Team Obama Adviser: Here’s How to Make Sustainability Mainstream

Shelley Poticha, head of the Obama administration's inter-agency sustainable communities push, is so new to the job that the legislation creating her office has yet to be officially approved by Congress -- but she has already hit upon two goals aimed at remaking the way Americans, and their government, view local development.

3753146828_2ef92e5cf2_m.jpgShelley Poticha (Photo: NRDC via Flickr)

Poticha delivered her two recommendations in a speech to the Open Cities conference (follow it live right here). At a time of seemingly unending culture wars among transit riders, drivers, pedestrians and cyclists, her goals reached beyond inter-modal competition.

First, Poticha said, advocates and policy-makers need to "get a grip on the terms that we're using" and define "sustainability" in a clear, inclusive way. The suggestion is a timely one, given that administration officials use "sustainable" and "livable" almost interchangeably and rarely give a digestible definition of the terms.

As sprawling suburbs and dense urban neighborhoods become destinations for people from all walks of life and at all income levels, she explained, "sustainability" can't afford to be stereotyped as an option solely for Prius-driving elites.

Quoting one of her new colleagues, deputy Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ron Sims, Poticha added: "Your zip code should not determine your future."

The second goal she outlined is to bring the nationwide green development effort "to scale" -- to bring transit use, bicycle commuting, and other environmentally friendly practices up from single-digit "market share" to 30 percent or 40 percent usage in most communities.

"The time of being a boutique movement is gone," she said. "The door is open to move through." And Poticha's office is poised to receive an impressive toolbox to begin that movement, with at least $150 million in funding included in both the House and Senate HUD spending bills.

That funding would ultimately be used for three core missions, Poticha said today. The first two center on distribution of grants, both to regional planners working on innovative approaches to transit-oriented development and to localities that want to revise local zoning codes to allow more mixed-use neighborhoods.

Yet the third mission of Poticha's office ultimately could be its most significant: examining whether, and how, Washington should change its definition of "affordable" housing to include transportation and energy costs as well as just the price of a residence.

A federal recognition of the cost burden posted by high gas prices and road congestion would help give low-income workers the option of remaining in cities and enjoying the benefits of walkable neighborhoods even as high demand pushes urban housing prices ever higher.

It's important to note, however, that the real work of the new office can't truly begin until Congress approves funding and officially designates Poticha's office.