Harriet Tregoning, D.C.'s planning director since 2007, is leaving to take a job with the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. During her years at the helm of the Office of Planning, she has pushed D.C. to adopt smart-growth policies touching nearly every aspect of the city--land use, transportation, the economy, and more. Her influence has been felt--if nothing else, what other planning directors can you name?
Elevation DC sat down with her for an exit interview.
Elevation DC: I can't believe you're leaving.
HT: Me either. It’s breaking my heart a little bit to leave. I love this job.
What would you say is your biggest accomplishment as planning director?
Nothing I’m going to tell you was the work of me alone by any means. I really feel like I was fortunate to be in the city with a set of colleagues at a particular time where some significant change was possible. I think we fully became a multimodal city during my time here. And the transportation choices have just multiplied enormously in D.C., and I’m really proud of that whether it’s bikeshare, additional carsharing options, whether it’s the many coming miles of streetcar lines.
Those are all things I didn’t have a singular hand in, but I certainly did my part to encourage those things and push them along and make sure we had supportive land use that really makes that possible. I think having convenient, walkable neighborhoods where you can meet a lot of your daily needs is a huge part of the transportation solution. And that’s something that transportation officials throughout the region now routinely say, that yes, land use is an important part of transportation.
What about your biggest regret?
I have some unfinished business, I won’t call it a regret. The change we’ve seen in transportation is an example of the kind of pace of change coming to cities all across America, and one of the biggest changes is really what’s happening in our economy.
I think cities have a lot to say about that, whether it’s with their land use, whether it’s about how to fund infrastructure. A great example is the Clean Rivers Project that DC Water is working on. We’ve been very supportive of the idea that instead of using these big pipes to deal with our combined sewer overflow issues—One solution is to build, the technical term is to build ginormous pipes underground that will allow that stormwater to be stored and treated later. Those pipes are fantastic. We’ve committed in our city to spend $4 billion on this, but the pipes, all the labor, all the materials, all the equipment comes from outside our economy and when they’re done, the 80-plus days of the year when it rains more than a quarter of an inch those pipes will be of some use.
But if we build green infrastructure instead, we’ll have a cooler city, a shadier, more pleasant city. We’ll have more habitat for birds and wildlife. We’ll have more parks, we’ll have more green space. We’ll also have the jobs that come with that that aren’t high barrier to entry. We’ll have the ongoing need to maintain these things, which also provides employment.
That seems to me like a better kind of solution, especially when that type of job is the thing that’s disappearing from our economy. If we get the jump on this, every other place in the country is headed in this direction so we also create an export economy in services. That idea, that urban places can really take the lead in creating jobs and restructuring economies to benefit existing residents, I think that’s a major challenge that’s facing all cities and that’s something I hope to work on in my new job.
I thought you were going to say something about the zoning rewrite, or the height act.
No! I’m so happy that I was the one who got to begin the dialogue about—this isn’t the end of the conversation, this is just the beginning. I think it’s fantastic that we had this unexpected opportunity to talk to residents about it and raise the specter for the first time since the 1960s where growth is an issue in the city, where we’re going to have to figure out how to accommodate this growth.
"Urban places can really take the lead in creating jobs and restructuring economies to benefit existing residents." What will D.C. look like in five or ten years?
I think we’re definitely going to continue to grow. We’re going to see more diversity in our economy. In ten years we might see the first driverless cars on the street. I think the sharing economy that has really taken hold is going to become a lot more ubiquitous. For people in the middle class who are feeling pretty secure in their jobs, I keep thinking about the federal government having essentially eliminated 40,000 positions in the past few years. Those kind of changes are going to be happening throughout the economy. Even driverless cars, does that displace the need for taxis? For bus drivers? My goodness, more examples of decent paying jobs going out of the economy. I think we’re going to find that the sharing economy is going to be a way to maintain a quality of life that isn’t as expensive.
Huh. Is the sharing economy something you’ll tackle in your new position?
Certainly from a broad perspective on sustainability, it’s less wasteful of resources but it’s also a real community builder.
What lessons from D.C. are you bringing back to federal government?
Hopefully I’m bringing a lot from D.C. I learned so much in this job, it’s overwhelming. It makes me very excited to go back to the federal workforce. I started my career at EPA, and then I went on to state government [before her job in D.C.] And I didn’t know a thing about how states and local governments worked, but now I have at least some inkling.
Also, I think I’ll make people sick by talking about the example that D.C. is setting. There are so many things D.C. is doing well, and so many problems that are similar to issues faced by cities everywhere. It’s an example and an inspiration.
Are you still going to bike to work?
(laughing) It’s just transportation! It’s not a statement. I don’t think my time will be less valuable to me in the future. That’s the reason I bike. It’s the fastest way to get where I need to go.
Any rumblings about who will replace you at OP?
I don’t know, but the mayor announced last week that they were looking inside the agency for an interim director, which is something I think is a brilliant idea.