Last Thursday in Washington, D.C., Derek Douglas, the de facto head of the White House Office of Urban Affairs, sat down with Shelly Poticha from HUD, Beth Osborne from the DOT and Tim Torma from the EPA. It was a live chat, broadcast via simultaneous live feeds on whitehouse.gov and Planetizen.com. All the questions that Mr. Douglas posed to the panel, in fact, were posed to them — and voted on — by Planetizen.com readers. As an aside, consider the fact that YouTube was created the same year that Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans. In just one half decade, we have made some serious strides in technology and governmental transparency, and it’s incredible to see these two trends working together in the Obama administration.
The reason for the live chat was to discuss the most exciting element of the Obama administration’s urban policy: the Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities. The foursome were seated at the end of an oval-shaped table, with what looked like a portrait of George Washington in the background; it was hard to tell, because the camera angle cut the portrait off at the shoulders. Derek Douglas sat behind a MacBook Pro, reading the questions picked by Planetizen readers, and some asked by those who joined the live chat via their Facebook accounts.
The end result of hosting a live chat with such a self-selecting audience has both good and bad consequences. It’s good, obviously, that instead of justifying the use of taxpayer dollars for innovative public policy, the representatives from the agencies could go into greater detail about the wonkier aspects of federal urban policy. For example, the highest-voted question came from the Congress for New Urbanism. It was directed at Tim Torma, and asked him if the EPA was reworking their stormwater management policies, which CNU believes unintentionally promote sprawl. Torma answered the question with a question: should the EPA have the same stormwater management requirements for someone redeveloping what used to be a parking lot in the same way that they regulate someone building on what used to be a forest? Obviously not, said Torma, and to that end, the EPA is working on new stormwater management regulations on a national scale, so they can avoid this sort of well-intentioned policy with such bad unintended consequences.
And that seems reflective of the larger narrative of why the interagency partnership exists; for years, virtually all federal level policy that related to urban areas has had countless awful, but unintended consequences. The Obama administration is making a concerted effort to reverse much of that, or at least realign the agencies to work with urban America, instead of against it. Though this is great news, it also gets us to what was not-so-good about the live chat: the self-selecting crowd has been working on this agenda at various nonprofits or in academia for the last couple of decades. They’re understandably excited someone is finally listening.
But because of this, no one asked the larger, harder-to-answer questions; most pertained to the minutia of their work (Al from Youngstown wants to know if they have any policies to help older industrial cities; Ginger is curious about the Preferred Sustainable Communities Grant), and less big-picture questions. I would have liked to hear someone ask if people in the agencies even think it’s possible to undo six decades of destructive, sprawling urban development. It’s entirely possible that it’s not, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from trying.
The last question was the only one that saw past the details of the policy program, and it was the most depressing question asked, at least initially. LivableBay.com from Berkeley, CA, asked, “We advocates appreciate the administration’s emphasis on livability, sustainability and transit-oriented development. But what happens when a new administration takes office? In other words, how will these changes be made permanent?” The panel, for the most part, explained that good on-the-ground projects should change public opinion on the matter. Shelly Poticha said that people have been waiting for this sort of policy, and she has seen a great outpouring of support from local leaders; people have been innovating on a local level for years already, and the federal government is just catching up.
As a closing note, Derek Douglas added, “This partnership is also changing the way that these agencies do business…they’re collaborating in ways they never did before, which will continue regardless of who’s in the Oval Office. And so I think that by changing not only the substance of the policies, but also the approach, that strengthens the ability for this to have a long-lasting impact.” It seems there’s a silver lining to lessons learned by the Obama administration’s inheritance of George W. Bush’s Minerals Management Services; for better or worse, these changes in the agencies are lasting. In the case of the Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities, it will be for the better.