At ioby, our Board of Directors has long been one of our greatest resources, and it’s difficult to overstate how essential this incredible group of people has been in shaping our organization. From a leading role in establishing and embodying our mission and values, to practical and expert guidance of our tactical work in our cities of focus, it’s safe to say this is no typical nonprofit board. The bar is set high.
That’s why we’re thrilled to announce that Harriet Tregoning has joined our board! Harriet has spent decades working as a leader in community development and neighborhood resilience across all levels of government. Her work represents some of the smartest, most innovative thinking out there combining sustainability, livability, economic opportunity, and more. We’re honored to have her as a thought partner and a leader in shaping our work to best serve the needs and opportunities within the neighborhoods we serve.
We recently spoke with Harriet to ask her about her experience and how it fits in with the work at ioby.
What first got you interested in community development?
Like many people, I trained to do certain work in college and thought I was exactly where I was supposed to be, doing satisfying work I cared about as an environmental engineer at the EPA, working on hazardous waste issues. I was sent to a meeting one day to represent the agency on a “sustainable communities task force being run out of Bill Clinton’s White House.” At that meeting I sat across the table from community groups, national nonprofits, and for-profit corporations, the latter I knew mostly from an EPA perspective, as “polluters.” It turned out that we actually agreed on 80% of the issues affecting community sustainability. Over the course of two years, we were able to reach nearly total consensus about the future of sustainability and we had identified lots of opportunities to work cooperatively.
Back at the EPA, I began to feel like I was swabbing the deck of the Titanic, tracking down environmental infractions and paperwork violations, while the land use across the country was being transformed. Communities across the country were being depopulated and disinvested in, while new communities were being created often on former farmland, far from job centers and at a very low density, connected only via private automobile travel. The environmental impact of this was disastrous. So I tried to figure out how, housed within the EPA, my team could work toward better environmental quality, but also better outcomes for communities. We wanted to combat sprawl, but it couldn’t be regulatory. We kept the name of it somewhat ambiguous – the Smart Growth Network – so nobody would be alarmed that the EPA was working on land use issues.
Together we worked to encourage more sustainable development practices with a land use framework that encouraged compact growth, a mix of uses, walkable streets, housing affordability, transportation choices, and more. From the beginning, the Smart Growth Network was decentralized – we had members from groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Association of Counties, but also the American Farmland Trust, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and even the Urban Land Institute, an organization for developers. It was collaboratively focused and cross cutting, and that’s how we were able to get anywhere.
What has motivated your work throughout your career?
My goal is to change human settlement patterns to be closer to what they have been for most of our history, getting back to the walkable neighborhood as the basic pattern. The development of the automobile caused physical destruction of neighborhoods, but it also allowed patterns of segregation in where we live. It allowed people with access to automobiles to get away from people who were not like them.
Whenever I consider a professional opportunity, I ask myself: Am I going to help to improve human settlement patterns, making our neighborhoods more walkable, more livable, and less segregated? If the answer is yes, I take the job. If no, then I don’t. I’ve worked at all three levels of government: federal, state and local, in transportation, on the environmental side, in housing. The position or agency almost doesn’t matter — there is so much change needed, that there is almost an infinite number of positions and organizations from which you can begin to affect this issue.
What has been your approach to working with communities?
As a planner, you need to take communities’ aspirations seriously and engage people in their visions for their future. I have come to see a common thread in many of my jobs – managing change. I’ve managed change on the organizational level, in the physical environment, and in terms of life outcomes and the landscape of opportunity in communities. And I recognize that for many people and many communities, change is a scary and unwelcome thing. In almost every community, people have lived through changes that made them worse off, even when intentions were good. Addressing their lived experience and how to get to a different outcome is a necessary first step in any conversation about the future.
Even when you have a plan that community members are happy about, you have a responsibility to continue to earn the trust of the community and justify their investment in the process of figuring out what the future should be. It’s also important to demonstrate the change you’re hoping to see. Is it a safer neighborhood with more transportation choices? Better small-business opportunities? More affordable housing that will stay affordable? It’s not enough make a plan — implementing early on even a small scale can help build buy-in, gaining momentum for further implementation and ensuring future change will hew to the plan.
Do you have favorite projects you’ve worked on?
We have so many assets, and so much capacity in communities that we’re not using. It’s been my role to recognize talent and give people with good ideas opportunities to help tap into that. I’ll use the 11th St Bridge Park project in DC as an example. We had infrastructure as an asset – the old bridge was going to be decommissioned. It connected some of the poorest neighborhoods in the east of the District to some of the richest and most rapidly changing. A park on the footprint of the old bridge span would be a place where two communities could come together – for recreation, for local commerce, for relaxation, to enjoy the peace and beauty of the river, and to have a humanist connection to each other. There was a real opportunity there, not only to create this special connection, but to allow the east side communities to have their say in that development.
The head of that project, Scott Kratz, does his job with incredible zeal and purpose. He helped secure a $50M commitment from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, or LISC, to support deliberate, equitable development adjacent to the Bridge Park to ensure that, along with the development in Anacostia, everyone has the opportunity to prosper in their neighborhood and enjoy these new amenities and connections.
Another example: Along DC’s commercial corridors, we are fortunate to have a lot of small businesses, but we also have a lot of vacancy. Landlords, being risk averse, will sometimes wait for a large tenant — a chain drugstore or a bank — and in the meantime the property will sit empty. So we created a program to support “temporary urbanism,” wherein small businesses could open pop-ups, arts organizations could use storefronts for rehearsal spaces, and things like that.
This program not only enlivened the street, it actually helped property owners lease out the spaces permanently, because it helped potential tenants see opportunity. It also helped launch a number of retail brokerages, local small businesses in and of themselves. Restaurants, which before would only be open at night, started second uses in the day, creating more street life. And as more people are working from home and the line between commercial and residential districts gets blurred, people want to have little commercial districts near home to buy their milk, coffee, bread and batteries. The result has been neighborhoods that are more livable, more sociable, safer, and that have more employment.
What do those in the grassroots sector need to know about working with government?
I have found it useful to think less about an entire organization (whether a government agency or a company) and more about personal efficacy. There are marvelously effective people in almost every organization. They are not necessarily at the top of that organization. Find the people who are really committed to the mission of the agency or organization, those who seem to be there because they want to do something, not to be someone. Go to meetings, have side conversations, and find out what people care about. If you can adjust your project to work with them, and better align with what they can and want to do.
Be flexible, especially with local government. You may not end up working with the agency you thought you needed. It may turn out that you have a great advocate in transportation, or human services, or the housing agency. Find the people who have a great range of interests and want to help. Their position is less important.
What do you think makes a resilient community?
ioby works by tapping into a dense network of interpersonal relationships, and this is a critical aspect of resilience at any scale. Imagine being in Cleveland during a heatwave, and you’re an elderly person or a single mother. If your neighbors are aware that you don’t have AC and they check on you, you are more likely to weather that heatwave. That same network of relationships is beneficial whether there’s an emergency or an opportunity, or even if you just need gardening advice.
With the rapid change that’s been brought about by electronic communication, people now have an ability to connect with “their tribe” regardless of place. The downside of this is that it’s become possible for people to live side by side and not ever have an interaction. We need to figure out ways to foster interaction, to foster collective process, and to figure out a vision of a shared future. There is a real danger in having a lack of connectivity to people who aren’t exactly like you. And one of the best ways to build the dense network of relationships within a community is simply to work together. ioby is built on that principle. And it’s important to build that network at all scales – the block, the neighborhood, the city, and beyond. In fact, figuring out how to help this happen is the job of local government — but they don’t always realize it.
Harriet Tregoning is the immediate past Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Office of Community Planning and Development at the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development. Her work at HUD encompassed helping states, regions, cities, counties and towns across the country build a strong foundation for resilience in the face of a changing climate, and for a diverse and prosperous economy based on enhancing community quality of place, economic opportunity, fiscal stability, transportation choice, and affordability.
Tregoning was previously Director of the District of Columbia Office of Planning, where she worked to make DC a walkable, bikeable, eminently livable, globally competitive and thriving city. Prior to this she was the Director of the Governors’ Institute on Community Design, co-founded with former Maryland Governor Glendening. She served Governor Glendening as Secretary of Planning in Maryland. Prior to her tenure in Maryland state government, Tregoning was the Director of Development, Community and Environment at the United States Environmental Protection Agency. She was a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 2004.