Smart growthers see themselves as members of a rebel movement, like civil or gay rights. And Tregoning, a petite 51-year-old who favors smocks and brightly colored glasses, wants you to know that she was there before her particular cause, which is to end sprawl and embrace a walkable model of urban life, had its Selma or its Stonewall.
Tregoning enlisted in the smart-growth war in the early 1990s, when she was working as head of the waste policy division at the Environmental Protection Agency, where she’d started right out of college in 1981. That was where she met Geoff Anderson, the man she’d marry 15 years later and who today runs Smart Growth America, the cause’s national advocate.
“So, we sort of started the smart growth movement together,” Tregoning says. Having read through 20 years’ worth of news coverage, I tell her it almost seems like they had. “Not almost,” Tregoning replies, smiling brightly. “Definitely! Deliberately!”
“I had this sort of epiphany, that at the EPA we’re sort of swabbing the deck of the Titanic,” Tregoning continues. “Worrying about these vanishingly small amounts of pollution, and not paying any attention to land use, which was changing everything.”
Tregoning thought about trying to start the revolution from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but felt the agency was mired in “massive dysfunction.” So she stuck with the EPA, which let her launch a development, community, and environment division, and rethink how the agency could play a proactive role instead of cleaning up spills. “EPA was known as a regulatory agency,” Tregoning explains. “And we weren’t really trying to regulate. If anything, we were trying to get the EPA regulations to back off on the land use practices that would give you a superior environmental outcome.”
But to really change the way America was built, Tregoning would have to win over real estate developers, not just her fellow government servants. And in the mid-1990s, the presidents of the industry’s various organizations weren’t exactly receptive to a Clinton administration bureaucrat. “They were to the right of Attila the Hun,” she says. “They were scary.”
But Jim Chaffin, a developer who’d just become president of the Urban Land Institute, a membership-based research and education organization, seemed promising. In 1997, Tregoning helped ULI plan a little conference in Baltimore to lay out the movement’s central idea: helping people live car-free by mixing retail, restaurants and offices together with housing, all near transit. “They expected 200 people. Five hundred showed up. It was boffo for them,” Tregoning says of ULI. “They were off to the races.”
So was Tregoning. From her new post at EPA, Tregoning convened the Smart Growth Network of private, public, and government groups that drew up ten principles for the fledgling movement to build “equity in the brand.” She even prevented anyone else from service-marking “smart growth.” “So it would be like Kleenex,” Tregoning explains. “Everybody would use it as a term.”
Meanwhile, Tregoning was also chairing the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, which started to normalize the tenets of smart growth across the country—rather like the latter-day Tea Party’s nightmare of a worldwide scheme to concentrate everyone into cities. In 2000, she helped launch Smart Growth America, which ensured the movement’s continuity in a post-Clinton administration America.
“The Cato Institution said we were running a shadow, clandestine organization out of the government,” Tregoning says (scholar Randal O’Toole’s 1999 paper was called “Smart Growth at the Federal Trough: EPA’s Financing of the Anti-Sprawl Movement.”) “But by then it was too late. We were two years up and running. Too many people supported it. And we deliberately went after Republican governors so that this isn’t a partisan issue. This is about land use, this makes sense no matter what perspective you come from.”
Even with George Bush set to take office in 2001, Tregoning wasn’t keen on leaving her federal perch (Anderson took over for her, and found Bush’s first two EPA administrators fairly supportive—evidence that smart growth wasn’t just a liberal plot). But Maryland governor Parris Glendening was entranced by what Tregoning had helped create, and lured her to state government with the promise of being able to review Glendening’s entire $23 billion budget, line by line, and toss or change every item that advanced sprawl. When the University of Maryland wanted to put a new campus on a dairy farm in the western part of the state, for example, Tregoning decided it made a lot more sense to put it on abandoned lots in downtown Hagerstown. That decision revitalized a sagging city—with no new highways necessary.
“I said this to the cabinet, and they all look at me, and they look at Harriet, and I don’t think they realized how tough she was,” Glendening says. “The most amazing part about that is that she did that without creating enemies.”
|KINDS OF WALKING||Utilitarian||Promenading||Strolling||Rambling||Special Events|
|D.C.'s planners try to encourage development that promotes pedestrian life. But all walking isn't the same. Here, Harriet Tregoning's taxonomy of foot propulsion:||Walking to get someplace to accomplish a task.||Walking up and down, say, 18th Street in Adams Morgan to check out future prospects and let them check you out. Often happens at night.||Walking socially, maybe just to stretch your legs, directionally but not in a hurry.||Walking aimessly, setting your course as interesting sights arise.||The stop-and-go of festivals, parades, rallies, and other gatherings.|
One central piece of this success: Tregoning had figured out how to talk about smart growth—as a holistic approach that encompassed health, social issues, real estate development, and the environment—in layman’s terms. “The former heads of planning were wonderful, talented people, but they were not communicators,” says Dru Schmidt-Perkins, director of the environmental advocacy group 1000 Friends of Maryland. “She was just so much more effective at it. It was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t boring, I understand these new connections.’”
When Glendening aged out of the governor’s mansion in 2003, Tregoning decided to take her show on the road, starting a Smart Growth Leadership Institute within Smart Growth America. Glendening himself came close to taking a well-compensated job running a brownfields investment fund for AIG, but Tregoning convinced him to come be the president of her new Institute instead (five years later, he became very grateful).
In her D.C. incarnation, Tregoning is still winning over developers. On her panel at the International Council of Shopping Centers conference in National Harbor, she tells an audience full of real estate professionals that the best way to impress her office, which makes recommendations to the all-powerful Zoning Commission, is to show that they understood the pedestrian, bicycle, and transit flow around them—even if retailers want bigger spaces and more parking for cars.
Afterward, she gets buttonholed by the moderator, Grant Ehat, Principal of the JBG Companies, which has a large portfolio of high-end properties in D.C. and the immediate suburbs. “You know, we’re much more aligned with you than we are with the retailers,” he tells her.
Tregoning, on the spot, proposes that JBG do temporary installations in all the buildings it owns with empty storefronts. “We should talk about this being a program,” she says. “And you know who we should hook up with? The embassies.” Ehat thinks it’s a great idea. They’ll talk later.