A career in exemplary comprehensive resilience planning can offer guidance to our region in recovery.

On Wednesday February 21, Harriet Tregoning will speak at the Kinder Institute Forum at the MFAH Brown Auditorium about community disaster recovery and resilience. 

Over the course of several decades, Harriet Tregoning’s career has placed her at the crux of debates around resilience, sustainability and disaster recovery across a range of platforms and jurisdictions. Her rise has been steady and she is recognized as operating at the cutting edge of resiliency practice, pushing forward-thinking planning.

“Honestly not a lot of people are thinking about the future,” Tregoning said in an interview with Governing about planning as managing change, from small code changes to large-scale technological transformations like driverless cars. “They’re mostly looking at the past. They’re not really even looking at the trends in some cases. So I think that’s a primary obligation for people who are leading our cities today.”

As the Houston region continues exploring how best to prepare for inevitable future floods, hearing the experiences of leaders in the field remains a critical step of moving the conversation forward.

Looking back at Tregoning’s career can offer us a number of important lessons about how to cultivate a culture of resilience. Houston must expand and codify development strategies that will keep our city grow inclusively and safely. Tregoning has a wide range of experience but each major phase of her career offers important lessons for our policymakers and residents to consider moving forward.

Resilient communities protect people by protecting the environment.

In the 1980s Tregoning served in a variety of capacities with the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Department of Health Services as an environmental engineer working on toxic substances control, resource conservation and hazardous waste management. In this capacity, she was exposed to the intersection of environmental and community development policy, shifting to the Director of Development for the Community and Environment Division at the Policy Office of the EPA.

Resilient communities frame the issues effectively—with clear strategies and goals—to get buy-in from residents, government agencies and private sector leaders. 

Furthering this work, she chaired the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the President’s Council on Sustainable Development from 1995 to 1997. Founded in 1993 by the Clinton administration, the Council included goals around public health, economic development, equity, conservation, institutional and corporate responsibility, civic engagement, access to quality education and others. Sustainable development practitioners maintain that communities must address all the above issues to properly prepare for future disasters and experience inclusive growth.

Tregoning continued this work on the White House Livable Communities Task Force starting in 1999. An initiative of Vice President Al Gore, the Task Force explored the challenges of urban and suburban growth, and the role the federal government could play in supporting livability strategies. Compiled in a 2000 report, these strategies built on the goals of sustainable development—transit access, improved schools, and public safety, open space preservation and economic development.

Next, Maryland Governor Parris Glendening elevated the planning office to a state agency with Tregoning as director. Glendening tasked her with implementing his smart growth initiatives to slow suburban sprawl and address traffic and congestion. Two years later Tregoning joined the Governor’s cabinet under the title Special Secretary of Smart Growth.

This initiative, described in John W. Frece’s Sprawl and Politics, incorporated a scoring system which asked questions about mixed use, mixed housing types, transit availability and walkability—many of the goals which leaders in Houston tout as critical for competing against other cities for new jobs in the knowledge economy and other growth sectors.

Resilient communities write and enforce policies and regulations to ensure equity.

As a member of Maryland’s Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities in 2001, she worked to understand how laws, policies and regulations concentrated the risks and harms of environmental hazards in communities of color, low-income areas and other historically marginalized populations. Communities cannot achieve full resilience without taking measures to prevent these inequities.

After natural disasters, resilient communities come back new and improved. They do not just rebuild what they had before. 

Tregoning took part in the Rebuild La Plata Task Force following Maryland’s devastating tornadoes in 2002. In this capacity she demonstrated how to incorporate comprehensive planning into the disaster recovery process. She and others worked with local officials in La Plata and Charles County to not just bring the town back to where it was before the storm, but to plan a vibrant business and residential district downtown, with a new town square and pedestrian-oriented design. Through these actions, the Task Force showed that local leaders can coordinate with state officials to rebuild more beautiful and resilient communities.

Resilient communities make strategies that address environmental sustainability, quality of life and economic opportunity in concert. 

From 2007 to 2014, Tregoning served as the Director of Planning in Washington DC. Tregoning’s Office of Planning worked across agencies to steer the city’s approach to transit, parking, energy use, economic strategy and historic preservation working across agency. By partnering closely with other city departments and laying out a bold vision, she positioned herself as one of the most creative and forward-thinking public servants in the field.

By so successfully guiding D.C. through the stages of livability, she encouraged other cities in the region to follow suit, strengthening the role of the Council of Governments as a regional planning body. She promoted policies and planning practices to allow for greater density and new development along proposed transit corridors. In terms of sustainability and resilience, the Sustainable D.C. project comprehensively addressed environmental protections, energy efficiency, waste management and water conservation.

Tregoning’s career culminated in her appointment as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Office of Community Planning and Development at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). She helped design and implement a $1 billion National Disaster Resilience Competition, the first of its kind. In this role, she was able to work with state, regional, and local agencies to move toward comprehensive resilience strategies. Under her direction, HUD embdedded comprehensive planning into the program, urging proposals to include strategies that address climate change, economic prosperity, placemaking, equity, fiscal stability, expansion of transportation options and provision of affordable housing.

Lessons for the Houston region

Here in Houston, each of these lessons rings true.

“All you have to experience is one of these increasingly frequent massive disasters to cause you to check some of the assumptions you had going in,” Tregoning told the Washington Post after Hurricane Harvey.

We have academics and policy makers making plans, releasing reports and studying the issues. We have community groups taking care of their own, providing volunteers and other resources. We have folks who are unnerved that their neighbors and friends have experienced catastrophic flooding year after year. We also have planned but unfunded flood infrastructure improvements, more than 100,000 homes in floodplains, developers still planning and constructing in risky areas and a reliance on federal and state funding that may never come.

To bridge these disparate realities, we absolutely must bring this array of voices and interests together to create a resilience plan that touches on all of these facets and begin to seriously rethink what kind of city and region we want to become.

Grant Patterson is a staff researcher with the Kinder Institute’s Development, Transportation and Placemaking program.