In her over 20 years of regional experience in economic development, historic preservation, and transportation planning in the Lehigh Valley region, Becky Bradley has demonstrated brilliant problem-solving skills and exemplary leadership abilities, and NARC is pleased to recognize her as the recipient of this year’s Walter Scheiber Leadership Award. Prior to her current role as executive director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission (LVPC), Becky worked as the Director of Planning, Codes, and Development at the City of Easton, where she helped lead a $500 million revitalization of the community. She brought that experience to LVPC, where, in 2013, she immediately got to work revamping the organization to work more efficiently in the digital age.
That eye for modernity has also played into Becky’s planning success at LVPC, where she’s managed the success of one of Pennsylvania’s fastest-growing regions while still preserving its historic farmland and natural resources. While there, Becky spearheaded the comprehensive “FutureLV” plan — one of the first programs in the nation to link planning with transportation infrastructure funding — allowing the region to employ its $2.5 billion Long-Range Transportation Plan in its land use recommendations.
Becky’s achievements in the Lehigh Valley region exemplify the leadership qualities needed to confront future challenges in regional development. To further highlight her tremendous accomplishments, we asked her about her leadership style and the future she sees for regional cooperation.
1.) What role has regional cooperation played in your successes at LVPC?
Regional cooperation is exactly what I do every day, it is at the center of everything. I think I am the proudest of recognizing that having a bi-county comprehensive plan separate from our long-range transportation plan was inefficient, confusing of the community and thwarted policy implementation. By working with our 37-member bi-county planning commission, the metropolitan planning organization for transportation planning and investment, both Lehigh and Northampton County boards, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and US Department of Transportation as well as, our many, many publics, non-profit and for-profit partners to create a single plan with a $4.3 billion transportation investment plan has been one of the greatest successes on my career. Through the new FutureLV: The Regional Plan we now have a balanced policy and funding approach to everything from housing and economy to equity and the environment, while positioning the Lehigh Valley for the massive technological and societal changes that are emerging as part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
2.) What lessons have you learned about encouraging people to cooperate on important projects?
Actively listening to individual needs, seeking out the voices of people who are under-represented and truly building a bigger decision-making table builds the implementation culture needed for success. No one plans or implements alone and every citizen, business, transit rider, tractor trailer driver, Uber driver, airline pilot, child, adult…all have a roll. Our lives and our success are intertwined and to be successful we must recognize, honor and invite everyone to the table. Beyond that, in equity communities we also need to bring the table to them. We have long consulted with the titans of industry, so we have no excuse but, to ask our underrepresented population, from Moms and Dads to the elderly and the poor to the racially and culturally-under recognized to be a part in our region’s future. It is everyone’s after all.
3.) During your time at LVPC, how important has familiarity with the people in your community been in addressing issues?
It is everything and as the population, economy, transportation systems, housing, educational institutions, governance structured, etc. change so does the familiarity. You must be a very astute observer of people and of place. A region’s inherent dynamisms and the compound-complex nature of regional work must be a healthy obsession to be successful.
4.) What is something you know now that you wish you knew when you first began your career?
That regional work was a viable career option. Not once in my K-12 education or in college was regional work ever discussed. It wasn’t until I pursued a graduate education in City and Regional Planning that I understood the power and logic of working at the metropolitan level. The regional scale is where most people live their lived and where companies and even small businesses operate. I am glad I found regional work and with every opportunity to speak to children and young adults I speak about how communities really work, at the metro-scale.
5.) How has the shape and scope of regional cooperation changed throughout your career?
The need for a regional mindset is the only way to remain viable as a community in a global economy. The only way to distribute vaccines or carry people and goods from destination to destination is regional in most cases. Ten and 20 years ago the mindset was still local or hyper local. Now everyone knows regional cooperation is needed to remain relevant and to thrive. Regional cooperation has evolved with society itself and is only rising more quickly now.
6.) What traits — in both yourself and others — do you think are most important to being an effective community leader?
The ability to zoom in and out on any given issue by seeing the detail and bringing in many voices to solve problems. It is both an art and a science. Effective community leaders see how the past, relates to the present and the future, brings them into a logical, achievable path to move a community forward. It is the ability to see inter-relationships, communicate them and work all angles of the issues simultaneously. Effective regional leaders are adept at this and love a good challenge. Leadership is always intentional, steady, open-minded and willing to evolve.
7.) What future role do you see for regionalism in government?
As local government and even county governments struggle to implement programs the need for support and leadership will only grow. Especially, technological advancements begin to require strong regional coordination between federal, state and local governments, the private and non-profit sectors. Electric vehicle charging networks and small cellular technology systems are two perfect examples of this. The average person does not know what township or even county they are in, they just know they need to get their kids to school or their delivery to the company that will turn it into a finished product. They know they need to communicate with their husband or their coworker or their client along the way. The cell service or connectivity better be there in order from them to be successful in whatever tasks they need to do, wherever they need to do them. It is the nature of the connected, on-demand economy. It is society now and into the future. Regional agencies coordinate systems and networks at the scale that is most relevant to our day-to-day lives. We have a strong future in supporting, coordinating and convening communities as a result.
8.) How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the way you view your work?
The COVID-19 Pandemic showed us all systemic vulnerabilities, especially inequities, in decision-making, policies, investments, educational systems, work-life balance, you name it. In many ways it was a great upheaval and one that I know has fundamentally changed, for the better, how I view community and the need to provide access to opportunity for everyone. I see this new normal as one of the most exciting and remarkable opportunities to become better people and places. We have always, as regional councils been able to do the work that others could not, at the scale people needed, but, now more than ever I believe we have a moral obligation to support our communities as they navigate a great unknown. We can help unravel the uncertainty, provide guidance and support in new ways and make sure that everyone is included. Our place in this time could not be more important and that obligation is really energizing.
9.) What impact has coordination with like-minded colleagues had on your own leadership abilities?
I learn so much from people who work in the regional space. It is necessary to successful leadership to have string collegial relationships. I often find that the space where like-minded people come together is where the most exciting and successful problem-solving happens. We work across regions on transportation system coordination all the time, entering a four-state, eight Metropolitan Planning Organization partnership has allowed us to build trust and work towards common solutions. Five years ago, the New Jersey Department of Transportation and the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority would not have known who to contact in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania when Interstate-80 improvements were being planned. Now we talk, we coordinate, and we partner regularly. There’s trust and integrity, and our transportation system functions better because of it. I am a better leader because of the connection which lead to the commitment to coordinate and collaborate. It is a win-win.