Inquisitive Mind: an interview with Harriet Tregoning

Harriet TregoningLOEBlogger Margaret Scott’s visit with Harriet Tregoning this summer in Washington, DC, yields a profile of a characteristically curious and rigorous thinker, committed to improving communities and optimistic about making it happen.

Harriet Tregoning is full of questions. A Loeb Fellow from 2004, she has worked at multiple levels of government throughout her career. In each leadership position, she has posed a simple yet fundamental question: “How are our neighborhoods doing?”

From her current post at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, where she began in early 2014 as director of the Office of Economic Resilience, Tregoning is using her multi-layered experience for a renewed vision of how federal government can support stronger neighborhoods across the nation. Tregoning was formerly director of Development, Community, and Environment for the Environmental Protection Agency, the secretary of Planning for the State of Maryland, and most recently, planning director for 7 years in DC, a city she still happily calls home.

She values her varied experience and appreciates the understanding she has gained about the effect of rules, the role of municipal governance, and the impediments faced by policymakers and leaders at the local level. Her background is in engineering, and the methodical thinking of that discipline emerges in her work. She is careful to consider the “building blocks” that construct resilient neighborhoods and regions and constantly outlines metrics and performance standards for achieving desired goals.

Even in striving for metrics and standards, Tregoning recognizes that federal government has long struggled with this balance, a reality she is eager to address in the newest initiative under her stewardship, the National Disaster Resilience Competition. The Resilience competition is largely built from the success of Rebuild by Design, focused on regional Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts, in which a number of Loeb and GSD alumni and faculty participated. Though Resilience eligibility is designated for local and state governments with previously declared federal disasters, the grantmaking is structured to encourage alignment between immediate disaster recovery efforts and long term resiliency planning, a decidedly new approach.

In many ways, Tregoning’s career has been a series of new approaches. This is reflective of her willingness to doggedly ask questions and broaden the horizons of her work. Her interest in cities and planning initially came about in a moment of “literal epiphany,” when she attended a meeting of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development and Transportation while at EPA during the Clinton administration. The discussion inspired a shift in perspective that led her to more closely examine the “landscape” of her work, both literal and figurative. Tregoning began to value the importance of land use, particularly as an important opportunity for regulating pollution. She petitioned to create a new division in the Development, Community, and Environment office. This proved a critical step toward opening up the landscape of environmental protection policy, beginning with the fundamental building block of land use in neighborhoods.

Tregoning feels that considering cities in a more nuanced way helped make sense of her early experiences and observations of the disconnected St. Louis suburbs where she grew up as well as the urban challenges in the District of Colombia, her adopted home. Tregoning finds urban planning, development and design “endlessly fascinating,” and a natural intersection of expert professionals and community members with unique intuition, opinions, and inherent value in the planning process.

For Tregoning, this diversity of perspectives continued to come together during her Loeb Fellowship in 2004, where she immersed herself fully in the experience. Tregoning encourages the new class of Fellows to “Take it all in! I think I took 19 classes.”

At the same time, she supports finding a balance and identifying key goals to accomplish during the Fellowship. Among them: “Identify at least one goal for yourself and one contribution to give back to the Fellowship.” Tregoning’s gift to the Fellowship was a drawing class organized for the Loebs, a course that continues at the GSD today. Tregoning loved the need to “slow down” while drawing and deeply appreciated the wisdom of “drawing as seeing.” If she ever retires, she remarks that she will “draw every single day.” Until then, we’re sure to find her hard at work, asking the right questions for neighborhoods across the country.

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