No sooner did I address the growing sense that the White House Office of Urban Affairs has been an empty endeavor than they finally start doing something, or at least making it look like they are. On Monday the White House held a daylong policy round table on urban policy. Before you roll your eyes, remember that the Obama administration started the ball rolling on health care reform in the same exact manner. Alas, from the profile of participants to the media coverage, this was clearly no health care summit. The participants were mostly vaguely noteworthy local elected officials, the most prominent, at least in the White House’s estimation, being Mayor Greg Nickels of Seattle, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Mayor, Dekalb County Georgia CEO Burrell Ellis, who is chairman of the Large Urban County Caucus, National Association of Counties and Mayor Kathleen Novak of Northglenn, Colorado, who is president of the National League of Cities. I can’t believe People magazine didn’t send the paparazzi.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was also in the audience. I asked him why he wants an 18 month delay on the Surface Transit Reauthorization when we have a massive backlog of needed infrastructure upgrades. He responded, unconvincingly, that we are addressing the backlog through the stimulus bill’s investments in mass transit. When I asked what DOT will do to address suburban sprawl he offered only the much-ballyhooed Sustainable Communities Initiative.
It is hard to determine what urban policies were discussed and what policy changes they might lead to, because the open press speeches nominally summarizing them are platitudinous and their conclusions pre-ordained. Obama declared that the theme of the meetings was “Be Bold.” No kidding, are you sure it wasn’t “Yes We Can?,” Mr. President? Obama also stipulated, at length, that cities, suburbs and rural areas are “not independent, they are inter-dependent,” and thus so are their problems and the solutions. I imagine Obama is also prepared to come out in favor of motherhood and baseball.
Nonetheless, President Obama hit on some important points in his address Monday afternoon. Obama noted, correctly, that the stimulus bill was a life-saver for many cities. “If we had not taken that step, our cities would be in a even deeper hole, and state budget deficits would be nearly twice as large as they are right now, and tens of thousands of police officers and firefighters and teachers would be out of a job as we speak,” said Obama.
When it came to looking forward there were some more vague, banal pledges — e.g. “We’re going to put an end to throwing money at what doesn’t work — and we’re going to start investing in what does work and make sure that we’re encouraging that.” But Obama also highlighted two promising and largely overlooked programs in his budget. One is Promise Neighborhoods, modeled on Geoffrey Canada’s successful Harlem Children’s Zone. “It’s an all-encompassing, all-hands-on-deck effort that’s turning around the lives of New York City’s children, block by block,” explained Obama. “And what we want to do is to make grants available for communities in other cities to jumpstart their own neighborhood-level interventions that change the odds for our kids.” The literature from both the left and the right suggests that the Harlem Children’s Zone has successfully replicated the social network that used to keep crime down and graduation rates up. An expansion of it seems like a sensible, and potentially transformative, move by the federal government.
The other is called Choice Neighborhoods. Inspired by the failure of isolated high-rise housing projects, and the better, if mixed, record of affordable housing development in more dispersed, integrated units, HUD will attempt to work on strengthening low-income communities in terms of quality housing near schools and jobs, and more commercial opportunities. The details are nebulous, but the impulses are correct.
Obama also made a nod to smart growth. “For too long, federal policy has actually encouraged sprawl and congestion and pollution, rather than quality public transportation and smart, sustainable development,” said Obama. “And we’ve been keeping communities isolated when we should have been bringing them together.” He offered no details on how the administration would accomplish this, beyond name-checking the oft-touted Sustainable Communities Initiative, but considering his predecessors’ records on sprawl, it is a dramatic step just for Obama to articulate the right principles.
Ben Adler is a journalist in New York. He is a former reporter for Grist, The Nation, Newsweek and Politico, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The New Republic.