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.
Presidents turned away from cities as cities lost population -- and potential voters. The word "urban" became code for "black" and "problem-ridden." Federal urban policy, always a series of stopgap measures to fill deficits and ward off violence, began to fade.
Meanwhile, urban and suburban areas came to dominate the national economy. Metropolitan areas now generate two-thirds of the country's jobs and fuel the economies of 44 of the 50 states, according to Brookings.
Obama seemed to appreciate the idea of redefining "urban" investment. A man who spent his childhood in Honolulu and Jakarta, Indonesia, studied as a young man in Los Angeles, New York and Cambridge, Mass., and rooted his career in Chicago, Obama has been shaped by cities to a larger degree than any president for nearly a century.
Starting with a speech to mayors during his campaign last June, Obama said "anti-poverty policy" should not be confused with a "metropolitan strategy." He created the first White House urban affairs office by executive order less than a month after his inauguration.
Carrión has yet to articulate a clear agenda, though he wants to spark a national dialogue on urban topics with an eye on the 2011 budget. The Obama administration has engaged in unprecedented outreach to mayors, and Carrión has launched regional conference calls with elected officials. And theorists have been visiting the White House to weigh in on what metropolitan policy could accomplish.
Advocates of equal opportunity hope a new policy could diversify poor neighborhoods and provide poor people with access to better jobs, schools and housing throughout metropolitan regions that are no longer hindered by a "hole in the doughnut" -- a decayed and neglected city core.
Economists say integrated regional policy could be key to recovery for places such as Wall Street, Detroit and New Orleans.
Environmentalists say coordinating new housing with public transportation and nearby jobs could arrest sprawl and discourage driving.
And pragmatists note that the metropolitan area of a city like New York -- which spans three states, dozens of counties and hundreds of municipalities -- could run more efficiently with integrated plans in areas such as water, transportation, education and jobs.
Meanwhile, mayors hope metropolitan policy will amplify their cities' strengths.
Take Seattle. It is legendary for its technology and aerospace businesses -- but the Boeing and Microsoft headquarters are actually outside city limits, said Mayor Greg Nickels (D).
"Metropolitan areas are not just where some of the economy occurs, but where almost all of the economy occurs," said Nickels, who is the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. "We have had no structures and no relationship between these metropolitan areas and the federal government to take advantage of that."
"There has been a pent-up demand for this kind of focus," Carrión said. "The recovery will play out and will be buttressed by our cities."