Casey Studhalter — Neighborhood Development
My Career Journey as a Planner
I've worked at the U.S. Green Building Council for seven years, with the last five focused almost exclusively on the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system. In my current role at USGBC I split my time between project-facing work and programmatic or technical work. For the past five years I have managed our Affordable Green Neighborhoods grant program, which aims to build capacity among the developers of affordable housing to incorporate best practices in sustainability and to achieve certification under LEED ND.
Funded by the Bank of America Foundation, the program allows us to provide financial and technical assistance to project teams across the country committed to achieving LEED ND certification. My favorite part of my work is the opportunity to work one-on-one with these project teams helping to implement this global standard for best practices in their community-serving project. One component of the grant award is a two-day charrette which I facilitate along with colleagues and regional experts.
The programmatic side of my work has lately been focused on helping to expand our core competency into new applications. USGBC recently launched the LEED for Cities and LEED for Communities program, and I've been helping to develop technical and administrative resources to support that new program. As the number of related rating systems has proliferated, both those supported by USGBC and GBCI and those independently developed, I've recently helped to identify the areas of overlap with LEED ND to better help users identify the appropriate tool for their needs.
While the organization as a whole has approximately 150-200 staff, the team focused on the LEED rating systems is relatively small. Within that, only a few of us are focused exclusively on LEED ND or LEED for Cities. Our greatest resource are our volunteers on our technical committees who help to create and guide the rating system criteria. Much of what USGBC does is guided from the bottom up by volunteer experts in their field. When challenging or nuanced questions come up from project teams, they are presented to the relevant Technical Advisory Group (TAG) for discussion. Being able to tap the expertise of some of the best planners, designers and professionals in their fields is an amazing resource and rewarding to be a part of.
LEED ND is a voluntary leadership standard for sustainable planning and design at the neighborhood scale. It is applicable to projects ranging from two buildings to 1,500 acres, can be applied across the globe, and can be utilized by projects at any phase in the development cycle. USGBC and our sister organization GBCI (Green Business Certification Inc.) serve as the third-party assessor, independently verifying that projects have in fact met the sustainability goals identified by a committee of industry experts and embodied in the rating system. The program addresses issues of smart growth, urban design with a focus on walkability and transportation access, and green infrastructure and buildings.
Is your career based on considered choices you planned or has it unfolded as part of a process you didn't necessarily foresee?
By pursuing my passions and working to better equip myself along the way as my interests have evolved, I think that I have done my best to help bring me to a place where I am working on issues that are important to me in a capacity that suits my strengths. I certainly didn't graduate from high school and see myself as a planner nor did I see myself in this particular role graduating from college, but it makes perfect sense looking back on it retrospectively. I think career paths are unlikely to be charted out a decade in advance and rarely linear. I see it as more like rafting a river — you prepare yourself as best you can, stay aware of opportunities and changes around you, make time to check your progress, and plan your route ahead, but the influence of unforeseen circumstances are not be underestimated.
One of the things that drew me to the U.S. Green Building Council is that the LEED rating system is a perfect combination of my background in marketing and urban planning. By establishing an independently verified, third-party standard that defines leadership in the built environment, we have created a market where businesses can do well by doing good. With a background in both business and planning, I think I am well equipped to understand two different, occasionally opposing, perspectives.
You have an undergraduate degree in business administration and marketing, how did you end up going for a master's in Urban and Regional Planning?
As an undergraduate, I was originally drawn to psychology out of a desire to understand how people think and how our societies function. The study of marketing drew me in as a practical application of psychology and economics felt like the dominant framework that helped shape modern society. I have always had a passion for environmental conservation and hoped to be able to harness my education in business administration to support positive change in the world. I think the world would be a better place if non-profits had an infusion of business acumen while the for-profit world was more mission driven.
After some time spent living abroad and exploring a career in the travel industry, I became drawn to the impact that the built environment has on our quality of life and the various forms that it takes throughout the world. A job opportunity managing transportation demand management outreach for a small organization in Seattle cemented that interest. Through that position, I was introduced to the myriad of factors that influence transportation choices and the variety of levers available to help inform them. The work was rewarding, the results readily visible and I learned a great deal about local transportation policy and services, but I wanted to better understand the larger land-use planning process and to have the chance to make a bigger impact.
After relocating to Washington, D.C., I started a position at the U.S. Green Building Council working in the membership team because it offered a chance to immerse myself in the world of green buildings while building on my marketing background. At that time, USGBC had just launched the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system and I was in regular contact with the program director to learn as much as possible about the new program applying the success of LEED certification in the commercial office space to the realm of neighborhood planning and design. While working full-time, I enrolled in a Master in Urban and Regional Planning program at Virginia Tech's National Capital Region campus in Alexandria. Part way through the program, my persistence paid off and I moved over to focus on LEED ND full-time. While working full-time and pursuing a master's degree in the evening was one of the hardest things that I have done, it was incredibly rewarding to apply my academic studies on a daily basis in my work. Studying planning in the nation's capital was also a great experience because it affords a chance to experience both the national and local elements of planning simultaneously while contrasting a region with such rich history and a rapid pace of redevelopment and gentrification pressures.
What skills and personality traits lend themselves to success in your field?
Problem-solving, critical thinking, strong communication skills, the ability to think creatively and a passion for sustainability have all proven to be essential skills in my role.
What has been the best surprise in your career?
The fantastic people that I have had the chance to work with have been the biggest surprise. I'm not sure what it is about mission-driven, sustainability-minded, built environment practitioners but I have been incredibly lucky to find myself surrounded by wonderful, intelligent people all working to make a difference.
Looking back, what might you do differently?
It would be unfair to think that maybe I should have studied something else in college or to have done something differently in the past as I believe our collection of life experiences makes us who we are today. If anything, I could have explored my budding interest in urban planning earlier. Career changes are daunting and I debated for some time how to best make my move into urban planning. My first planning job doing TDM outreach for a small non-profit organization in Seattle was such a great experience that I can only wish that I had found it earlier.
What do you enjoy most about your current role?
My favorite part of my current role working on LEED ND at the U.S. Green Building Council is helping development projects implement the rating system in their work. Translating this global standard for best practices in sustainable planning and development into action that fits the practical realities of the project is a very satisfying exercise in problem solving. While we do not serve as project consultants per se, my colleague and I do have opportunities to work with projects to answer in-depth questions about specific elements or requirements as they pertain to their project. Through our Affordable Green Neighborhoods grant program that I have managed for the past five years, I have even greater opportunity to help developers of affordable housing implement the rating system.
I also really enjoy the opportunity to work with my colleagues and technical expert volunteers to keep the LEED rating system up to date and maintain its status as a leadership standard. We regularly have the opportunity to discuss interpretations of the rating system's elements, evaluate new credits and develop new programs or rating systems. In these instances, I really enjoy the chance to think creatively about best practices in the field, research alternatives, participate in a group vetting process with industry leaders and explore potential opportunities and pitfalls of implementation. How could this credit or program actually affect change? Are there ways to mitigate any unintended consequences? How do best practices differ across the globe?
How has your perception of planning changed since you first entered the field?
My definition of urban planning has continued to broaden since my first day in graduate school. It seems to me that the classic image of an urban planner being someone in a local government zoning office is now the exception rather than the rule. As urban centers see population return, resource constraints and sustainability become major concerns, and broader systems-level thinking gains traction, I see possible applications of urban planning as more diverse than ever before. I see more and more opportunities for urban planners in advocacy, policy work, and development at all scales.
Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration from the University of Washington and master's in Urban and Regional Planning from Virginia Tech.
SimCity, Sesame Street, Jane Jacobs, and Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck.
Managing outreach to commercial property managers and employers for Commute Seattle, a nonprofit transportation management association in Seattle.
What advice do you have for someone who hopes to find a job similar to yours?
Follow your passion and explore who is making a difference in that realm. Volunteer if you have the ability and get involved however possible. Accepting an alternative role may be the foot in the door necessary to gain experience in the field and could lead to your dream job. Non-traditional networking with people in the industry can be invaluable. Service projects, trivia nights, committee meetings and happy hours can all help you make connections while having fun too.
What do you do outside of work that helps you be successful?
Read, travel, think critically, and participate in my local land-use planning process.