As I’m sure you’ve all heard by now, President Obama had some interesting things to say at his meeting with the US Council of Mayors last week. In a talk that was mostly focused on economic issues and job creation, he took time to include some of his thoughts on sustainable development and the relationship between urban form, transportation policy, and the economic vitality of cities and neighborhoods. Naturally, many of the people interested in sustainable urbanism have been quite excited by the remarks.
That said, I wanted to take a closer look at what the President actually said. Is it worth getting excited about, and if so, why? When I first heard the remarks I didn’t find them to be all that… remarkable. So what did it look like after a little digging?
Let’s start by looking at the critical segment from his speech (emphasis added):
Two years ago, I addressed your gathering and I outlined a new strategy for urban America that changed the way Washington does business with our cities and our metropolitan areas. And since taking office, my administration has taken a hard look at that relationship — from matters of infrastructure to transportation, education to energy, housing to sustainable development. My staff has traveled around the country to see the fresh ideas and successful solutions that you’ve devised. And we’ve learned a great deal about what we can do — and shouldn’t do — to help rebuild and revitalize our cities and metropolitan areas for the future.
So the budget that I’ll present next month will begin to back up this urban vision by putting an end to throwing money after what doesn’t work — and by investing responsibly in what does.
Our strategy to build economically competitive, environmentally sustainable, opportunity-rich communities that serve as the backbone for our long-term growth and prosperity — three items: First, we’ll build strong regional backbones for our economy by coordinating federal investments in economic and workforce development — because today’s metropolitan areas don’t stop at downtown. What’s good for Denver, for example, is usually good for places like Aurora and Boulder, too. Strong cities are the building blocks of strong regions, and strong regions are essential for a strong America.
Second, we’ll focus on creating more livable and environmentally sustainable communities. Because when it comes to development, it’s time to throw out old policies that encouraged sprawl and congestion, pollution, and ended up isolating our communities in the process. We need strategies that encourage smart development linked to quality public transportation, that bring our communities together.
All of this is on the money, especially his frank statement that we need to link development and transportation together. However, this also happens to be all conjectural at this point. The President continues (emphasis added)…
That’s why we’ll improve our Partnership for Sustainable Communities by working with HUD, EPA, and the Department of Transportation in making sure that when it comes to development, housing, energy, and transportation policy go hand in hand. And we will build on the successful TIGER discretionary grants program to put people to work and help our cities rebuild their roads and their bridges, train stations and water systems.
Third, we’ll focus on creating neighborhoods of opportunity. Many of our neighborhoods have been economically distressed long before this crisis hit — for as long as many of us can remember. And while the underlying causes may be deeply-rooted and complicated, there are some needs that are simple: access to good jobs; affordable housing; convenient transportation that connects both; quality schools and health services; safe streets and parks and access to a fresh, healthy food supply.
So we’ll invest in innovative and proven strategies that change the odds for our communities — strategies like Promise Neighborhoods, neighborhood-level interventions that saturate our kids with the services that offer them a better start in life. Strategies like Choice Neighborhoods, which focuses on new ideas for housing by recognizing that different communities need different solutions. And, by the way, we’re also expanding the successful Race to the Top competition to improve our schools and raise the bar for all our students to local school districts that are committed to change.
Now things are sounding a little more interesting. To see where these things stand, let us next examine the programs that the President says he wants to focus on.
Lost in the midst of the healthcare mess this summer, the EPA, DOT, and HUD announced a new interagency agreement called the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. The Partnership is intended to bring all three agencies into cooperation, and provides a set of common principles to work under. Those principles, as listed in the announcement dated June 9, 2009 (here) are:
These goals represent a significant change from any previous guidance these organizations have been working for, and that in and of itself is laudable. In particular I appreciate the focus on energy security, and the recognition that sustainable communities can be (and should be) designed at all scales from the most intensely urban to the most rural. The Partnership lists methods for achieving these goals (see previous link), and I think on the whole they are reasonable ideas.
So the Partnership for Sustainable Communities is a sound idea, what about the other programs?
According to the Department of Education, the Promise Neighborhoods program exists to do the following:
This new initiative would provide competitive, 1-year planning grants to non-profit, community-based organizations to support the development of plans for comprehensive neighborhood programs, modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, designed to combat the effects of poverty and improve education and life outcomes for children, from birth through college. The core idea behind the initiative is that providing both effective schools and strong systems of support to children and youth in poverty and, thus, meeting their health, social services, and educational needs, will offer them the best hope for a better life. Grantees that develop promising plans and partnerships would be eligible to receive implementation grants the following year. The Department will encourage grantees to coordinate their efforts with programs and services provided by other Federal agencies, including the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Justice, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
This is an interesting program. Basically it’s saying that kids need more than just a good experience in the classroom in order to succeed as adults – they need life outside the classroom to be good for them as well. The challenge is that we live in a country where parents aren’t doing so great. Moderate to low income parents are increasingly not involved in their kids lives, as single-parent households and households where both parents are working full-time make up the vast majority of homes. (As an aside, high-income parents are increasingly over-involved in their kids lives, but that’s a separate problem).
So basically, this program exists to try and identify many of the things that these kids aren’t getting at home, and see if they can be provided at a neighborhood level. These include things like basic medical care and nutrition, as well as after-school care. Mostly, as I understand it, these efforts are aimed at keeping kids out of trouble when they’re not in the classroom. That’s a worthy goal, but sadly this is mostly a response the a greater societal challenge of contemporary parenting rather than a revolution in education.
Choice Neighborhoods looks like a little more interesting concept than Promise Neighborhoods. Here’s a summary of the program from the United Neighborhood Centers of America:
Choice Neighborhoods is a $250 million initiative intended “to transform neighborhoods of extreme poverty into functioning, sustainable mixed-income neighborhoods with well-functioning services, schools, public assets, transportation, and access to jobs.”
And as reported in the Washington Post:
The Obama administration is proposing a new program that aims to transform the nation’s poorest neighborhoods from head-to-toe: taking 10 urban centers with high concentrations of public housing and improving it while adding day care centers and even farmers markets, sidewalks and parks.
The $250 million proposal is a planning experiment and one of the most progressive proposals under consideration for the next budget year, building upon the Hope VI program, which over the past 17 years has torn down nearly 100,000 of the worst public housing projects in the country.
The initiative, if approved by Congress, will operate in the same way by redeveloping public and assisted housing, but it will include community development, and applicants will have to prove the transformation would be catalytic, said Bruce Katz, a senior adviser to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan.
This makes a lot of sense. If you’re going to have the government intervene in the housing market, the only way it makes sense is to create incubator environments that can revitalize a neighborhood. There should be two main goals: first, the affordable housing component should be designed in such a way that it is transparently distributed throughout the target neighborhood. It’s critical to avoid the super-concentration of poverty that occurred in the old modernist “housing projects,” and it’s also beneficial to avoid stigmatizing children. Children growing up in a mixed-income community aren’t going to be instantly labeled as “poor,” or, “troubled,” and that in and of itself can go a long way toward improving their situation.
But the second part of the program is what makes vastly more sense. There is, frankly, no point in investing in neighborhood development of any kind when the school system for that neighborhood is failing. It’s a waste. Able parents will not put their kids into a failing school system, so if that’s what you have you’ll be steadily concentrating poverty by default as those with means go elsewhere and only those without means remain. High vacancy leads to lower and lower prices and property values, which begins to institutionalize poverty in a neighborhood.
Looking at the President’s speech, I was initially a little underwhelmed. While a lot of urbanists were getting pretty excited, my gut reaction was, “what’s new here?” However, I think that in looking closer at the meat of what the President had to say, and what changes have occurred at the agency level throughout the past year, there is really starting to be some positive momentum. President Obama has been saying the right things about cities since he was on the campaign trail, and I’m glad to see that some of that is beginning to translate into action.
The question I have is why isn’t the President focusing on these issues more publicly? The healthcare situation is a political nightmare, and it’s sinking his job approval and costing him most of his political capital. If things continue as they are going right now, healthcare has a real chance at making Obama a one-term President.
The neighborhood development and transportation policies he’s put forward, on the other hand, seem well-grounded in best practices and a heavy dose of common sense. While not everyone is going to agree with every part of it, these policies are sound, and would probably garner widespread support. The fact that no notable opposition to them has emerged speaks to that reality. Why not make the public more aware of what the administration is doing that people widely support, instead of letting people think that healthcare is the only item on the President’s agenda?
It’ll be interesting to see what the President covers at the State of the Union address tomorrow. The room is going to be tense. Maybe spending time talking about some of the less controversial aspects of his administration would help.