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.

  • As a designer with 31 years experience in England and Switzerland, I would like to refocus the debate on Transportation Oriented Development (TOD) to that of Food Oriented Design, Development, Energy and Resources (FODDER), which clearly includes transportation! Within 60 years we almost certainly will have access to a fraction of the petroleum that we currently use every day. As petroleum accounts for 95% of the energy input in current food production paradigms, what are planners doing about feeding our great grandchildren?
    My own thoughts appear on my website at http://www.greenmillennium.eu and I challenge you all to begin to plan for the post-petroleum world of the next 2,000 years, bearing in mind that THE LAST 2,000 YEARS ARE ONLY 20 TIMES THE 5 GENERATIONS, GRANDPARENTS TO GRANDCHILDREN, THAT WE HAVE MET IN OUR OWN FAMILIES (20 x 5 generations x 20 years/generation = 2,000 years!)!
    My heart stopped for 10 minutes (!) following a car accident in Kenya in 1980, depriving me of the abilities to walk, speak and remember, etc. In staggering, walking and jogging more than 330 miles to recover those abilities, I began to imagine a world without petroleum, back in 1981 – 82.

    Can you do better than my imaginings?! We must, if we expect our great great great great grandchildren to live with a fraction of the comfort that we take for granted!

    Thank you for your consideration!

    Yours sincerely,

    Kim Gyr

  • Well, I don’t really know a lot about that, but it reminds me of a tale my employer at Adobe once shared with us: apparently, this thirteenth century Irish alchemist attempted (in vain) to form gold out of lead. He examined those elements so deeply, he got to be an expert on both, and became wealthy being an counselor to the princess. Information was hard to come by in those days, contrary to these days with computer ease of access, and devoted drivers etc. in the past, once you realised something good, you could keep on advising forever. However , I digress. What I am trying to say is that in some cases you stumble upon riches by simply attempting (not to mention being invested in) another thing, and that is exactly what happened to me after I inadvertently got here. I was simply trying to find some technological information on driver updates when I started off surfing around, and got carried away…. Carry on the excellent work, and cheers for the post.

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