Given that the world's eyes are focused on Washington, DC, this week (we're even having our own Obama inauguration celebration tomorrow at CityCaucus Tower, cash bar for the lower floors of course) let's have a look at how the new US president plans to approach the challenges faced by cities.
Looking at Obama's campaign website (these sites tend to morph or disappear once an administration gets underway, so we'll check back to look at this in a year or so), there is a page devoted to Urban Policy. The key three areas discussed are:
Strengthening the federal commitment to cities, and opening a White House Office for Urban Policy;
Stimulate economic prosperity through job creation and small business grants;
Make housing more affordable by improving access to credit and increasing supply of "affordable" housing.
The fiscal challenges facing the USA are gargantuan, despite the huge political capital built up by Barack Obama. What are some of the details, and does it have a chance to succeed?
Barack Obama is the first US president in decades to rise from urban politics. Therefore, one would hope that cities will be front of mind for the country's leadership. If only running the United States were that easy. There are thousands of constituencies within the country, and the affairs of the globe to consider as well.
Obama's campaign platform identifies what they see as the problem facing American cities:
Failing Commitment to America's Economic Centers: Today, government programs aimed at strengthening metropolitan areas are spread across the federal government with insufficient coordination or strategy. Worse, many federal programs inadvertently undermine cities and regions by encouraging inefficient and costly patterns of development and local competition.
So the problem is partly about how money is doled out. It is also about "inefficient and costly patterns of development." To me, that's this latter phrase is the most interesting part of this statement. If they are speaking of urban sprawl, are they taking aim at how tax dollars make it too easy to develop in remote suburbs? If more dollars were poured into urban infrastructure, and less into increasing highway capacity for commuters that could be a good signal.
Much of the rest of Obama's Urban Policy framework sounds like an attempt to address urban poverty. The plan discusses workforce training, minimum wage increases, local entrepreneurship programs, small business grants, crime reduction and early childhood education. But in terms of city-making there are some interesting proposals:
Build More Livable and Sustainable Communities: Our communities will better serve all of their residents if we are able to leave our cars, to walk, bicycle and access other transportation alternatives. As president, Barack Obama will re-evaluate the transportation funding process to ensure that smart growth considerations are taken into account.
Use Innovative Measures to Dramatically Improve Efficiency of Buildings: Barack Obama and Joe Biden will work with cities so that we make our new and existing buildings more efficient consumers of electricity.
Foster Healthy Communities: How a community is designed – including the layout of its roads, buildings and parks – has a huge impact on the health of its residents. For instance, nearly one-third of Americans live in neighborhoods without sidewalks and less than half of our country's children have a playground within walking distance of their homes. Barack Obama introduced the Healthy Places Act to help local governments assess the health impact of new policies and projects, like highways or shopping centers.
Re-thinking buildings and encouraging walkability are very important steps in a nation over reliant on oil and suffering the scourge of obesity.
Nowhere in the document is there any commitment to public transportation infrastructure. Granted these tend to be more local and state initiatives, but it is with federal partnerships they only become possible.
Here is an interesting critique of the Obama plan for cities from City Journal. Writer Steven Malanga equates the Obama plan with the failed "Tin-Cup Urbanism" practiced by well-meaning idealogues in the 1960s, when urban decay was at its zenith.
The sad truth is that Obama and the government he leads have no dollars left to experiment with a new range of social programs. The greatest minds will have to coalesce around and think creatively on how to improve American cities, and how to get people out of their beloved automobiles. I suggest they take a close look at Metro Portland, OR, and our very own Metro Vancouver region to see worthwhile North American-style models on how to battle sprawl, and undertake a true debate on the future of Urban USA.