Ryan Holeywell | October 22, 2015 Shelley Poticha, director of NRDC's urban solutions program, offers her rules for what it takes to make cities green, pleasant and walkable.

New York City's High Line. Image via flickr/David Berkowitz. New York City's High Line. Image via flickr/David Berkowitz.

Ryan Holeywell | @RyanHoleywell | October 22, 2015

Shelley Poticha knows a thing or two about cities.

Poticha previously led HUD’s Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, and before that, she headed Reconnecting America, which advocates for transit-oriented development. Today she leads the Natural Resources Defense Council’s efforts to improve cities through its Urban Solutions program.

Poticha spoke in Houston Wednesday at the People + Nature Conference, co-sponsored by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, where she offered her concise list of what can be done to improve our nation's urban centers.

She acknowledge one of the fundamental challenges facing the ongoing efforts to promote reforms in urban areas: Many people love dense, urban areas. They just don't know it yet. Here are her words of advice on how to transform a city and gain buy-in from the community.

Build walkable neighborhoods

Sure, the smart growth community loves walkable neighborhoods. But other constituencies do too, even if they don't identify as urbanists. They key is figuring out how to talk to them. "You can talk about the value of walkable neighborhoods in so many ways that relates to so many interest groups," Poticha said Wednesday. One appealing pitch: "I think the fact that you can lose weight is good."

Invest in "green" infrastructure and parks

They don't just improve quality-of-life. They make cities more resilient. Green spaces that help collect stormwater can save taxpayer dollars while reducing flooding, for example. "They make the whole system healthy," Poticha says.

Connect people to opportunity

She acknowledged that it's one of the most important steps to improving a city, but it's also one of the most challenging to achieve. Regardless, at the end of the day, building housing near jobs is critical if  communities want to help residents get out of their cars and start walking and using transit. It's also integral if cities want to attract the most talented knowledge workers. "We need to be more intentional here," Poticha says. "I understand how hard that is."

Embrace the sharing economy

The sector, Poticha says, is "on fire." Apps can help facilitate transportation systems that allow residents to make seamless transitions between cars, bikes, buses and rail. "When we start embracing these technologies… we’re driving down driving," Poticha says.

Incorporate arts and culture 

In the 1980s and 1990s, the cities were built so quickly and on such a massive scale that we often lost sight of the little things that make urban living enjoyable. "Often, we sort of forget that a core part of people is their pride (and) comfort in a community -- their relationship to traditions and small things that make a neighborhood unique," Poticha says. She says cities must pay attention to the things that make individual places unique.

Bring the farms to our tables

Food is a tool that can be used as a "can opener" to get people to open up and discuss their culture, their homes and their communities, Poticha says. Even as cities become more dense, they should still foster urban agriculture that gives people a connection to what they eat. One way they can do that is if urban school districts use their vast purchasing power to support local markets and locally-grown food.

Make existing building efficient, healthy and resilient

Communities can take steps to encourage investment in "green" buildings that lessen their impact on the environment while also saving taxpayers money. At the same time, building owners should be encouraged to take steps to improve other aspects of their property, such as mold mitigation, to improve the health of residents, Poticha says.

Restore, protect and enhance nature

Even urban residents need a connection to nature. That means fostering parks and not allowing farm land on the outskirts of a city to be plowed over for sprawling development. "It needs to be an intentional strategy," Poticha says.

Involve everyone

As urbanists, policymakers and others try to improve quality-of-life in cities while promoting density, it's important that they bring all the stakeholders to the table. If disparate groups feel like they all play a role in shaping the future of the cities, then the decisions they make will last longer and be more politically acceptable.


I have always thought that people overlook the fact that the dysfunctional/destructive and psychologically and physically controlling street people who commandeer the streets, especially at night , must be the first factor to address in establishing a dynamic ...functional neighborhood. In order for Houston to have this magical dynamic of density, urbanity and pedestrianism that is found in Europe , we must have economic homogeneity in the environment and philosophical /psychological homogeneity among people walking the street , living in in midrises and highrises and working in office buildings. You can't have it both ways, folks , especially millenials who think its ....cool to have homeless people and street thugs walking around your apartments and condos. It's not just a fact of life. By allowing this element to perpetuate and take advantage of you, thinking that they are the poor downtrodden and we just have to live and let live, you, in esssence allow the city to retrograde. Support you local drug rehab shelter , your local food pantry and homeless shelter , as these are worthy causes to support , but support them outside the city's dynamic core where this author is stating the things we need in order to establish a healthy living environment. Here is what Houston needs to do; RELOCATE.... the Greyhound bus terminal and any other bus terminal to outside the 610 loop and have a mini bus connect from that location to the bus transit center in south downtown. Tear down the Fiesta grocery store and the Sears in Midtown and create a wonderful piazza of highrise office, hotel , condo and midrises, in essence a mini city in this area. Develop and build high rise office and condos on each parcel of land next to a metro rail station .....cascading from this midrise buildings both to east and west of the rail stations. and do like wise in the museum district. Make a major effort in establishing buildings in the south area of downtown and cordon off the Metro bus transit center to allow people to only make bus connections but not to loiter and walk around the area . Pump classical music and new age music in various areas of the city where street thugs and aggressive panhandlers are known to congregate. This music is particularly aggravating to street people who thrive on rap and gangster rap / hip hop music....sorry you millenials or others who like this crap....you wouldn't like this music either.....These are the things that need to be done to create Houston's version of an urban oasis. We have a stretch of land about 1 mile by 7 miles from downtown to the NRG arenas. We have the ability to create this urban area that everyone dreams of but don't seem to know how to implement it....Going further.... The astrodome should also be converted to a luxury hotel with botanical gardens, ponds , lakes, waterfalls, tropical rainforests ...a la Moody Gardens.....connected by an automatic tram to the Metrorail station....The Nrg parking lot should also be heavily landscaped with palms, live oaks and semi tropical vegetation to creat a beautiful green area in our largest ...grotesque ....parking lot....We need to establish Houston as a destination by the only thing we can.....our weather , which in conducive to tropical plantings, landscaping and palm trees in tight landscaping areas and plant live oaks /southern oaks is areas that can accomodate their footprint/size. We need to be mindful that we also need shade where we want pedestrian activity ....a very important aspect that is oftentime overlooked . The new botanical garden also must be located intown , at Memorial part and in proximity to the current Arboretum yet no one anywhere has mentioned that this....not the location outside 610 near HObby airport would be the only location for a world class garden......When these things can be contemplated and acted upon Houston will have a city.

Houston is forever poised on the cusp of doing great things and setting great examples. If only it would just take that opportunity and RUN WITH IT.


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