Kaid Benfield Archive


Five unsung heroes for the earth!

Kaid Benfield

Posted April 22, 2009 at 1:30PM

, , , , , , , ,

Today is Earth Day 2009, and I would like to salute a few friends and fellow travelers whose names are far from well-known but whose dedicated, behind-the-scenes work on behalf of our planet deserves to be recognized.   I'll put it this way:  if you know two or more of these folks, chances are that you are also doing some good work in the field of sustainable development and smart growth, because these heroes are virtually unknown elsewhere. 

These good folks neither seek nor garner publicity.  They just improve our cities, suburbs, and landscape so the rest of us can feel a little more confident that dedicated and talented people are looking out for our values.  Let's get right to them:

Jessica Cogan Millman is so in demand to help this or that needy smart growth cause with her considerable organizational and strategic skills that her resume resembles a virtual laundry list of land planning waystops (though that's hardly the right conclusion to draw):  Jessica with daughter CharlotteIn addition to her own firm, The Agora Group LLC, one must count the National Association of Local Government Environmental Professionals, LEED for Neighborhood Development, DC Coalition for Smarter Growth, DC Office of Planning, Smart Growth Alliance, and Smart Growth Leadership Institute, and really that's only in the last four or five years. 

Before that, she held various important state and federal government environmental positions, and really, she's not even out of her 30s yet.  Because we're great friends, I'm tempted to joke that Jessica has held all these positions in such a short time because no one can stand to work with her for long - but it's really because everyone would like her time, and Jessica likes being involved.  She has been underpaid, or not paid at all, in almost all of these. 

NRDC nominated her at the beginning to be part of LEED-ND and, when the time came four years later for the committee's initial leadership to yield to term limits, Jessica was everybody's first choice to become the new chair.  Everything she touches becomes a little or a lot better because of it.

I've written about Eliot Allen in this blog before.  We first met about a dozen years ago, introduced by Harriet Tregoning, then Jessica's boss at EPA's smart growth office.  EPA was looking to commission a study of whether smart-growth neighborhoods were delivering on their environmental promises, and she thought that NRDC and Eliot's firm, Criterion Planners, might make a good team to take it on.  Eliot leads a workshop (courtesy Criterion Planners)That project led Eliot and NRDC to produce a couple of studies comparing the environmental impacts of sprawl and smart neighborhoods in Sacramento and Nashville, and we have worked together in about five additional ways since.

There is a lot that I like about working with Eliot, professional reliability and integrity being near the top of the list.  Also, we complement each other well, since as a lawyer and policy wonk I am always thinking strategically and politically; as a first rate technical analyst, Eliot is always thinking about how things play out in the arcane world of land planning practitioners.  We need each other.  He is one of the country's very best at using Geographic Information Systems technology to produce sophisticated maps of environmental impacts (for instance, the visual representations of the distribution of carbon emissions in Portland featured here).  He believes strongly in sustainability, and helps municipal, corporate, and nonprofit clients get there.  My own work would likely be very different and less satisfying if it weren't for the opportunities I have to collaborate with him.

I've known Tim Frank for about the same amount of time as I have known Eliot.  Tim has been involved with the Sierra Club in California and nationally for the entire time, and he also counts the American Farmland Trust, Nature Conservancy, NRDC, and Good Jobs First among his public-interest consulting clients.  I believe our first encounter came in a phone call over federal brownfields legislation.  At the time, the environmental community was concerned about the public health impacts of industrial site cleanup and not much else.  TimThe prevailing sentiment was largely anti-development, a source of frustration to both of us, since we knew that having both good cleanup and good development on these sites was not only possible but essential to the cause of using urban revitalization to displace sprawl.

My relationship with Tim continued off and on for the next few years, when Tim was a tireless advocate within the Club for smart growth, working hard to demonstrate to his constituents that smartly located development was the key to solving a bevy of environmental problems, and that environmentalists needed to become more discerning in their evaluation of development proposals, supporting the good ones. 

Eventually Tim, too, joined our merry band working on LEED-ND, where he has been what I would call a principled pragmatist:  keeping his cool, compromising sometimes to move the issue forward, but always with his eye on the prize.  Tim has also been a strong advocate of affordable housing and building bridges to labor.  The vast majority of this difficult, behind-the-scenes work has been performed on a purely volunteer basis and, again our cause is the better for it.

David Dixon probably comes the closest on this list to being "sung" rather than "unsung."  I mean, the architect and principal-in-charge of the large planning practice at Boston's Goody, Clancy counts the Aga Khan among his clients.  His name appears on some books, which I really need to read.  David in New Orleans, one of the cities where he is leading a master plan (by: Frank Aymami)I already steal from his presentations, and he steals from mine, which should make it interesting when we do back-to-back presentations at the AIA convention in San Francisco in a couple of weeks.

What I like best about David isn't his immense talent, or his dedication to the cause of sustainability in both his practice and his volunteer work, but that he is the kind of guy who could be really full of himself and he isn't in the slightest.  He just does his work, almost incidentally spreading sustainability around the country and around the globe in the process, and befriending people along the way.  I feel honored to be among his friends.

Finally, all you need to know about why Daniel Hernandez is on this list is to read his passage in my post from yesterday.  This is someone who cares and who makes a difference.  Far from a wild-eyed idealist, Daniel is a developer who has mastered the world of financing complex, large-scale redevelopment projects, and who incorporates progressive project design, environmental design, and community planning approaches into urban revitalization.  As a result, he has been associated with some of the country's best smart-growth projects, all of which include substantial affordability and inclusiveness. 

In addition to his current, primary position at Jonathan Rose Companies, Daniel's resume includes teaching architecture and planning, a stint at his own firm, Topology, and another as executive director of San Francisco's Mission Housing, one of the nation's leading non-profit affordable housing development corporations.  Like Jessica and Tim, Daniel also has served as one of the guiding forces behind LEED-ND, where he has always been an eloquent voice for assuring that the underprivileged are accommodated in smart growth.  Daniel is also sufficiently unassuming that it's just about impossible to find a photo of him online.

There are people in this world of environmental advocacy and smart growth who are self-promoters.  There are people who are pretenders, too, advocating smart growth in public but seeking new ways to exploit the landscape when behind closed doors.  This is to be expected, I guess, though it always disappoints me.  But there are also tireless people who just do their work, almost entirely behind the scenes, always guided by conscience, not self-interest, and asking nothing in return.  These are five of them, and our earth is better for their efforts.