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.