District Is the Perfect Lab for Office of Urban Affairs

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, July 11, 2009

Last week's Washington Post report about the White House Office of Urban Affairs may lead some readers to wonder why this office has been created. Shouldn't West Wing denizens have been worried about cities before? After all, as The Post reported, cities are where most businesses and jobs are, where most American citizens live, where most votes are cast, and where most of the country's economic and cultural capital are generated and managed.

Focusing White House attention on "urban affairs," and more specifically on the health of metropolitan regions, is long overdue. Cities have been treated as stepchildren federally, often ignored as a matter of national politics and policies and obliged to fend for themselves. Until recently, many Americans viewed cities as unsafe, dysfunctional places to avoid or from which to flee at the earliest opportunity.

That includes the District of Columbia, which, despite being the nation's only federally chartered city subject to unfettered congressional rule and oversight, has been the victim of recurring national neglect.

When cities have not been ignored, the federal establishment has focused almost exclusively on deterring urban crime and alleviating inner-city poverty by financing slum clearance, subsidizing affordable housing and funding various forms of direct assistance to the poor.

Cities also have benefited from sporadic federal investment in transportation infrastructure as well as variable funding assistance for education, health care and public safety, plus ad hoc pork-barrel projects. But thought is rarely given to developing long-range federal policies and programs to proactively help manage and systematically shape metropolitan growth.

In fact, there is an appropriate and desirable federal role in city-building because many metropolitan areas, as they have grown, encompass or affect more than one state, as well as ecologically critical watersheds overlapping multiple states. Historic but increasingly meaningless political boundaries are transparent to the flow of money and goods, vehicles, air and water, pollutants, electric power and telecommunication signals, not to mention weather.

In pursuing a holistic federal strategy for addressing challenges facing metropolitan regions, the Office of Urban Affairs has its work cut out for it. The menu of federal agencies, programs and potential actions -- related to commerce and economic development, housing, transportation, public works, energy, environment, education, health -- is vast but largely uncoordinated.

Under Director Adolfo CarriĆ³n Jr., the White House Office of Urban Affairs has the daunting task of assessing this array of disparate programs and proposing a coherent "metropolitan policy" that makes political, economic and technological sense.

And what better laboratory in which to formulate and test a metropolitan policy than greater Washington, which encompasses one federal district, parts of two states and dozens of counties and incorporated municipalities?

Although politically fragmented, metropolitan Washington is an established geographic region of interdependent communities with a shared economy and shared ecosystem. With intelligent, well-coordinated federal guidance and financing, the region's prosperity and physical environment could be improved.

A regionally integrated approach to planning, funding and developing infrastructure would be especially welcome and effective in light of today's financial difficulties plaguing state, county and municipal budgets.

Of course, individual states, counties and cities will continue to be responsible for providing essential public services -- police, fire protection, schools, sanitation, street maintenance -- within their jurisdictions. But imagine how much more effective these services might be with better coordination across political boundary lines.

And who knows? With wise leadership from the White House, undertaking projects and programs regionally rather than locally might actually save money.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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