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 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.


HUD: Now’s the Time to Tell Congress Why Smart Planning Matters

I don’t know how many RSVPs a HUD conference call usually gets, but everyone seemed pretty floored that a stakeholder teleconference yesterday got upwards of 400. Officials said it was a testament to the popularity of HUD’s Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities and the grant programs it runs together with EPA and U.S. DOT. […]

How Congress Can Help Create Suburbia 2.0

As Obama administration adviser Shelley Poticha noted this week, building more energy-efficient and hospitable cities — not to mention suburbs and rural areas — starts with clear terminology. "Sustainability" and "livability" are positive concepts that can be hard to define, but how can "transit-oriented development" be brought home to someone unfamiliar with the nuts and […]

In New Orleans, LaHood Unveils $280M in Streetcar and Bus Grants

During a visit to New Orleans, where city planners are seeking nearly $100 million in federal stimulus money for three new streetcar lines, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today announced plans to award $280 million in grants for streetcar and bus networks. New Orleans is counting on bonds, backed by sales taxes, to finance new streetcar […]

Transportation for America Launches Legislative Campaign

Today marks the start of Transportation for America‘s "Build for America" campaign, which will work to influence the transportation funding legislation that goes before the next Congress in 2009. (You’ll be hearing a lot more about it here in the coming months; we have received a grant from the T4America campaign to kick-start the development […]

LaHood Answers GOP Critic, Soothes Dem Skeptic of Sustainability Budget

As Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood tangled with a senior GOP senator today over the White House’s $500 million-plus request for its inter-agency office of sustainable communities — a new project aimed at channeling federal energy towards local transit-oriented and smart growth plans — an influential Democrat joined her fellow senator in raising questions about diverting […]