The planning aikido of Harriet Tregoning
Note: This article appears in the March-April 2014 issue of Better! Cities & Towns.
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 This is great news for those of us engaged in reforming HUD policies, like outdated limits on retail/office in mixed-use developments.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 a new kind of urban planner that uses, it seems to me, a sort of planning aikido. Aikido is focused on taking your opponent’s momentum from their attack and synchronizing 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 radio interview. “You can’t stay the way you are,” she says. “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 worked 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” that were opened in underused properties in neighborhoods needing a boost. These interventions were 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.