP helped me explore subjects that I couldn’t dive into in school. It helped me find stronger footing in transportation, land use, and environmental planning, law, finance, and history. This ultimately helped me feel more confident in my role as a planner. Since taking the exam, I have been more able to flow from one branch of planning to another, contribute to a wider range of projects at work, and critically think about how they intersect. Whether you work in the public or private sector, in an urban or rural setting, for a city or a Metropolitan Planning Organization, I think the AICP helps provided a more rounded, holistic foundation for planners.

Preparing for the Exam, Part 1: Running Away
At first glance, the anecdotes I read online made me believe that I should study about one-hundred hours for the AICP. I was intimidated by that estimate, given that I had a full-time job and a 4-month-old puppy. I was even more overwhelmed when I started digging through the nine major topic areas, namely: research and assessment methods, fundamental planning knowledge, communication and interaction, plan and policy development, plan implementation, administration and management, leadership, areas of practice, and ethics. There was more to the exam than I had anticipated. I didn’t know how to start, or where to first focus my attention. After three consecutive weekends of reading about fifty law cases, ten planning movements, and twenty planning “people”, I tossed my textbook aside and convinced myself that I had overcommitted, the exam was optional, and my brain just wasn’t wired to memorize information. That was that, and I got my weekends back.

Three days before the fall 2023 registration deadline, a casual chat with my team manager turned into an honest conversation about my trepidation. Her guidance helped me find – and keep – my resolve to take the exam. The next day, I registered for the AICP. I had exactly one month to study all nine topics.

Preparing for the Exam, Part 2: Running Back
Nothing spurs my executive function better than a looming deadline. My first step was to take a practice exam on Planning Prep. This helped me establish a baseline – I highlighted the topic areas where I scored lower. I made sure not to time myself at this stage because I wanted to familiarize myself with the study materials first.

Second, I divided up the weeks left till my exam and blocked off days for each topic. The areas where I had scored lower in the practice exam got extra days in my study schedule.

Third, I started reading the comprehensive Study Notes created by the APA PA’s Professional Development Committee (PDC). I supplemented this with free online resources provided by the APA PA, guidebooks from Planning Certification, and notes collected by my seniors from graduate school who had recently take the exam.

This time, I decided to tailor the study materials to the learning methods that work best for me. I prefer to organize information into charts and graphics, so I decided to create my own “Revision Book”. I made a timeline of historical events color-coded by each “area of study” (environmental, transportation, housing, land use/urban design); a spreadsheet with law cases color-tagged against their respective planning issues and constitutional amendments; and a sheet of important people in planning color-coded by the planning area they primarily contributed to (I really like color). I made sure to update my Revision Book every time I came across a milestone event, law case, or planning person. These spreadsheets became my go-to resource. They worked because the information was visually organized in a way that made it easier for me to learn and find patterns, I understood the relationships between different topic areas rather than simply memorizing them as discrete chapters.

Fourth, I made sure that no matter how prepared I thought I was, I would take a practice exam every weekend. There are twelve exams on Planning Prep – I took about five – and they helped me familiarize myself with the types of questions that come on the exam, and the answering pace I needed to maintain. Doing this also helped me ensure I didn’t peg my progress against the number of hours I studied; rather, against my comfort with a particular topic area.

I spent all week before the exam holed up in my aunt’s house over Thanksgiving, furiously completing my spreadsheets and testing myself as often as I could. I wasn’t getting perfect scores but that didn’t matter. I was scoring well enough to pass, and even in studying for the exam, I had learnt so much new material.

I took my exam at a test center in central Philadelphia. The exam hall was being used by multiple test-takers and had strict regulations. I had to shed my jacket, watch, and water bottle before entering the exam hall, had to inform the proctor if I needed to visit the bathroom, and was frisked on reentry. The exam room was lined with cubicles – each cubicle had a computer, keyboard, mouse, and a noise-cancelling headset. I was provided with a table-top dry erase board to use as scratch paper. While I wasn’t allowed to carry my watch inside, there was a timer counting down above my exam screen.

The exam itself was organized on a somewhat clunky, but workable, interface. I could flip through questions and mark those that I wanted to come back to. There were many more ethics questions than I expected, so I was surprised that the screen congratulated me for passing when I submitted my answers. I rushed out of the hall, elated. The sun was shining, and it was a beautiful winter day. The AICP exam was behind me.

If I Had to Do It Again
I hope I don’t have to take the exam again, but if I did, there are a few pointers I would keep in mind:

    • Make sure to leave enough time to study the APA Policy Guides and PAS Reports. While the comprehensive guidebooks and notes are foundational to the AICP, these reports contain perhaps the most up-to-date information directly from APA.
    • The AICP Code of Ethics is a tricky part of the exam because it is extremely subjective. Scenarios presented in the ethics questions could have more than one right option, but the correct one is whichever is the “most” right. Only practice, and a thorough understanding of the AICP Code of Ethics, can help understand the underlying logic for this section. Check out this video and this discussion guide to get started on ethics questions.
    • Take the evening before exam day to rest. If you’re like me, your brain might trick you into believing you haven’t studied enough. Help yourself tap into the depth of knowledge you have undoubtedly acquired by getting proper nutrition, some exercise, and a good night’s rest before the exam.

The AICP exam is tough, but surmountable. I hope this account of my experiences helps your -journey. Thank you for reading, and good luck!

Exercise and Mental Health
By Christina Arlt, AICP

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a national event to bring attention to the importance of mental health. Sociologist and psychologist Corey Keyes described the mental health continuum, which is a spectrum that includes flourishing (e.g., “feeling good about and functioning well in life”), moderate mental health, languishing, and mental illness. Everyone occasionally feels a little down or has trouble sleeping. If your symptoms last for less that two weeks and you’re still able to take care of yourself or others (e.g., going to work/school, taking care of housework, etc.), then you can probably manage your symptoms with self-care activities, like exercising, contacting friends or family, getting adequate sleep, or engaging in relaxation, mindfulness, or meditation.

The good news is that as planners, we know a lot of resources out there about exercise and active transportation! Check out APAPA’s Healthy Communities in PA committee. DCNR offers Explore PA Trails, which allows you to search for trails by name, county, ZIP code, or use (e.g., biking, hiking, cross country skiing, equestrian, etc.). Visit PA profiled 16 trails across the Commonwealth, from the Great Allegheny Passage in the west to the Schuylkill River Trail in the east. May also happens to be National Bike Month, with National Ride a Bike Day on May 5th, Bike to Work week on May 13-19, and Bike to Work Day on May 17th!

If you or someone you know is feeling great guilt or shame; feeling extremely hopeless, trapped, anxious, agitated, or full of rage; or talking about wanting to die, please call or text 988 (Suicide & Crisis Lifeline). You can also chat online at 988lifeline.org or text “HELLO” to 741741.

#MentalHealthAwarenessMonth #MentalHealthMonth



Upskilling: Leading Change Through Systems Thinking
By Amy S. Evans, AICP

Stated simply, systems thinking is a way to analyze complex, persistent problems, particularly those that involve multiple people, organizations, and/or systems. Because of this, planners are perhaps more well-positioned that many professions to understand and benefit from systems thinking. Afterall, we have known for a long time that communities shape and are shaped by any number of complex systems. We also know that people, organizations, natural areas, and built environments interact in myriad ways to define quality of life, that hard-to-pin-down metric that we all strive to improve.

Pittsburgh PA: How many systems do you see? Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

A good place to start with systems thinking is David Peter Stroh’s well-known book Systems Thinking for Social Change: A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results. This guide is especially applicable to the planning profession because too often our work involves helping communities heal from the unintended consequences of projects designed with good intentions. To give general examples, methodologies rooted in linear thought processes have led many planners at times to hold thoughts like …

  • Increasing roadway capacity is a best practice for alleviating congestion
  • Clearance and demolition is a friend to communities with deteriorated housing stock
  • People don’t engage with planning processes because they don’t care about their community
  • Enough on-lot parking should be provided to support the highest anticipated demand
  • Increasing shelter capacity is the key to serving people experiencing housing instability

As we now know, these old standbys do not hold up to a close examination from a systems perspective.

One of the most practical parts of Systems Thinking for Social Change is its analysis of ten common archetypes, or stories, that can affect how systems work and interact with one another. Most stories can be classified as some blend of cycles that self-limit (balancing feedback) and cycles that amplify or reinforce (virtuous and vicious cycles). An example that we can intuitively recognize is what Stroh calls “Fixes That Backfire.” This classic stumbling block occurs when a solution to a problem works in the short term, but over time actually makes the problem worse or creates new problems. The profession’s understanding of how to treat congestion has been plagued by fixes that backfire, for example. In the 1990s, notable systems scientist Peter Senge created an ‘archetype family tree’ as a helpful diagnostic tool, adapted here by thwink.org:

Stroh dives into a number of strategies for leading stakeholder groups that are attempting systems change, including systems mapping. When systems are mapped using these story archetypes, planners and stakeholders can see the interconnectivity of many moving parts, identify the mental models that support the status quo, and even more importantly, evaluate their own contribution to the problem through a solutions-oriented lens.

In reading through these strategies, what struck me most is a simple observation about human nature: it is extremely common for people and organizations, for a variety of reasons, to take short-term actions that do not align with what they say they want long-term. A key part of planning for systems change involves surfacing this disconnect across partners in a safe, non-judgmental way. This approach empowers stakeholders to identify circumstances and assumptions that keep the status quo alive, reframe immediate and intermediate actions to support their long-range goals, and find leverage points that bring about true change.

In a refreshing strengths-based take on systems archetypes, consultant Marilyn Herasymowych has flipped the script archetype-by-archetype, defining them instead by what they look like when a system is producing results we want. As Herasymowych points out, systems archetypes are not inherently negative or positive. We label them as such based on the outcomes they produce. By being able to recognize these common systems dynamics, planners can sustain what is working, rewire what isn’t, and facilitate enduring, collaborative change.

To see systems thinking in action, check out the Building Health Cities (BHC) Project. The BHC Project applies a systems thinking approach to the growth and development of four cities in Asia and includes a dynamic systems map to visualize points of connection across government and civic systems.

May is National Historic Preservation Month
By Brian O’Leary, AICP

Like many planners, I like to explore places around Pennsylvania, which has such fascinating and diverse history. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, my family likes to hike rather than shop, and we usually combine the hiking with stops in downtowns and tours of historic sites. Last year, we visited the Pearl S. Buck National Historic Landmark in Bucks County, which I hadn’t even realized existed before putting together our itinerary.

That’s one of the great things about Pennsylvania – the depth and breadth of our heritage, with many hidden gems and interesting sites wherever you go. Protecting this heritage can be a real challenge, particularly with dramatic economic changes and population shifts. This is one of the reasons we celebrate May as Historic Preservation Month. There are so many reasons to support historic preservation – encouraging economic development, enhancing community character, acknowledging our shared history – but for me, the main reason is the sheer pleasure of immersing oneself in a place and time that is different from our own.

If you’re interested in acknowledging Historic Preservation Month, The National Trust for Historic Preservation has a tool kit you can use, which can be found online.

If you’re interested in doing more about historic preservation, perhaps getting a grant or changing some zoning, you can get more information from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.