New White House Office to Redefine Urban Policy

Adolfo Carrión Jr., the office's director, said there has been demand for focus on urban topics.
Adolfo Carrión Jr., the office's director, said there has been demand for focus on urban topics. (Monaster, Thomas)
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By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 3, 2009

NEW YORK -- Once upon a time, when cities were poor and suburbs were rich, "urban policy" meant programs to alleviate poverty.

But in the last few decades, the cities and suburbs turned inside out. Poverty spread in the aging suburbs, as many encountered rising immigration, unemployment and crime. Wealth flooded once again to the cities, as urban living and enterprise came back in vogue. City and suburb started to look economically alike.

Now President Obama has created the Office of Urban Affairs, which seeks to redefine the word "urban." It aims to establish a policy agenda not just for inner cities, but for the suburbs that surround them, and it views these metropolitan regions as the country's economic engines.

"Part of our discussion as a country will be, 'What is urban?' " said Adolfo Carrión Jr., Office of Urban Affairs director. "We want to essentially tease out what the elements of a national agenda ought to be."

In his most definitive statements laying out the office's work, Carrión said in an interview that he hopes to spark a national conversation about urban needs. He said he plans to bring agencies together to change urban growth patterns and foster opportunity, reduce sprawl, and jump-start the economy.

His goals catch the White House up to a decade of theory from social scientists who have advanced a new idea of "metropolitan policy," especially those at the Brookings Institution, where the concept was coined. They say the national economy is made up of smaller regional economies centered around cities, which can be strengthened by integrated federal investment and planning across municipal borders.

Agencies already are incorporating a metropolitan approach. The Housing and Urban Development Department is pushing to integrate transportation with housing development on a regional scale. The Commerce Department is planning regional clusters for innovation. Carrión said he wants to encourage further efforts.

Yet critics of the White House office say federal government should not meddle in urban issues.

"Cities improved dramatically in periods when the federal government backed off the most," said Fred Siegel, a history professor at the Cooper Union who served as an adviser to former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R).

And it remains to be seen whether the new office, which aims to reverse decades of federal disinterest in cities, has the power to focus the administration's urban and economic development policies as envisioned before the economic crash. Carrión, the former Bronx borough president, is inexperienced on the national stage. His office has five staff members, though other agencies also have been tasked with an urban policy focus.

"It's not clear that the office, as established, has the tools or resources to make a lot of headway," said Brad Lander, a senior fellow at the New York-based Pratt Center for Community Development.

The concept of urban policy was born of race riots in the 1960s, when the federal government sought to "save" distressed neighborhoods. A backlash began in the '70s with the government's policy of "benign neglect" to inner cities on the edge of collapse. In the '80s, the government scaled back programs and funding, along with the idea that it had any business making policy for American cities. And in the '90s, President Bill Clinton reinstated urban programs.

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