Harriet Tregoning: Trailblazer in the Rise of Smart Growth and Alternative Transportation

Women in Planning Series: Part III

by Daniel Rosen, AICP, Resource Conservation Planner  with Kristen E. Humphrey, MLA, Local Assistance and Training Planner 

Photo courtesy of Melissa Demple

It is fitting that yet another of the planners we have been asked by readers to profile in this series on female planners in Maryland, also served as Secretary of the Maryland Department of Planning. 

Harriet Tregoning was appointed in 2000, and later became Maryland’s first Special Secretary for Smart Growth. One of the accomplishments of her tenure involved siting a new branch of the University of Maryland in Washington County. 

The original plan called for building on farmland near the highway, a location that would require students, faculty, and visitors to the campus to drive to get there and would provide little benefit to the struggling city of nearby Hagerstown. Tregoning credits Planning’s compelling data visualizations, which showed where the University would draw its population from, as critical to the decision to ultimately locate the new campus in downtown Hagerstown instead. As a result, the project has filled once-empty storefronts and brought people and their dollars back to town, contributing to revitalization of the city’s center. 

Although her tenure at Planning was brief, Tregoning’s leadership helped bring global recognition to Maryland’s Smart Growth Initiative, which became fully evident when the initiative received a Harvard University Kennedy School Innovations in American in Government Award.

She made an equally strong impression on her colleagues at Planning: as one of them, I found her to be astute and dedicated to good planning. She also possessed the uncommon ability to stick to her principles while remaining on cordial terms with people who disagreed with her. This skill would undoubtedly serve her well later in her career as Director of Planning for Washington, D.C. (2007-2014), a city known for its tough politics and savvy customer base. 

Tregoning had fallen in love with Washington D.C. during a high school visit and vowed to live there one day, a dream she first fulfilled in 1989, working on national waste-policy at EPA headquarters. While at the EPA, she first adopted smart-growth principles after joining President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development in 1994 and learned about creating walkable town centers in the nation’s communities.

According to Washingtonian Magazine, Tregoning then helped to start the Smart Growth Network, “a collection of private and public groups, [in order] to work out the movement’s basic principles.”1  Planning currently partners with EPA to maintain the Network’s smartgrowth.org website and sponsors a series of webinars on smart growth related topics. 

Her work in this arena helped to create both a national movement and a coalition of activists that in 2000 resulted in Smart Growth America, a national transportation and land use non-profit (coincidently, her husband, Geoff Anderson, was to become the organization’s CEO in 2008-2018). Her accomplishments were recognized when she was named a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design just a few years later in 2003-2004. 

Later, when Adrian M. Fenty became the mayor of Washington, D.C. in 2007, he appointed Tregoning as Planning Director. She remained to serve the next mayor, Vincent C. Gray, as well. She formed a fruitful relationship with a series of D.C. transportation directors, including Gabe Klein, who helped her advance a vision of expanding public and alternative transportation options, such as walking, and especially biking—she played a lead role in developing what was then the nation’s largest bike share program—in our 200-year-old capital city.2  

Automobile owners were often irate, however, and she faced even more opposition in her attempts to change the federal limitations on building heights. As she told Washingtonian Magazine when she was planning director, “I’m used to getting yelled at at least once a day.”3 (Perhaps she worked off some of the stress on her bicycle, which she was often seen riding around town!) 

In 2013, after a five-year effort, Tregoning marked another major achievement: Washington’s first zoning code overhaul in 55 years.4 She also won a battle to keep the Historic Preservation Office in her department after it was drawing criticism for doing its job “too well.”5  

After seven years as Washington’s director of planning, she left in 2014 to take a position at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Her sendoff included many tributes; a Washington Post article at the time quotes Gwen Wright, Director of Planning in Montgomery County: “Tregoning,” she said, was “one of our most creative and forward-thinking public servants.”5  

“I’ve lived in the District of Columbia since 1987, and I would say that the changes in the last few years, while Harriet has been planning director, have been nothing short of miraculous,” Wright went on to say. “There are parts of the city that have been utterly transformed.”6 

At HUD, Tregoning oversaw the Office of Community Planning and Development, which had a budget of $6 billion and 40 field offices. She managed some of the largest grant programs at HUD, including the Community Development Block Grant Program, The Home Investments Partnerships program, HOME for short (the largest federal block grant to state and local governments designed exclusively to create affordable housing for low-income households), and homelessness programs. She also focused on energy efficiency in buildings and increasing community resilience to climate change.  

Tregoning also created a first-of-its-kind $1 billion National Disaster Resilience Competition while at HUD, which, according to a profile in The Atlantic, asked eligible applicants (including 48 states and many individual communities), “to propose ‘resilience-enhancing’ recovery projects in order to qualify for special disaster-relief funds.”7 The winning states and communities brought $5 billion and 220 partnerships to match the $1 billion in federal dollars, and created innovative place-making solutions that improved both their everyday quality of life as well as their resilience to potential future disasters.  

Presently, Tregoning is the Director of NUMO, the New Urban Mobility alliance, hosted by the World Resources Institute (WRI) Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. NUMO is an outgrowth of the Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities, which more than 200 companies, non-profits and governments have signed on to as a guiding vision for more sustainable, inclusive, prosperous, and resilient cities. 

Their website states: “NUMO is a new collaborative effort that aims to guide policymakers, the private sector and people toward a shared vision of cities and urban mobility.” This vision includes incorporating “ride-hailing, dockless bikes and scooters, and even autonomous vehicles into communities in ways that make those communities more affordable, more sustainable, more accessible, and more just.”8 

As always, Harriet Tregoning continues to blaze trails, using her abilities as a consummate planner to make our communities better places to live. 

[1] https://www.washingtonian.com/2013/11/01/change-agent-dcs-city-planner-harriet-tregoning/ 

[2]   Washington Post, February 7, 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/capitalbusiness/harriet-tregoning-dc-planner-leaves-for-hud/2014/02/07/de98a9ba-9027-11e3-b227-12a45d109e03_story.html 

     “Washington, D.C., launches the nations’s largest bike share program,” Grist, September 21, 2010. https://grist.org/article/2010-09-20-washington-d-c-launches-the-nations-largest-bike-share-program/ 

[3]  Ibid. 

[4]  Washington Post, July 3, 2013. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/mike-debonis/wp/2013/07/03/zoning-rewrite-after-five-years-nears-finish/ 

[5]   Washington Post, February 7, 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/capitalbusiness/harriet-tregoning-dc-planner-leaves-for-hud/2014/02/07/de98a9ba-9027-11e3-b227-12a45d109e03_story.html 

[6]   Ibid. 

[7]  The Atlantic, April 17, 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/04/harriet-tregoning-the-futurist/439593/ 

[8]  https://wrirosscities.org/profile/harriet-tregoning 

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