The Irrefutability of Harriet Tregoning

Tim Halbur's picture

Last month, Washington, DC Planning Director Harriet Tregoning announced that she'd be leaving her position after 6 years to become the director of HUD's Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, the position vacated by Shelley Poticha last year. This is great news for those of us engaged in reforming HUD policies, like outdated limits on retail/office in mixed-use developments.

Tregoning exemplifies, to me, a new kind of urban planner that uses a sort of planning aikido. Aikido is focused on taking your opponent's momentum from their attack and synching your own movements with theirs to channel that energy to your benefit. Tregoning uses this technique to help drive momentum where other cities stall out and bend to what they see as political will against new development.

Her own description of the role of planning director is "someone who manages change in communities," as she describes in a recent interview with a public radio talk show. "You can't stay the way you are," she says, with refreshing honesty in someone in such a political role. "Your demographics are changing. Things are declining, or things are improving. Whatever is happening, things are changing, and planning can really mitigate the negatives, enhance the positives, and turn things around if things are going poorly. But for many people, change is a really difficult topic. I can't say I love it myself in my neighborhood. I think that's most of what's [behind] the conflict that you hear. People would much rather have things not change."

I had the chance to work briefly with Harriet in my stint with ArtPlace, a national consortium supporting creative placemaking. ArtPlace's mission of driving economic revitalization and placemaking through the arts was a challenging concept for many of those involved in the arts, but Tregoning's office took a no-nonsense approach that was highly effective. Their Arts & Culture Temporiums were a series of pop-up "artist villages" targeted to neighborhoods that could use a boost and opened in underused properties. By all reports, these interventions were wildly successful in bringing new people, energy and dollars into neighborhoods in need. And in a process that could easily inspire calls of "gentrification", an emphasis on local artists and flavor kept those worries at bay.

I wish Tregoning luck in her new endeavor - the political tide has buffeted the Sustainable Communities program since its inception. But I have great faith that she is the right person to face the tide and come out above the waves.

Come hear Harriet Tregoning speak at CNU 22 in Buffalo, New York, where she will join Toronto Planning Director Jennifer Keesmaat in what is sure to be an inspiring conversation about revitalizing cities.



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