It's the kind of high-powered, high-impact post Tregoning has been preparing for her entire career. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, she started taking college classes at Washington University as a high school senior. She graduated early with a degree in engineering and was studying at the law school by the time she was 20. Her first job out of school was working on Superfund policy at the Environmental Protection Agency, but her focus quickly shifted to land use. "I realized that, at the EPA, I was basically swabbing the deck of the Titanic," Tregoning recalls. "Worrying about vanishingly small amounts of pollution coming out of smokestacks and tailpipes, when the entire landscape was being transformed." She would spend 17 years at the agency, eventually serving as director of development, community, and environment.
Following her stint at EPA, Tregoning served as Maryland's secretary of planning and then as the state's first special secretary for smart growth—a planning theory that stresses building walkable, sustainable neighborhoods. Former Gov. Parris Glendening still raves about her. "I needed somebody tough, because we were going to try to break down some of the traditional, old ways of doing things," he recalls. "She was not in my office talking for more than 15 minutes when I knew that she was the person." After he recruited Tregoning, she turned around and recruited him to work for the advocacy group Smart Growth America, an organization she helped launch.
Tregoning then spent seven years at D.C.'s Office of Planning, where she made waves in her quest to make the city more walkable, bikeable, and sustainable, collaborating with her transportation colleagues to bring the nation's largest bike-sharing program to the district under Mayor Fenty. Fenty's successor, Vincent Gray, kept her on, although some district residents were less enamored of her than the mayor's office was. "The thing people sometimes forget about Harriet is, she's viewed as a hero in the smart-growth movement, but a lot of D.C. residents really didn't like her," says Jonathan O'Connell, who followed her work for years as The Washington Post's land-use and development correspondent. Her detractors, whom O'Connell describes as mostly NIMBYs (an acronym for "not in my backyard" and a pejorative term for residents opposing any new developments near them), accused Tregoning of high-handedness and of imposing her will on the city's zoning code, which was rewritten for the first time in half a century.
"No plan in D.C. is self-implementing," she says in response, noting that proposals must be adopted by the City Council, an elected body, and that city zoning laws specifically must be adopted by the Zoning Commission. "In general, things I did in the District of Columbia were designed to give people more, not fewer, choices," she says.