January 2022 – Meet Seth Otto, Principal Planner at Maul Foster Alongi in Portland, OR

What is your educational background? I have a BA in Sociology and Spanish from Linfield College, and an MS in Community and Regional Planning from The University of Texas at Austin. A Fulbright Fellowship in 2001 studying the rural to urban transition of indigenous communities around La Paz, Bolivia was the bridge for me between social sciences and the practical application of urban planning.

What drew you to working in the environmental sector? I fell into it as I was evaluating my career options and looking for new direction (aka unemployed) during the Great Recession. I had taken a seminar on brownfields in graduate school and found the subject both fascinating and complex. When I was introduced to Maul Foster & Alongi by a friend and former colleague, I jumped at the chance to join the firm and their exciting work. I have focused my career over the last decade on advancing cleanup and redevelopment around the region.

In one word, describe yourself. Engaged.

What’s one interesting thing about you not many people know? I was one of the first LEED Accredited Professionals to apply the US Green Building Council certification standards to new development projects in the United Arab Emirates. I had the opportunity to consult with the design team working on the NYU campus and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. It was a wild and serendipitous series of events to arrive there and ended just as quickly as it started. But for a moment, I tasted the jet-setting lifestyle of an international design consultant.

How do you balance your career and family? I try to set clear boundaries and program things in that are non-negotiable. For instance, I volunteer as coach or assistant for my kids’ teams, so I am not tempted to let work interfere with afternoon practice or weekend games. Also, all my projects are local, so I very rarely am away overnight for work.

What drew you to Maul Foster Alongi? Smart creative people working on cool projects looking to grow in interesting and new directions.

What are three words to describe Maul Foster Alongi? Innovative, collaborative, excellent

What is the favorite part about working for your company? I get to work with intelligent and motivated professionals on projects that have positive impacts on my home and region.

What has been your favorite project at your company? They’re all my babies, but I am especially proud to have had the opportunity to work on multiple significant regional and statewide studies that evaluated the scale and impact of brownfields and evaluated policy options to help communities incentivize redevelopments. These studies have been instrumental in passing new legislation, such as the nation’s first Brownfield Land Bank Authority, and in recapitalizing the state brownfield assistance fund.

How has your company helped you in your career development? MFA has provided me with the opportunity to chart my own growth, to follow my passions, and to assume responsibility for my success.

What has your involvement been with NEBC? I’ve been involved with NEBC since joining MFA in 2010. In addition to attending and speaking at multiple conferences, events, and luncheons, I have been an active member of the Oregon Brownfield Coalition, and the Oregon Brownfield Forum before that. I’ve been an active participant in planning the Oregon Brownfield Conference and the Oregon Infrastructure Summit.

What is the best professional advice you’ve received? “Don’t get too comfortable. If you think you are indispensable, stick your head in a bucket of water, pull it out, and see what size of a hole you leave behind.” Paraphrased from multiple indispensable mentoring conversations with Jim Maul, founder of MFA.

What advice do you have for prospective candidates who want to work at your company or in the industry? Oregon is a small town and the whole region is very connected. Reach out, make connections. Most people want to be helpful and create relationships and opportunities. Even if it doesn’t lead to an immediate position, your network is one of your most valuable assets.

What is on your wish list for the next 5 years for your industry? I am looking forward to the implementation of HB2518 which authorizes forgivable loans from the state to private parties to cover costs associated with brownfield assessment and cleanup. The inclusion of additional bonuses to help incentivize certain community benefits like affordable housing and minority contracting feels hopeful.

I am also hopeful that increased attention will be paid to the opportunity to use cleanup of the Portland Harbor Superfund to realize community aspirations for a more equitable and sustainable future for our riverfront.

As a part of the industry, what sort of trends do you see? I recently had the opportunity to speak to a senior seminar of Environment Science majors at University of Portland about the environmental industry and the opportunities for careers in consulting. As we spoke and I got to learn about their interests and aspirations, I was increasingly blown away by their appreciation for the complex social, political, and scientific issues that will confront future generations. It’s clear that for the next generation of practitioners that sustainability, environmental justice, and climate resiliency are not just nice-to-haves but are fundamental to responding to environmental challenges.