The world witnessed twin milestones last year. Barack Obama was elected the first African-American president in the history of the United States and, for the first time, over one-half of the world’s population lived in the city.
Connected and clustered, we are now an urban species, with dozens of mega-cities serving as global incubators for jobs, innovation and economic growth. It’s now time for the United States to compete with the world, but our cities are in no shape to perform. Lackluster investment in infrastructure has left roads crumbling and bridges falling; the shiny promise of a suburban home has quickly vanished, sending millions into bankruptcy or onto the streets; and the unchecked growth of gargantuan strip malls and infinite-lane highways, radiating outwards from the city and catalyzed by years of cheap fuel, has spewed a toxic panoply of gases into the air, leaving both our skies and futures a little hazier. All of this has occurred while the federal government looks to pass over $800 billion in stimulus funds and nearly one out of 10 Californians remain jobless. If the United States seeks to bounce back from this economic maelstrom and regain footing as a global leader in innovation and economic growth, it must rebuild its cities.
Fortunately, our president was weaned on city life. From Jakarta to Los Angeles to New York City to Chicago, President Obama is keenly aware of the complex, adaptive system that is the urban environment; consequently, he understands cities better than any president in recent American history. Obama has outlined an admirably detailed plan for his urban policy, and is undoubtedly serious about addressing climate change and transportation. The key questions are: Are his ideas sound enough to work, and will he follow through on them?
Obama’s urban philosophy was encapsulated in his speech at the Conference of Mayors last summer: “We need to stop seeing cities as the problem and start seeing them as the solution.” It sounds like mere rhetoric, but his statement undercuts a sad reality: For far too many presidencies, urban cores across America were seen as static areas wrought with crime and poverty rather than as assets that, when met with investment, could foster innovation and human capital. To this end, Obama has created the first ever Department of Urban Policy (DUP). The DUP, led by former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, Jr., will coordinate all federal funding for urban programs. This includes plans to fund fully the Community Development Block Grant program, which provides jobs and housing options for low to middle-income households.
The most promising facet of Obama’s urban policy is his plan to improve the livability of cities. A staunch advocate of “smart growth,” a philosophy that encourages alternative transportation and compact development, Obama will reassess federal funding and encourage investment in mixed-use, high-density developments. Furthermore, he recognizes the correlation between the physical design of cities and its impact on public health, thus advocating for ways to assess the health impacts of any new development, from freeways to shopping malls.
While the creation of another agency and layer of bureaucracy will give many a reason to pause, the DUP sets an important precedent for city finance. Land use decisions are a local affair, where cities are left to decide the best way to develop land under their jurisdiction. However, the federal and state governments, particularly in times of economic hardship, play a key role in providing the financing to kick-start large developments or urban programs. The DUP will provide useful representation for cities across the country while giving a realistic sense of how the federal government could play a part in encouraging smart growth.
Transportation, however, is another story.
Obama’s plan for infrastructure and transportation is promising. He wants to create a National Infrastructure and Reinvestment Bank that leverages private financing for public works projects. Such a bank could effectively create public-private partnerships that capitalize on private innovation in energy efficiency and apply them in a public setting. He also explicitly supports high-speed rail, revamping our air traffic control system and bolstering Amtrak.
All of this was fine until he appointed Ray LaHood as his Secretary of Transportation. LaHood, the former 18th District Republican representative from Illinois, is in some respects the antithesis to Obama’s transportation vision. He has consistently received the worst ratings from environmental groups and has a history of financial ties with the industries he will now regulate. While some applaud Obama’s attempts to reach across the aisle, many wonder why he would choose a Republican for a position as important as transportation, especially at a time when climate change has signaled the need for a sweeping new vision.
Obama’s stimulus package also shows only brief glimmers of hope for transportation. Of the few dollars earmarked for transit, most is for “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects, the great majority of which entail creating new roads. It is seemingly contradictory of Obama to promote the creation of more roads and highways on one hand – which will increase automobile use, traffic congestion and pollution – and to advocate solutions for climate change on the other. Instead, Obama should recognize that the big dig projects of yore, in which millions of people were employed and thousands of miles of road were laid out, were predicated on forecasts that ignored the impacts of global warming. A better idea is to earmark projects that reflect the link between transportation, land use and climate change, which could include the very smart growth projects Obama wishes to promote under his Department of Urban Policy.
President Obama faces the daunting task of creating long-term policies that will reshape our country, while also scrambling to find short-term solutions to dig us out of a recession. However, we’re in the unique position of spending massive amounts of money that will, ultimately, dictate the way our country looks and runs for the next few decades. Should we carry on with development as usual, or rethink the way we build our cities?
It’s time to make some difficult choices.
Ata ul Malik Khan is a graduate student studying urban planning. He can be reached at email@example.com.