AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

The Urban Inheritance Trump Stands to Squander

Barack Obama spent eight years building a bridge between the feds and U.S. cities. What will the president-elect do with that trust?

Story by Garrett M. Graff

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It’d be easy to miss the significance of the flow of immigrant families in and out of the white eight-story office building at the corner of Monroe Avenue and South Main Street in downtown Memphis. They begin entering the Brinkley Plaza building by 8 a.m. each weekday, to visit both the immigration court on the fifth floor as well as the local field office for the federal citizenship agency on the seventh floor. It’s a convenient location, right in the heart of the business district, just blocks from the Mississippi River, the city’s famed Peabody Hotel and the minor league baseball stadium, and only a 10-minute walk to the tourist-packed Beale Street and all of its neon lights.

Farther down the Mississippi River, it’d be similarly easy to look right past the crawl of passengers disembarking at New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal from Amtrak’s storied Crescent and Sunset Limited trains and hopping directly onto new air-conditioned streetcars that will whisk them straight to Canal Street and the French Quarter.

Both streams of people might first appear to simply be the normal bustle of urban life, yet their seeming mundaneness actually represents perhaps one of President Barack Obama’s most enduring legacies in the United States: a renewed federal focus on improving urban life where people already live. Rather than attempting to use government money to remake neighborhoods from the ground up, he has instead turned its focus over the last eight years toward collaborating with local communities on sustainable investments that boost the revitalization efforts already underway in the country’s urban areas. His administration prevented the immigration courthouse from fleeing to the Memphis suburbs and helped New Orleans link up a new streetcar line to its long-standing passenger terminal.

As President-elect Donald Trump prepares to reverse or radically redo many of Obama’s best-known legacies, like the Affordable Care Act, it’s the outgoing president’s legacy to American cities that might, in subtle ways, prove to be some of the most lasting work the White House has done.


Barack Obama — the first U.S. president to have spent the majority of his life in urban areas since Theodore Roosevelt a century before — arrived in the White House amid a nearly unprecedented national economic and housing crisis. At the same time, he possessed an unprecedented presidential perspective, forged as an African-American community organizer in the heart of one of the country’s most storied black cities. “Even though I went to college in L.A. and New York, and law school across the river from Boston, I received my greatest education on Chicago’s South Side, working at the local level to bring about change in those communities and opportunities to people’s lives,” the Harvard Law School graduate said during a roundtable in his first months in the White House.

That perspective encouraged the idea that Obama might finally bring large-scale help to the inner cities, reversing a decades-long federal bias that had seemed to disproportionately reward suburbs and rural areas of the country.

A streetcar runs along Main Street in Kansas City, Missouri. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Fresh off an electoral victory that saw him receive nearly two-thirds of the urban vote, Obama stocked the top ranks of his first-term administration with urban policy veterans: Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was a one-time Chicago congressman; HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan — who continues to serve as Obama’s budget director — grew up in Manhattan and ran the New York City housing development agency. (Donovan’s HUD replacement, Julián Castro, served as mayor of San Antonio.) Secretary of Education Arne Duncan ran Chicago’s public schools for nearly eight years before Obama brought him to Washington. (“[Arne] has done more to bring our educational system — sometimes kicking and screaming — into the 21st century than anybody else,” Obama said, in announcing Duncan’s departure a year ago.)

And, with the highest of hopes, Obama launched the White House Office of Urban Affairs and appointed former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión Jr. to lead it. The new White House office — its “city czar” — was meant to harness federal resources across the government and direct them in a coordinated manner toward the cities where they could have the greatest impact; one of the earliest efforts was to conduct the first comprehensive interagency review of federal urban policy in more than 30 years.

Across the government, Obama’s approach also represented a broad rethinking of nearly a half-century of federal policy that dated back to the 1960s and had long used “urban” as a code word for “black” and “poverty” programs. Few presidents since Lyndon Johnson had engaged seriously in urban policy, and the federal government writ large had long struggled to engage at local levels, in part because of the widely varying governance systems in individual cities and the multi-jurisdictional nature of broader metropolitan regions. (The so-called “Dillon’s Rule,” named after two 1868 court decisions, laid out that local governments were products of each state’s government, adding an additional layer of difficulty for federal leaders trying to engage directly with city and town officials.) Indeed, too many federal programs, including public housing and “urban renewal” projects that bulldozed entire neighborhoods to erect infrastructure like interstates, had actually helped foster a generation-long hollowing out of American cities.

Instead, after decades of policies that encouraged and even subsidized ever-expanding suburban sprawl, the Obama administration hoped instead to help accelerate the broad economic revival already organically underway in many American cities as emerging technologies and generational shifts returned vibrancy to urban areas that had seen a generation of flight to the suburbs; some cities, like the nation’s capital, still bore unrepaired scars from the riots of the 1960s.

The nation’s urban revival had started largely without any real government boost. As the Obama administration took office, technology was increasing the benefits of regional industry “clusters” like biotech in Boston, tech in Seattle and San Francisco, finance in Charlotte, entertainment in Los Angeles, and defense and government contracting around Washington, D.C. Large research universities in cities like Pittsburgh and medical complexes in cities like Houston were helping to draw in new residents and business startups. Meanwhile, lifestyle shifts were seeing empty-nester baby boomers and new millennial workers drawn back into urban areas, prized for their walkability and the desire for close-by yoga studios, coffee shops and cocktail bars. Millennials also eschewed the car-heavy suburban commuter life that had been the focus of their parents’ lives and chose instead to cluster around public transit.

“In this country, change comes not from the top down, but from the bottom up,” Obama told the U.S. Conference of Mayors on the campaign trail in 2008. “The truth is, what our cities need isn’t just a partner. What you need is a partner who knows that the old ways of looking at our cities just won’t do; who knows that our nation and our cities are undergoing a historic transformation.”


The administration’s approach to economic policy was forged in the dramatic economic collapse that it inherited in 2009. From Obama’s victory on the November 2008 Election Day through January’s inauguration, the U.S. economy lost nearly 1.8 million jobs, the biggest three-month drop since World War II. The scale of the problem and the breadth of the crisis created a sort of mandate for a new approach; the normal operating principles of government simply weren’t going to be up to the task.

One of the first orders of business was to save the auto industry, which was teetering on the edge of a systemic collapse that would have devastated Rust Belt states from Pennsylvania to Michigan. “The auto industry is the backbone of American manufacturing,” Obama had promised at his first post-election press conference.

The cross-agency task force that his White House created in February 2009 to harness federal resources to support the industry and the communities that relied on those jobs helped set the tone for what ultimately came to be called the administration’s “place-based” strategy. To build on that approach and flesh out an urban agenda, the White House convened 30 urban policy experts in July 2009 for a full-day discussion and asked them what Obama should do for America’s cities.

The ultimate emphasis on place-based programs, codified in a six-page memo in 2009 from the Office of Management and Budget, would “leverage investments by focusing resources in targeted places and drawing on the compounding effect of well-coordinated action” and aim to “streamline otherwise redundant and disconnected programs.”

That new approach was an attempt to embrace the message of that 2008 speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, says Xavier Briggs, an urban planner who worked on the Obama administration’s transition and helped shape its early policy from the White House. “You had an administration led by a president who deeply believed in moving beyond stale conversations and divides,” Briggs says. “The president was interested in turning the page on the last 40 years of federal urban policy, which included very Byzantine and scattered efforts. It was incredibly difficult for local leaders to knit together federal programs into something that actually made a difference.” (Briggs is now vice president of the Ford Foundation, which funds Next City.)

By focusing on “places,” the administration also hoped to blur the lines between “urban policy” and “rural policy,” which often had been at loggerheads in previous administrations. Obama’s push for a place-based approach also was a recognition that many “urban” areas now stretched well into suburban and even rural communities, as commutes lengthened and the “exurbs” became a dominant feature of American life. “Our urban and rural communities are not independent, they are interdependent,” Obama said in 2009. As planners and policy leaders at the White House and federal agencies began examining the landscape they inherited, they realized that in many parts of the country, success would require regional approaches, if only to avoid setting up the same program in dozens of adjacent suburban towns.

In fact, by the time the Obama administration arrived in office, the scale of America’s fast-growing cities had blurred many of the lines between urban and rural areas around the country. “Half of our rural population lives in metropolitan American,” says Bruce Katz, a Brookings Institution scholar who works on urban issues. (Katz is a board member at Next City.) “Our metro regions have sprawled so much that they encompass a lot of rural counties, many of which are commuters who work downtown.”

By focusing on “places,” the administration also hoped to blur the lines between “urban policy” and “rural policy,” which often had been at loggerheads in previous administration.

Cities like Washington, D.C., had sprawled well into rural farmland in Virginia and Maryland, and regions like Denver now encompassed an urban core and substantial neighboring communities like Aurora and Boulder, as well as suburbs, exurbs and rural areas stretching across hundreds of square miles. Houston’s metropolitan region encompassed an area the size of New Jersey.

Such complex regional needs clearly required a broader philosophy — and the challenges, the administration estimated, were only going to get worse: By 2050, White House estimates showed that the country would likely grow by nearly 140 million people, requiring an estimated 200 billion square feet of housing and commercial development, as well as nearly incalculable new physical infrastructure.

“Forward-looking cities shouldn’t be succeeding despite Washington; they should be succeeding with a hand from Washington,” Obama said in 2009, even as the U.S. struggled to emerge from the depths of the financial crisis. “We’ve got to figure out ways to rebuild [America’s cities] on a newer, firmer, stronger foundation for our future. And that requires new strategies for our cities and metropolitan areas that focus on advancing opportunity through competitive, sustainable and inclusive growth.”

Those watchwords — competitive, sustainable and inclusive — would come to guide most of the administration’s programs in the years ahead.

Inside the White House, Obama urged aides to approach the new place-based approach using four guiding principles, according to interviews with those who worked on the programs. First, initiatives were to be locally led — bottom up, rather than top down. Second, they should make heavy use of data, both in terms of identifying problems as well as measuring impacts and outcomes. Third, initiatives should be scalable and transferrable, ensuring that lessons learned in one city might be applied elsewhere. Fourth, all the initiatives were to embrace partnerships, particularly those with non-traditional stakeholders like local business owners and faith leaders.

“One of the things that Obama did more than most presidents was recognize that place matters. The leaders in a community, the mayors, they know what’s best for their community,” explains Shelley Poticha, who worked on the Obama administration’s urban agenda at HUD. She’d spent years before that working in the New Urbanism movement, encouraging high-density, pedestrian-friendly streetscapes built around public transit. “There was a tremendous pivot to listen more and understand what those needs were and remove barriers that local leaders were experiencing.”


At their most ambitious, Obama administration officials talked about their new approach as a “new wave of federalism,” marking the federal government’s third major era evolution in urban policy, beginning with the 1960s-era “urban renewal” programs that saw cities as a blight to be solved with master planning, and the later post-Nixon era that shifted federal spending to large, uncoordinated block grants. Over time, many of the programs had calcified, with an emphasis on legal compliance and bureaucratic reporting to satisfy administration benchmarks and protect against congressional criticism.

“The incentives — and so much of the energy of congressional and agency staff — were focused on whether local problem solvers were complying with rules drafted in Washington, rather than whether they were actually making progress. In terms of how you define accountability, it’s the difference between a compliance or risk management emphasis on one hand and an accomplishment emphasis on the other,” Briggs says.

“We were getting a lot of feedback from mayors, as well as from groups like private philanthropy, saying you should be writing a different playbook. We had a lot of outside voices encouraging us to try something different,” recalls Mark Linton, who worked on the administration’s urban policy agenda and ran the White House Strong Cities, Strong Communities initiative.

Those grand plans, though, gradually gave way over the course of the administration to more modest realities — particularly when it came to budget limitations.

Over the course of the administration, the White House urban affairs office sputtered, as its first leader, Carrión, struggled to articulate goals for the office or raise its national profile; he was little-known outside of New York, had no real experience at the federal level, and stayed just a little over a year before moving over to HUD. By 2013, urban theorist Richard Florida had called on the president to reorganize parts of HUD and other departments into a new cabinet-level “Department of Cities.” He cited how “toothless” the White House office had turned out to be and decried how Obama’s first term had passed without “a single big, transformative urban idea.” In the second term, the office was quietly merged into the Domestic Policy Council.

Elsewhere in government, though, the administration achieved real, transformative successes. Whereas Bill Clinton’s presidency left behind a clear programmatic legacy, the Obama administration will likely be best known for guiding a long-overdue philosophical shift, encouraging agencies and departments to break down silos and stovepiped decision-making. The problem, the administration felt, wasn’t necessarily a shortage of federal funds, it was that the money was being handed out mechanically, based on funding formulas that paid little attention to the impact it would have on local communities.

Luke Tate, a HUD official who more recently ended up running many of the programs at the White House as the president’s special assistant for economic mobility, spoke often in meetings about the problem of the government’s traditional “peanut butter approach,” which just spread funding across cities and regions with little coordination or sustained focus. As Derek Douglas, who worked in the White House urban affairs office at the start of the administration, explains, “Mayors want to piece together dollars to get things done, and in some cases the programs didn’t even allow coordination. We wanted the federal government to be a direct partner for cities.”

That idea that federal funds should be more clearly targeted — and that funding priorities should be developed in conjunction with local leaders — gave rise to collaborations like the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, which brought together HUD, the EPA and the Department of Transportation to focus on connecting housing to schools, jobs and transit, as well as arguably the administration’s two most successful initiatives, known as TIGER and SC2. “It’s about taking the millions and billions that flow to cities and making sure that they stack up to something,” says Tara McGuinness, a senior adviser at the White House Office of Management and Budget who has worked extensively on the administration’s urban strategy. “The vast majority of federal dollars are these big uncoordinated grants, to actually make them work against a local vision actually requires a lot of effort.”

Arguably no federal infrastructure program has had more impact in recent years than TIGER, whose familiar striped logo has dotted roadside construction signs for years even as the initiative remains little understood by the general public. The “Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery” program revolutionized the way the federal government supported infrastructure projects by forcing communities to think more strategically about construction projects, mixing state, local and private funding and incentivizing multimodal projects that didn’t necessarily fit easily into traditional grant programs.

TIGER, along with similar programs like the education-focused “Race to the Top” grants, were part of a handful of competitive programs that encouraged cities and state leaders to think holistically about what projects would have the most impact on citizens’ lives.

“The TIGER program has had an enormous effect and will have lasting long-term effects,” says Ilana Preuss, the founder of Recast City and a longtime smart growth advocate who worked at the EPA under the George W. Bush administration. “Taking a chunk of transportation money and making it competitive, it’s made it incredibly realistic for cities to get money for innovative projects.”

By 2016, TIGER had provided $5.1 billion in funding to more than 420 projects nationwide — a tiny drop in the overall infrastructure bucket, but one that had an outsized impact, in part for how it encouraged communities to leverage other funds. The $500 million in TIGER grants in 2016 supported $1.74 billion in overall investments, including Texas’ first pedestrian/bike causeway, in Brownsville, and a $19 million project to cap a below-grade portion of I-579 in Pittsburgh and reconnect a neighborhood torn apart by the interstate 60 years ago.

The TIGER program, despite being chronically underfunded and deluged by applications, gained strong bipartisan support, even from Republican critics who publicly opposed the stimulus. As a Republican congressman in 2009, Mike Pence lobbied for a TIGER grant for Muncie, Indiana, to expand its downtown enhancement efforts and build a “Cultural Trail” for bikers and pedestrians. “I believe both projects are worthy for TIGER Grant investment and will provide real and long-term economic and livability benefits for the city of Muncie and the surrounding area,” Pence wrote in a letter to then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Muncie ultimately received more than $20 million in TIGER funding for the Cultural Trail, about a third of the total $63 million project, which helped breathe new life into a long-neglected neighborhood and jumpstart private development.

Beyond innovation competitions like TIGER, the administration’s Strong Cities, Strong Communities initiative — known as SC2, for short — similarly focused on how to harness federal dollars across the government to maximize impact in economically depressed cities. The program’s impetus began as the administration shifted its focus in 2010 away from the near-term economic crisis toward the longer-term process of rebuilding a post-industrial economy in places like the Rust Belt. “When communities hit rock bottom, they feel freed up to do innovative work,” Preuss says. “The administration tried to look very hard at the map of where that money was going and connect the dots.”

Sarah Ray, who helped get the SC2 program off the ground and later worked for the program in Memphis, says the idea was to ensure that the various arms of the government were all working toward a similar purpose. “We spend so much money as a government with so little transparency — not for nefarious reasons but because there’s so little visibility into the complexity,” she explains. “It’s not a lack of resources — there are significant resources. There’s a breakdown in how that money makes a difference.”

The original goal had been to target Rust Belt cities that had seen their populations shrink dramatically and help them through adjusting to the serious budget realities of a smaller municipal workforce and often significantly smaller tax base. Yet as administration officials toured the country, visiting economically depressed cities where innovative local leaders were already trying new approaches, they found that struggling cities faced similar challenges all over, not just in the Rust Belt. Places like Memphis had similarly seen industry flee and New Orleans, for example, was continuing to rebuild after the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. None of these cities seemed likely to be able to succeed through traditional funding mechanisms. “Peanut butter spreading of resources doesn’t actually solve problems, but an injection could actually get people over the hump,” Ray says. “The hope with SC2 was that we could be the laser to help push them into change.”

President Barack Obama, accompanied by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, left, holds a young girl as he greets residents in the Tremé neighborhood in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The SC2 program settled on six original target cities, each of which was struggling to regain its footing in a new economic reality — New Orleans, Memphis, Fresno, Cleveland, Detroit and Chester, Pennsylvania — and expanded to include Youngstown, Ohio, shortly after it launched. It dispatched multi-agency “Community Solutions Teams” to the cities to help them navigate the federal bureaucracy and even placed mid-career federal employees into the local mayors’ offices on two-year “fellowships” to help local leaders think through federal projects and needs. “[SC2] takes tremendous ingenuity, and a determination to cut red tape and do government business better,” Obama said in 2012. “We are living in a time when there will be limited resources. That is just a fact. Budgets are tight at the state level, at the local level, and at the federal level. And yet the need continues to be enormous. So the question is how to consistently get more bang for our buck.”

The program, which the White House explained was aimed at “rationalizing” the “overlapping maze” of the federal bureaucracy, perhaps shouldn’t have seemed as revolutionary as it was, but, according to those who worked in and around the initiative, it actually had a remarkable impact. “SC2 is not a new program — it’s a new way,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu proclaimed in the White House’s first-year report on the initiative. “SC2 has helped to break down stovepipes between federal agencies.” Across the country, the SC2 teams involved as many as 17 different departments and agencies, ranging from USDA, HUD and the VA to the Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA, the Small Business Administration and even NASA, all coordinated by the White House’s Domestic Policy Council and its so-called “SC2 Council.”

Inside the federal maze, the focus on cross-agency collaboration helped the government do things it probably should have been doing all along: Representatives of various departments and agencies working on similar projects and goals actually met monthly to discuss their endeavors. HUD’s Shelley Poticha met each Wednesday with counterparts like the EPA’s smart growth director, John Frece, and DOT policy chief Beth Osborne to compare efforts on sustainability initiatives and similar programs. Other cross-agency teams met weekly or monthly to ensure that the government’s left hand understood what its right was doing also. And agencies helped review each other’s grant applicants, to help ensure, for instance, that TIGER grants would link up with the goals of affordable housing projects or environmental goals. “There was a huge gap between how the federal government usually operates and how the conversation in local communities had been changing,” Briggs explains. “You had to blend efforts across agencies. Look at something like addressing food deserts — you had tools and partial solutions in a half-dozen different federal agencies.” By the time the administration expanded SC2 to an additional seven cities in 2014, including Brownsville, Texas, Macon, Georgia, and Rocky Mount, North Carolina, the White House claimed that SC2 had helped better focus and coordinate around $368 million in federal spending — a tiny drop in the federal budget.

Some of SC2’s success came simply in helping target cities unlock funding they should have been receiving anyway; in a September 2013 press conference at Wayne State University, three Cabinet secretaries and White House National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling announced that the federal government had “found” $100 million in grant money that, as Sperling said, “either had not flowed or had not gotten out or not directed to the top priorities for Detroit.” Similar stories played out around the country as SC2 teams worked to release FAA funding for projects at local airports, cut red tape blocking the purchase of a riverboat in Memphis that was integral to a waterfront revitalization project, and identified USDA and IBM funding that could be used to help expand broadband access in Fresno.

The sustained focus and technical assistance also helped the select SC2 city agencies, mayors and local officials better understand how to access existing federal programs, write successful proposals and organize data to prove the need for various projects; SC2 teams conducted training sessions for local developers on working with the GSA and helped cities understand what projects might be eligible for the long-standing Community Development Block Grant program. Such efforts helped to address one of the ironies officials had uncovered: Wealthier cities often did better applying for federal grants because they had the resources to employ grant-writing teams — helping them attract even more money, whereas often the cities that most needed the resources were the least able to gamble the sometimes as much as $50,000 it might take to apply for a high-dollar federal grant.

During one listening tour meeting in Kansas City, one suburban mayor raised her hand during a discussion of possible green neighborhood initiatives and explained that while the administration’s urban goals sounded fantastic, she had only one staffer who oversaw workforce training, economic development and transportation. “I don’t have the capacity to go after those big grants, deliver them and implement them,” she told the White House aides. “It’s not attainable for us who have very low staff capacity.”

That reaction — what Derek Douglas called a “lightbulb moment” for the White House — underscored some of the administration’s early lessons in responding to the economic and housing crisis and convinced it of the need to provide training at the local level to help cities and leaders wrap their arms around the problems their communities faced. “The foreclosure crisis hit hardest in many places that were the least prepared — a lot of communities that were either already shrinking or communities that had only known growth,” Briggs recalls. “The capacity gaps were enormous.”

Most SC2 accomplishments were decidedly modest — like helping to bring a new source of groceries to residents of Chester, the nonprofit store known as Fare & Square — but in those communities, the greatest success of SC2 often was simply demonstrating that the federal government could actually solve a local problem if coordinated correctly: In Chester, a HUD employee helped the mayor unlock money to demolish the defunct Chester Arms Hotel — a crumbling sign of blight across the street from City Hall that had long represented the government’s impotence to accomplish change.

In Memphis, Sarah Ray and other SC2 staff helped the mayor, A C Wharton, focus on what he wanted to accomplish; the city had 42 different strategic plans that the SC2 team helped boil down to four citywide priorities: Create Safe and Vibrant Neighborhoods; Grow Prosperity and Opportunity for All; Invest in Young People; and Advance a Culture of Excellence in Government. Then they helped rally the federal government’s resources, grants and technical assistance toward achieving those goals. At the same time, some of the team’s greatest help was simply in navigating the federal government’s bureaucracy: President Obama had encouraged federal agencies via an executive order to remain in downtowns whenever possible, to avoid contributing to sprawl. Yet as the city’s federal immigration court began searching for new space, the federal real estate agency, the General Services Administration, insisted on such aggressive security measures that the court appeared unlikely to ever find a downtown site acceptable — and a suburban move would have placed undue hardship on the court’s primary users, who rely heavily on public transit. The SC2 team worked with the city and GSA to help win an exemption that kept the court downtown — contributing as well to revitalization efforts.

In Detroit, a federal multi-agency team helped the city move forward on rebuilding its long-neglected network of street lights, helping to address the wide stretches of nonworking lights and darkened streets that had long illustrated Detroit’s decline and hopelessness. By the time the city declared bankruptcy in 2013, more than half of the city’s 88,000 lights had ceased functioning, a result of disrepair, vandalism and theft. Of those lights that did work, some entire circuits burned all day long too, due to outdated and deteriorating infrastructure. Applying lessons learned during projects in other cities, the SC2 team encouraged Detroit to switch from traditional high-pressure sodium lights to more modern LEDs, a switch that would result in more than $3 million in annual electricity savings — as well as additional savings based on lower ongoing maintenance costs.

Yet even such successes weren’t always as successful as some cities had hoped: Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan told The Washington Post that while he appreciated the Energy Department’s help with its street lighting plans, the department didn’t provide any money to help implement it. Nevertheless, by the end of this year, Detroit is scheduled to have a fully updated network of 65,000 new street lights.

Beyond just physical infrastructure, such collaboration efforts resulted in myriad small innovations. Also in Detroit, the public school system and local transit agency worked with the White House’s SC2 program, Code for America fellows, the Federal Transit Administration and the private nonprofit Knight Foundation to develop a system that allowed residents and schoolchildren to text their location to receive real-time bus arrival information. “By using their cellphones, students can now determine the best time to arrive at their bus stops, so they will not have to spend a lot of time waiting alone or standing in the cold,” Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee said, when the “Text My Bus” program launched on the first day of school in 2012. (The program, overseen by Code for America and Detroit’s municipal transportation department, has subsequently been expanded to include mobile apps for iPhone and Android devices.)

Similarly, HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods initiative encouraged broad partnerships and community investment in revitalizing some of the nation’s most troubled neighborhoods to “help break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.” Donovan argued the need for such a cross-cutting approach during a 2013 TED talk in New York, where he outlined the challenges facing the 3.9 million children growing up in the nation’s 4,400 neighborhoods marked by concentrated poverty. “No matter how hard they work in school, no matter what their parents do to get ahead, the single biggest predictor of their life chances — even their life span — is the ZIP code they grow up in,” he said. “It’s an enormous moral failing of our country when we can put a kid’s address into Google Maps and tell them what their future is. It’s also an economic calamity for our cities.”

Donovan estimated that on the average day, a child growing up in urban poverty is likely to touch and utilize programs stretching across 11 different federal agencies, from HUD’s public housing initiatives to the Department of Agriculture’s reduced and free school lunch programs. “Anyone who’s worked with big federal agencies like ours knows that we don’t necessarily work well with each other,” Donovan said.

Early in the administration, officials at agencies like HUD and the Department of Transportation used “listening tours” to uncover good ideas that might be able to be adapted to other cities and even brought to scale nationally. Visits to places like Atlanta’s East Lake neighborhood and the much-vaunted Harlem Children’s Zone, a private “cradle-to-college” neighborhood initiative, gave rise to the administration’s Promise Neighborhoods program, which spawned and supported similar projects. In Minnesota, the Northside Achievement Zone in North Minneapolis brought together more than 60 different private and government organizations to, in the program’s words, “close the achievement gap and end generational poverty” in a 236-block area that was home to 2,300 students and families. The goal, then-HUD Secretary Donovan said was nothing less than “to reimagine what a kid’s life could be there.” As he said, “We need to scale up this approach across the country.”

Michelle Obama speaks at college signing day at the Harlem Children's Zone. (Credit: Harlem Children's Zone) 

Yet Donovan’s goal was precisely where the Obama administration’s grand hopes hit their main roadblock: The funding for larger-scale initiatives never came through, even as in many cases the targeted spending by programs like TIGER and SC2 proved to have more impact than traditional spending.

The programs, though, were always intended to be modest experiments — awaiting a future when funding would let agencies and departments take them to scale nationally. Yet the Republican Congress regularly trimmed or even attempted to zero out experiments like SC2.

Across the board, the funds available fell far short of the demand; in 2012, Promise Neighborhoods received about $60 million from Congress, enough to fund projects for just 20 of the 200 applicants, but even those projects weren’t anywhere close to the scale of the initiative’s original inspiration. The high-impact Harlem Children’s Zone, the impetus for the project, had an annual budget of around $100 million for the 97 blocks it served in Harlem.

Indeed, a study earlier this year by the Wilder Foundation found that the Minneapolis Northside Achievement Zone, backed with $26 million in federal funding over five years, had resulted in a marked improvement in kindergarten readiness but had fallen well short overall of the program’s original ambitions. Nevertheless, the Wilder Foundation found that for every dollar spent on the program, it had returned $6.12 in social benefits like improved educational outcomes and decreased crime. Specifically, the Wilder Foundation found that while the NAZ was investing $32,711 in each program participant, that money would yield a social return of more than $200,000 in increased lifetime earning potential and decreased government spending. “To put it another way, if a given participant graduates from high school, society will have received full payback on the cost of his or her time as a NAZ scholar,” the Foundation concluded.

Administration officials say they worked hard to study data and gather evidence that such programs actually worked before trying to expand them. That emphasis on empirical and reproducible evidence meant that not every good idea got off the drawing board. One proposed initiative, “Red Fields to Green Fields,” was to focus on commercial strips hit by the housing crisis, providing money for redeveloping them into parks or more sustainable developments. Yet, as good as the idea seemed on paper and as much as it fit with the administration’s goals of improving density and spreading the adoption of climate-friendly buildings, the initiative was too new to show any results. “It sounded good in theory, but because there was no basis at that time, we didn’t take it to the next level,” recalls Derek Douglas, who helped run the White House’s urban affairs agenda.


What part of these Obama-era efforts and philosophical shifts are carried forward into a Trump administration remains an open question. In these early stages of formulating an agenda, Trump — who has himself always lived in the environs of New York City — has shown little interest in urban policy. He was elected largely by the nation’s most rural counties and overwhelmingly lost the nation’s increasingly blue cities. In the booming District of Columbia where Trump will find himself come January, he won just 4.1 percent of the vote.

Nearly 125 years after the Industrial Revolution began the transformation from an agrarian America to an urban one, the country after the 2016 election seems more split than ever — with its increasingly wealthy cities housing some two-thirds of the population and its increasingly empty rural (and red) portions of the country continuing to see their economies decline. Fully three-quarters of the nation’s GDP is driven by urban areas. “This election revealed the true breadth of the chasm between cities and rural areas, as well as racial and ethnic groups,” Bruce Katz wrote soon after the election. “Over the next several years, the hard business of investing in the future and uniting the nation will not be conducted in Washington.”

Yet even as Trump has campaigned on shuttering the Department of Education and giving police in cities the authority to be “very much tougher than they are now,” and decried how in “our inner cities, African-Americans, Hispanics, are living in hell, because it’s so dangerous,” his administration, urban policy advocates hope, might actually continue many of his predecessor’s efforts — in part because they’re rooted in conservative principles of competition and pushing decision-making down from Washington bureaucrats to local leaders. “It’s always tricky to say what will endure in policy or practice,” Briggs says, “but I’d hope that the next administration would continue to make the federal government more responsive to local concerns, rather than following the old ruts in the road.”

Exactly what the appetite on Capitol Hill will be for such endeavors remains an open question. The new approach of programs like Sustainable Communities hasn’t garnered uniform praise within partisan Washington: House Republicans in 2011 tried unsuccessfully to block HUD from spending money to further “ill-defined rubrics,” including “‘sustainability,’ ‘livability,’ ‘inclusivity’ and ‘equity.’” Ben Carson, Trump’s choice to be HUD secretary, has little experience with housing policy or running a bureaucracy as massive as the $47 billion department, but he’s been highly critical of social programs that he says encourage “dependency.” The world-class neurosurgeon’s own telling of his rise-from-the-Detroit-streets, Horatio Alger story insists that only hard work and dedication is necessary to succeed in life. Carson, for his part, has cited his hospital work in Baltimore as evidence of his experience in the urban arena. “We cannot have a strong nation if we have weak inner cities,” Carson told Fox News during a November interview when his selection appeared imminent. “We have to get beyond the promises and start really doing something. The amount of corruption and graft and things, shell games that are played — we need to get rid of all that stuff.”

Ben Carson is President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for HUD secretary. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Trump, in announcing his intent to nominate Carson, said, “We have talked at length about my urban renewal agenda and our message of economic revival, very much including our inner cities.” Carson added, “We have much work to do in enhancing every aspect of our nation and ensuring that our nation’s housing needs are met.”

Obama officials wouldn’t argue that much work remains to be done. Derek Douglas left government for the University of Chicago, where, as its vice president of civic engagement, he says he’s seen up close the enormous unmet needs of the inner cities. “Living and working on the South Side of Chicago and seeing what the challenges and opportunities are, the government needs to do something on a grand scale for cities. We haven’t seen something like that in decades,” he says. “While we’ve been doing some great programs, they’re not at the scale that we need. Someday, someone might be able to tackle that.”

It’s certainly true that the federal-aided successes of the Obama years represented only small enclaves around the country. Even as the economies and development thrived in most metropolitan regions — and began in recent years to reach far down into smaller and mid-tier cities like Rockford, Illinois, and Grand Rapids, Oregon — the administration has struggled to respond to endemic crime and poverty in cities like Baltimore, which saw rioting in 2014, and Chicago, which is run by Obama’s former White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. And a 59-page White House report released in early December that touted its collective efforts in Detroit also underscored how much more work there remains to be done — its newly well-lit streets shine on neighborhoods still filled with the unemployed and tens of thousands of blighted and abandoned buildings.

Nevertheless, the TIGER and SC2 experiences have, program veterans believe, taught the federal government a better way of doing business — and made clear to mayors across the board that the federal government can actually be a helpful partner. “We have a constituency now of mayors — not just Democrats, but all parties — who are going to demand these kinds of local-federal partnerships,” says Linton, who directed SC2 for the Obama administration until 2015. “Going forward, you’re going to have local leaders who don’t want the genie to be put back in the bottle.”

The week after the November 2016 election, Obama signed an executive order creating a new “Community Solutions Council” to provide a lasting structure for the type of local-oriented, place-based partnerships that drove programs like SC2 and TIGER — programs that, particularly given their underlying conservative philosophy, the White House hopes that a Trump administration might continue and even expand. In a write-up announcing the order, the Republican mayor of Fresno — one of the original SC2 cities — touted the program’s benefits. “Having federal partners working with you, rooting for you, helping remove obstacles instead of being the obstacles themselves,” Mayor Ashley Swearengin said, “completely reinvigorates you as a community and helps you really know that you can in fact move forward.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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Journalist Garrett M. Graff has spent more than a dozen years covering politics, technology and national security. He’s written for publications from WIRED to the New York Times, and served as the editor of two of Washington’s most prestigious magazines, Washingtonian and POLITICO Magazine, which won its first National Magazine Award during his tenure. His next book, Raven Rock, about the government’s Cold War Doomsday plans, will be published in 2017.

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