The Sustainable Cities Initiative (SCI) at the University of Oregon addresses sustainability issues across all scales, from regional concerns to the individual building. Its fundamental premise is that creating the sustainable city cannot happen through the efforts of a single discipline; accordingly, SCI is grounded in a cross-disciplinary approach to solving community sustainability issues. Its work connects student passion, faculty experience, and community needs to produce innovative, tangible solutions for the creation of a sustainable society.
SCI’s focus includes sharing the collective expertise of national (and international) authorities on the subject of livability policy and design with outside scholars, policymakers, community leaders, and project partners. Toward this end, SCI attracts and engages Experts in Residence to the University of Oregon. During three commitment-packed days, the experts interact with students and faculty in the classroom, conduct workshops for private and public sector organizations throughout Oregon, and lecture publicly.
A fixture on the Experts in Residence schedule each year has been an intimate lunch gathering at the office of Rowell Brokaw Architects involving a select group of individuals. This group gathers because of its mutual interest in the work of the Sustainable Cities Initiative and SCI’s relevance to topical developments in the Eugene-Springfield area. Kaarin Knudsen of RBA has invited me to join the past two lunches(1); I’m honored to be counted among a group this past Tuesday that included the following august list:
- Anne Delaney – Principal, Bergsund Delaney Architecture & Planning
- Teri Harding – Senior Planner, City of Eugene
- Robin Hostick – Director, City of Eugene Planning
- Rob Inerfeld – Transportation Planning Manager, City of Eugene
- Stephanie Jennings – Grants Manager, Lane Livability Consortium
- Sarah Medary – Executive Director, City of Eugene Planning and Development
- Mark Miksis – Managing Partner, DeChase Miksis Development
- Hugh Prichard – Prichard Partners, Inc.
- Marc Schlossberg – Co-Director, Sustainable Cities Initiative
- Rob Zako – Executive Director, Better Eugene-Springfield Transit (BEST)
Prior to joining the NRDC, Shelley was a senior advisor and director of the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities at the Department of Housing and UrbanDevelopment. Before joining HUD, she served as President and CEO of Reconnecting America, where she pursued the reform of land use and transportation planning and policy with the goal of creating more sustainable and equitable development. And prior to that, Shelley served as executive director at the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU).
Shelley is also no stranger to Eugene; after all, her father is none other than Otto Poticha, FAIA. Shelley knows her home town as well as any of us. She was a featured speaker at the 2010 AIA Northwest & Pacific Region Conference here in Eugene, where she touched upon many of the themes that have been the hallmark of her remarkable career. These themes include her commitment to sustainability and acknowledging the undeniable relationship between the design of cities and the health of our planet. Cities are major contributors to our nation's carbon emissions and are highly vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change, especially for low-income and other disadvantaged residents. Meanwhile, cities are home to the highest rates of income inequality in the country, dragging down our shared economic strength and getting in the way of market-based solutions to climate change.
Shelley described her four years at HUD under the leadership of former secretary Shaun Donovan as “fantastic” and “exciting.” Secretary Donovan “raised the bar” and was committed to doing the right things while in office.(2) During his tenure, HUD began tackling problems in a more integrated fashion, breaking down silos between agencies, and building coalitions to help effect changes within a culture that had become obdurate and inflexible. But Washington D.C. is also hopelessly dysfunctional. With Secretary Donovan’s departure last year, Shelley left HUD for the NRDC with the promise of being able to more immediately make a difference.
If nothing else, Shelley is impatient. She wants to get things done. Environmental organizations like the NRDC are extremely effective at mobilizing grassroots activism. They’re savvy campaigners and advocates who know how to connect with people and what they care about. NRDC’s legal and political advocacy is a powerful tool Shelley plans to wield to great effect. Shelley envisions making contextual investments in impactful projects that are in step with the livability principles espoused by her Urban Solutions program. By “infiltrating” a big-time environmental organization, she’s found the perfect platform to sidestep the rhetoric, be a difference maker, and achieve her goal of bettering our planet by helping to make great cities.
Shelley’s work and leadership at the NRDC is entirely consistent with the goals of the Sustainable Cities Initiative. Fundamentally, the NRDC’s Urban Solutions program is targeting the creation of strong, just, and resilient communities. Shelley believes a means to achieving these goals is to provide a bridge between community-level solutions and full-scale implementation. This includes undertaking small, low-cost, and nimble actions as well as the big, high-profile projects. Ultimately, she hopes what everyone regards as pioneering today will become business-as-usual tomorrow.
During our lunch, Shelley noted various parts of Eugene are coming into their own at different tempos. Actions like the West Eugene extension of LTD’s EmX bus rapid transit service and the redevelopment of the EWEB riverfront property are examples of big projects poised to launch Eugene along a clear trajectory toward sustainability. Additionally, there are numerous, more incremental improvements throughout the city that are likewise contributing to our metro area’s emergence as an archetype for sustainable, mid-sized communities.
I can imagine “build it and they will come” may be one of Shelley’s mantras. For example, she regards the recent proliferation of privately owned student apartment complexes as welcome because it is contributing to the densification of our downtown and university neighborhoods. Despite their narrow market focus, these developments will in turn attract the services and amenities characteristic of vibrant, pedestrian-oriented zones. I’m less enamored than Shelley is by what I see as the yield of a student housing “bubble,” but I get where she’s coming from.
It is precisely the younger generations who will have the greatest say in how our cities evolve in the future. Shelley expects demographic changes will inevitably contribute to Eugene’s continued transformation. Marc Schlossberg pointed out that members of Gen Y aren’t necessarily averse to setting down roots where transformations are still nascent. Living immediately in a picture-perfect setting isn’t a necessity nor is it often possible for them to do so. Instead, they want to make their homes in cities that clearly possess “momentum” toward greater livability. They want to see changes that are values driven, values they are committed to and share in common.
Not insignificantly, today’s youngsters are less car-dependent than their elders. They’re more apt to use public transit, walk, ride their bikes, carpool, or use car-sharing services. They’re more supportive of earth-friendly initiatives, such as the development of a robust bicycle-riding infrastructure for their communities. More of them prefer the draw of the city as opposed to life in the suburbs. Additionally, more of today’s young adults are willing to live with and consume less, reversing decades-old trends.
The growing diversity of our population also signals an increasing willingness to consider different ways of thinking. There’s a greater tolerance for a multiplicity of ideas, as well as an openness to change. Shelley cited “tactical urbanism” (wherein plans may be implemented piecemeal or as a test-run prior to becoming permanent installations) as an approach to change that can thrive in such a climate. One present and clear opportunity for testing such a strategy is the City of Eugene’s plans for introducing bicycle-only lanes along South Willamette Street.
Unfortunately, the flipside of today’s diversity is pervasive inequity, both financial and social. The disparities are well-documented. The middle class is becoming an endangered species, with housing affordability being a huge issue. A big challenge for any North American city is addressing the needs of their homeless populations. Shelley did cite the city of San Diego’s achievements in this regard, which include a holistic approach to single-room occupancy housing developments with “wrap-around” support services. These include small SROs thoroughly integrated into and dispersed throughout the urban fabric. These projects are the product of community development block grants, formula funding, Housing & Human Services grants, and a breadth of other financial resources.
I’m cautiously optimistic about the future of our cities and Eugene in particular. I believe the necessary changes we’ve long hoped for are coming to fruition. Many of these have been simmering below the surface for a while but we’re rapidly approaching a tipping point when their widespread acceptance will boil over and be assured.
As we continue to develop a usable suite of best practices in livability policy and design, the value of the work being done by Shelley and the NRDC’s Urban Solutions Program will become evident. We’re especially fortunate to have the Sustainable Cities Initiative here at the University of Oregon, bringing to Eugene the important voices of Shelley and others like her.
(1) The 2014 Expert in Residence was Stellan Fryxell. Stellan is a partner at Tengbom Architects in Stockholm, and a leading urban designer and architect. He has worked on various projects in Sweden, most notably Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm.
(2) He left the position in July of 2014 to assume the role of Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Notably, Secretary Donovan is an architect, with a degree from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.