Why Obama's New Pick for the EPA Will Be Good for Cities

Gina McCarthy has a strong record on regulating pollutants. But she also gets smart growth.

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Reuters

President Obama yesterday nominated Gina McCarthy to be the next head of the Environmental Protection Agency as Lisa Jackson prepares to step down. Until now, McCarthy has lead the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, an obscure-sounding position from which she’s been instrumental in creating new federal rules regulating soot and mercury emissions from power plants. But her name may ring a bell for smart-growth advocates thanks to an even earlier – and particularly relevant – chapter in her career.

McCarthy, a Boston native, was among the brain trust behind the innovative Office of Commonwealth Development in Massachusetts under then-Governor Mitt Romney. That office made smart growth a central pillar of the state’s environmental policy a decade ago (it also prioritized funding to local communities using that metric), and it pioneered the kind of inter-agency collaboration that was later adopted by the Obama Administration in the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities.

This Massachusetts legacy famously tarred Romney’s reputation with hardline conservatives during the presidential election (the candidate himself backtracked on his environmental record with a presidential run in sight). Revisiting this history, Mother Jones profiled McCarthy during the campaign under this cheeky headline: “Meet Romney’s – and Obama’s – Climate Change Adviser.”

Now as McCarthy prepares to take on an even more prominent role, her earlier involvement with the Massachusetts Office of Commonwealth Development (and her subsequent work in the state of Connecticut) tells us two things about her: Critics in Congress may have an awkward time fighting the nomination of a woman who’s earned her expertise under Republican governors. And McCarthy clearly grasps that environmental policy at any level is inseparable from issues of land use.

Most of the coverage of her appointment so far has focused on what role she could play in regulating carbon emissions and other forms of pollution. But McCarthy has long understood – as traditional environmental advocacy groups are now growing to appreciate as well – that how we develop and design cities matters crucially as well.

"The regulation of carbon might grab more headlines, and better fuel standards for cars or more electric cars are important, too,” says Armando Carbonell, a senior fellow at the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, “but a big, unheralded piece of the climate change response has to do with land use – green buildings, livable cities, metro regions and how they function in terms of regional transit and transit-oriented development.”

McCarthy comes straight out of that philosophy. Carbonell hosts the annual New England Smart Growth Leadership Forum, which McCarthy has been part of, and he has known her for years through her work in Massachusetts and Connecticut. For outsiders, the focus on cities in environmental policy may be counter-intuitive, Carbonell adds, but it’s very likely to be a foundational element of a McCarthy-led EPA.

Top image of Gina McCarthy, standing between President Obama and Department of Energy nominee Ernest Moniz: Larry Downing/Reuters

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.