White House to Push Forward on National Urban Policy Agenda

By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 12, 2009; 11:12 AM

After remaining out of the public eye since its creation in February, the White House Office of Urban Affairs plans on Monday to launch a public conversation to create a national urban policy agenda, said Adolfo Carrión Jr., its director.

The White House will host a daylong urban policy discussion including mayors, county executives, governors, urban policy experts, and heads of various agencies, Carrión said in a telephone interview yesterday .

President Obama is expected to address the conference and announce plans to send Carrión and other senior administration officials on a tour of American cities to discuss urban issues, Carrión said.

The conference is the first indication that the White House could back its urban policy office with the kind of muscle that Obama suggested during his campaign, before the economic collapse. He called for a new kind of urban policy to address cities and also their suburbs, and urban advocates hoped that this could be a focus of his administration's economic development approach.

"We have not had a national urban policy for decades," said Carrión. "Meanwhile, the economy has changed."

Those gathered Monday will consider local initiatives that could become best practices to emulate, with the goals of increasing the competitiveness, sustainable development and opportunity of metropolitan regions.

The conference is to present an interdisciplinary approach to urban issues and include the heads of the Departments of Labor, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development, and of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Small Business Administration.

Carrión said discussion will include initiatives like Choice Neighborhoods, a new HUD program that provides poor neighborhoods not only with housing, but also social and economic benefits, like day care and farmers' markets; and Promise Neighborhoods, a Department of Education program modeled after the Harlem Children's Zone, to improve academic achievement and life skills by offering after school and weekend sports, social and arts activities.

The conference will include several dozen policy experts, including Bruce Katz, the director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, who developed some of the ideas that led to the creation of the Office of Urban Affairs. Bankers, planners, and advocates will also attend.

Meanwhile, the listening tour is to begin this month, said Carrión, and continue through the fall, reaching public school auditoriums and factory plants, and including developers, housing and environmental advocates, educators, health care providers, public safety officials, and local elected officials.

Analysts have said that the most important thing Carrión's office can do is outline a national agenda for metropolitan areas, after decades of federal inaction.

Carrión said the listening tour reflects Obama's philosophy that "the best solutions are in communities," where answers have "bubbled up" despite a lack of federal guidance and support.

Obama grew up in Honolulu and Jakarta, and forged his career in Chicago, as a community organizer, and he has been shaped by cities to a greater degree than any president in nearly a century.

"For too long government has operated from the top down," said Carrión. "We've always heard why does the national government send down these unfunded mandates, under funded mandates, mandates that are not necessarily universally applicable. The bottom-up approach speaks to the need for this to be flexible."

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