The 59th World Congress of the International Downtown Association (IDA) will take place in New York on October 6 - 9 in what presenters are calling “an experience of a lifetime.” In store is a bold, exhilarating, and daring experiment: hosting 800 attendees from 14 different countries (who may not have visited New York previously and aren’t necessarily fluent in English) and turning them out on the streets, Metrocard and map in hand, in a movable feast of urban and economic development. It’s like no other conference envisioned. It's a game-changer.
The challenges surrounding the conference were daunting, especially given the extremely tight timeframe. IDA had to coordinate with multiple city agencies and business organizations, including the Department of Small Business Services (SBS), the New York City BID Managers Association, and the Times Square Alliance, among others. All arrangements were finalized in less than nine months instead of the usual three years allotted for planning a complex international conference because Montreal, where the meeting was originally scheduled to take place, had to withdraw midway through preparations.
IDA reissued a call for RFPs and, in a process similar to selecting a host for the Olympics, candidate cities submitted competitive bids. New York threw its hat into the ring but because it had hosted the previous world conference six years ago, a fresh approach was needed. Instead of following the established tradition of convening in some big anonymous ballroom and talking about urban initiatives while the city, unseen, grapples with daily realities outside, why not turn things inside out and present an experiential learning conference with real life lessons out on the streets?
And then came Sandy. New York emerged the uncontested frontrunner while recovering from the hurricane’s widespread devastation. It offered a living case study in resiliency, downtown renewal, small business development, mobility, and a host of related revitalization issues from which other cities could learn.
Beyond environmental considerations, explained SBS deputy commissioner Elizabeth Deleon, “New York is a different place than it was six years ago. IDA members are excited to meet their colleagues and say ‘Remember when we met [at the last world congress]? Look at what I’ve been able to do since then’ or ‘Six years ago these were my challenges and this is how I overcame them.’ The business improvement districts have done so much. We love showing off what we've achieved.”
Attendees to the conference will begin registration this Sunday at the Times Square Alliance’s Visitor Center (the former Embassy Theater) in Times Square. Following an introductory plenary session in the Majestic Theater on Monday morning they will head out into the city for more than 60 tours, remote breakout sessions, workshops, and on-site ‘walkshops’ on such diverse topics as:
• Transforming underutilized public spaces into neighborhood assets
• The role of arts and culture in city strategies
• Using bicycle-friendly business districts as marketing tools
• Activating economic development in the face of chronic homelessness
• Promotion and development for the luxury marketplace
Events continue on Tuesday in Brooklyn at Pratt Institute and Brooklyn Law School, at John Jay College of Criminal Justice on 59th Street in Manhattan, and elsewhere into Wednesday. Conference sites are fanned across the city from the Bronx, to Queens and out to Coney Island.
Only two buses are involved (for outings to Yankee Stadium and Jamaica). Otherwise, conference attendees are expected to find their way by subway, aided by hotline phone numbers and a small army of volunteers wearing I Love NY t-shirts and stationed on destination subway platforms and at strategic locations above ground.
According to event director Martha Bear Dallis of Bear Dallis Associates, “It’s a roller coaster. Everything works on paper but there are no rehearsals. It’s a dynamic process that depends on local hospitality. Things might not go perfectly, but the whole experience is meant to show the magic of New York, on the streets, in the subways. There’s magic everywhere.”
No matter that out-of-town visitors are typically terrified by the subway system. The people attending the conference are enterprising thought leaders eager to explore. “They’re urban innovators,” explained Ms. Deleon. “They look at everything from trees to garbage cans, housing, retail, transit systems: how cities are formed, how they work.”
What could go wrong? Among possible mishaps are transit delays, missed subway stops, late arrivals for mobile walkshops, or maybe worst of all, rain. Judging from Facebook and Twitter postings, conference goers are undeterred and eager to begin. In the words of one attendee, “New York, here we come!”