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Episode 62 guest Shelley Poticha

Shelley Poticha of the Natural Resources Defense Council works to create a just and equitable world and shares specific examples from Portland, Memphis, and San Antonio on how government and community leaders are working together to align the goals of the community.

Episode Transcript

Cohen: If we want to have a safe and green community to live in, we will have to remove the silos that get in the way of building trust between communities and their governments. My guest today, Shelley Poticha of the Natural Resources Defense Council, gives the recipe to do so starting right now on The Movement podcast. Let’s go.

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future. To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real. Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.

Cohen: My guest today is Shelley Poticha, the managing director of the Healthy People & Thriving Communities program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Previously she was a senior political appointee at the Obama administration’s Housing and Urban Development, and she also served as president and CEO of Reconnecting America. And going even further back she served as the executive director of the Congress for New Urbanism. And longtime listeners may recall that “Episode 006” guest, Robin Rather, specifically noted Shelley as someone she’s a big fan of, so you have big shoes to fill. So welcome to The Movement, Shelley.

Poticha: Thanks so much. I’m really glad to be here.

Cohen: Let’s start by introducing the NRDC and the Healthy People & Thriving Communities program. What are you trying to accomplish there?

Poticha: NRDC is one of the oldest, biggest, most powerful environmental advocacy organizations in the country. This year is our 50th anniversary. And interestingly it started as a pro bono legal team for environmental issues and was modeled off of the NAACP legal defense fund and put together almost at the same time. So really pretty—I don’t know—radical roots, really kind of defending our environment. And the kind of core, iconic laws in the country like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, NRDC was really at—like, we were the thought leaders for that.

Cohen: Wow.

Poticha: So coming into this organization—now it’s been six and a half years ago—I didn’t really understand how awesome and deep and powerful the environmental movement actually is. I had been working in transportation and land use and the nexus on urban policy, and this was like a whole nother area for me. So that’s kind of a longwinded way of getting to the Healthy People & Thriving Communities program where we are trying to put people at the center of the environmental movement, looking at environmental issues from the perspective of everyday Americans.

So how does turning on your tap and running water, like, how does that affect your health? What kind of air pollution and carbon emissions are we creating if we’re driving for every single trip versus walking and biking and taking transit? And how can we put all these issues together to think about the lives of people as kind of our proxy for whether we’re making a difference in the world itself? So we’re always trying to think about creating a just and equitable world that is also free from fossil fuels and where we are protected from changes that are definitely going to happen from global warming.

Cohen: Yeah, and I think that’s what’s so interesting about the work you’re doing, is that it’s so foundational, obviously. And so this actually came up in our local, Durham elections a couple months ago. You know, some of the candidates were given some grief, honestly, about their focus on what I call global issues versus local issues. And it just was interesting to kind of see that obviously if we don’t get these global issues right everything else is kind of moot. Right? So I think that’s a really interesting dynamic, and I love how the work that you’re doing is just so fundamentally related to every single thing we do; and I think that’s so, so important. So I appreciate that from that standpoint.

I want to build on something you said there though a little bit, which is that, you know, I think all of these things are related. Right? And so you can’t just talk about transportation in isolation; you can’t just talk about housing in isolation; you can’t just talk about food or health or anything like that. So I worry a little bit that some organizations, especially maybe the government to some degree, are looking at this in a more siloed approach. And so I guess I’m curious what your organization is doing to really help kind of cross some of those barriers and ensure that things aren’t siloed there.

Poticha: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think that we as a collective movement are actually doing ourselves a bit of a disservice by not consistently connecting our issues to the issues that, say, a mayor has to deal with. And mayors are thinking about the wellbeing of their community, their business leaders, the people who live in their communities. They run on these kind of platforms that are crosscutting. And there may be an example of, “Okay, in order to improve our economy and make sure that people can get to work in a timely way, we need to have this bond act to invest in transportation.” But it’s only when we start connecting the dots so that regular people can understand why we’re doing this that we start to actually build the power that is going to actually shift the dialogue at all scales, local, state, federal.

So one example of that is we are working on a very ambitious project called the American Cities Climate Challenge. We’re working with 25 U.S. mayors. It’s funded in part by the Bloomberg Philanthropies, and its goal really is to work with mayors who have made commitments to stay on track to meeting the Paris climate goals, help them implement policies that are also aligned with the issues that are relevant in their communities. Economic stability, reducing inequality, protecting people’s health, we’re finding over and over again those are the issues that mayors are most focused on.

So we’re now working with these mayors to help them design and implement policies particularly in the building sector and the transportation sector that deliver on their campaign promises, what the community is really interested in, and at the same time do the job of making sure that buildings are more energy efficient and we start getting off of fossil fuels in our transportation system. We’ve begun to make the shift while we’re also improving people’s lives.

Cohen: Wow. Yeah, and it seems like that’s a great way to kind of tie those together to kind of make sure that you’re getting at the global issue while at the same time solving that local issue. And perhaps that’s kind of that missing link that we were missing here locally when we were starting to see some of those challenges. So from your perspective I know that—you know, this was the question I asked Robin that really made her think of you. I’m curious; as you’re out there engaging—and, again, you’ve engaged across all these different sectors, whether it’s transportation, housing, environment, and so forth—who out there is really doing a great job of making those tough decisions to build that just and equitable future that we all want to live in? And specifically not only who is doing that, but specifically what are they doing that is so effective as a leader?

Poticha: There are so many places where this is popping up. And some of them are kind of the usual suspects like the City of Portland, which we always talk about as sort of a leading icon of progressive change. They have co-created a fund with community leaders that will bring $80 million a year to retrofit homes to be more energy efficient; because they didn’t have that source of funds, and when they worked with community leaders, when the mayor worked with community leaders, that really helped open that up.
Mayor Nuremberg of San Antonio, a really, really tricky place to bring up issues of climate change and inequality, he is absolutely determined to improve their transit system so that it actually connects the people from their homes to their jobs. And he has a very ambitious investment plan that he wants to get passed through a bond measure later this year. And along the way what he’s done that I think is so exciting is that he’s created a youth leadership group. He’s, like, thinking in very unusual ways about, “How do I talk to my community about the kinds of issues that I think we need and get people at all levels involved?”

And I guess that that’s kind of the place that I keep going to, which is I think at this time we do have a lot of knowledge about what are the kinds of interventions that can happen in communities, whether it’s bike lanes or infill housing or other kinds of programs; but we need to, like, strengthen the community engagement skills. We have to do a much better job of communicating with people to help them see this is actually a win-win. So the places where I think there’s really progress are the places where the leaders are focusing on building support in a community for the changes. That’s what’s going to help us at this moment kind of move to a greener future.

Cohen: So is that a top-down kind of thing, or is that a bottoms-up? You know, because I love that example of San Antonio, especially compared to Portland. Not to pick on Portland; I love Portland, but Portland kind of feels like it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy at this point. Right? You’ve got enough people there and enough people move there because of the good things that have happened there that you kind of build that. San Antonio, not as much; right? So I’m kind of curious about that particular example with Mayor Nuremberg, if that’s being driven by the community and he’s just tapping into that or if he is kind of helping to lead that, again, with the—I would imagine have to be a fairly soft touch because you can’t really force those things kind of down on the people. They really have to want that.

Poticha: This is a really, really important question because I think the top-down ways don’t consistently work. And people don’t want to be forced into stuff they don’t want to do. And the bottom-up ways need to have, say, a city leader that they can shake hands with and actually get something done. And so I think that what the mayor in San Antonio is doing is that he’s sort of creating the venues or the tables where they can talk to each other and shake hands and come and shape what he brings into law and activities at the city level but are deeply informed by community leaders who are likeminded.

I think that this is something that I’m seeing all over the country. Like, I’m working in Memphis, Tennessee right now; and the grassroots interest in finding ways to reinvest in the center city and make sure that people who have lived there for generations don’t get kicked out because it’s too expensive to live there once the neighborhood improves—the grassroots interest in this is huge. But the trust with local government is pretty weak, and so we’ve been doing trainings, like, “How do you talk to your councilperson? How do we find of way of getting into the mayor and talking to the mayor in ways that there’s alignment between community interests and leadership’s interests?” So it’s the handshake that is really the place where we need to strengthen.

Cohen: I like that example too, because the word I heard you say there was “trust.” And I do think that that is often what gets in the way of these situations, whether that’s the public trusting their leaders to put the interest of the public forward or also sometimes the leaders trusting the people as well and trusting that, you know, if we make some of these tough decisions, especially ones that are more longer-term in nature, that you’ll continue to support some of the other things that we’re doing to kind of advance that agenda, recognizing that it may not—you know, when you’re making a cake it looks messy for a while, and then you have a cake at the end. So, you know, you can’t judge a cake halfway done.

So it seems like that’s a critical piece there to make sure you have that trust. So I think that’s a really nice kind of way to frame that. So I think building on this concept of trust and community engagement, I’m curious about other tactical things that you have seen or even that you haven’t seen but you really want to see that our audience of elected officials and local administrations and advocates could do in their communities tomorrow to help advance us towards that cleaner and safer world that you’re certainly helping to build there at NRDC.

Poticha: Yeah, that’s a really great question. And I think that often if we come from more of a governmental space, you know, you’re there to make big change happen in a fairly short amount of time. And that’s hard to do if you’re also trying to build trust with communities. And maybe just going back to Memphis; I’ve been watching this really interesting experiment. So think about those big, old-fashioned boulevard streets that have a median that goes right down the middle and, you know, maybe it used to have trees on it or grass and then the cars go on the outside. Well, Memphis is a city that was built around those boulevard streets, but over the last probably 40 years they’ve been really neglected. And so the North Memphis community kind of came together—it was actually a bunch of young students from the University of Memphis—kind of found a little shack, and they turned it into a community design center. And they started working, just having happening and events in this little kind of intersection really and started experimenting with just what we call tactical urbanism, just painting on the street and putting chairs out in the median and having people come through and talk about it. And they have come together as a community, very bottoms-up with this, like, idea for change that they embrace.

And so now the city leaders are seeing, “Oh. These guys actually do have a good beat on what is going on in the community. Why don’t we actually invest in this little, rump group of youth that have created this design center? And let’s help them get to the next level.” So now they have a little bit of money to hire an engineer who could actually figure out how to implement this and cost out the bigger effort. And they’re now getting that work done with the hope that it becomes put onto the capital improvement program for the city and work with city leaders to do this.

So that took kind of trust by city leaders to say, “Yeah. It’s okay. You can play around here. We’re not going to send the cops out and shut you down,” and really listening and finding those kind of small pots of money that just keep a project going. And I think that that sounds really small; that sounds like, “How are we going to take on the world’s problems, if we’re just doing one intersection at a time?” But I have this belief that once you get some small wins then you’re able to work on the bigger change. But if you skip that step you often end up in these confrontational spaces.

Cohen: Yeah. That recalls, you know, Jan Gehl’s, “Something happened, something happened, something happened.” And so that makes me want to, like, go back and really almost from a—it almost makes me wonder, you know, at an individual level if there’s, like, an individual, for lack of a better word, spark—right—that combined with maybe this other individual with complimentary skillsets or interests, you know, and then all of a sudden it’s like then you’ve got a little group of a couple people, and then that kind of builds from there. And how, like you said, maybe you start at that intersection, and then the city kind of comes in, and then they’re like, “We want to take this, and we want to replicate this throughout the city,” and then all of a sudden that little spark has really, really grown. So I love that visual of thinking about it in that way. That’s really—that’s a great perspective there. Where can our audience learn more about you and the work you’re doing at NRDC? What would be the best place for them to find out more?

Poticha: Oh. Well, all my stuff is at And you can look up experts, and you can find all the blogs that I’ve written about. You can also look up different topic areas. So we’ve organized just slews of information on tools and experiments and ideas by topic area, so that’s a place to go.

Cohen: Excellent. Well, that is an amazing resource, 50 years of environmental activism that is impacting not only transportation and housing and food and health and the environment at large, so. Well, Shelley, thank you so much for joining me today. This is really great to get this perspective and to learn some of these specific examples that you’ve seen in Portland and San Antonio and Memphis to help communities build that more equitable and just mobility and environment they want to live in. Thank you.

Poticha: Thank you so much. This has been great.

F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.