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Federal and City-Metro Leaders: The Twain Finally Meet — And Act

MarySue Barrett / Oct 16 2009

For Release Friday, October 16, 2009

MarySue BarrettSandra Young, like so many public housing residents, long felt anonymous and warehoused. Yet last month, with tangible pride, she had the opportunity to show off Oakwood Shores, her new mixed income community, to high-ranking White House officials–Office of Urban Affairs Director Adolfo Carrion and Derek Douglas, special assistant to the President for Urban Affairs.

But Ms. Young, having learned a thing or two about community organizing, didn’t let the visit of the luminaries pass with mere pleasantries. She directed their eyes to the commuter rail tracks that pass by her attractive new home–but don’t stop anywhere near. She spoke passionately about her neighbors’ vision of a vibrant retail corridor, complete with a streetcar or trolley, along nearby Cottage Grove Avenue. Their vision is incorporated in a blueprint created by Reconnecting Neighborhoods, a community-led plan with a focus on connections between new homes, transportation, shopping, and jobs–a key point in federal officials’ discussions of their new urban approaches.

Rewind the clock 10 years. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had just committed $1.5 billion to raze 51 isolated and failed public housing high rises in Chicago and transform them into 10 new mixed-income communities for 25,000 families. Back then, there was no straightforward way to tap–simultaneously–federal resources for transit improvements, energy efficiency, and job training. The tragic result is that new communities, such as Oakwood Shores on Chicago’s South Side, are beautiful examples of housing transformation, but remain as disconnected from the surrounding city as the demolished public housing high rises.

White House staff and Cabinet officials were in Chicago last month as part of President Obama’s top-to-bottom review of federal policies that impede coordinated regional growth. Through a White House Office of Urban Affairs national listening tour, their charge was to tap ideas for more efficient investments and tools to support innovative community development occurring in spite of the status quo.

Prior to the tour, an unusual federal-metro-local convening took place last month. Director Carrion joined Lisa Jackson, administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Ray LaHood, secretary, U.S. Department of Transportation, and Shelley Poticha, director of HUD’s Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, to meet with 1,100 Chicago-area corporate, civic, government and community leaders on the occasion of the Metropolitan Planning Council’s (MPC) Annual Luncheon and 75th birthday celebration.

As MPC’s president, I moderated the four-star line-up and found my mind flashing back to the late 1990s, when metropolitan Chicago was struggling to return to a healthy economy. We woke up back then to the reality that city versus suburban competition was self-defeating. But regional cooperation was often thwarted by structural problems. Several key regional governmental institutions lacked the resources and tools to make their plans stick. An over-reliance on property taxes to fund local government, plus fierce competition between municipalities for sales taxes, stacked the deck against efficiency and cooperation.

The staggering wastefulness of it snapped me back to attention, just as Adolfo Carrion said, “This generation’s responsibility is to align investments to create livable, smart, productive, sustainable communities.”

He was describing both his office’s mandate and the new HUD-DOT-EPA Sustainable Communities Partnership. The Partnership is a signpost for future federal investments, pointing away from investing in silos via arbitrary funding formulas, and toward investing in programs and infrastructure that solve interconnected issues and are planned at the scale of problems they address.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson highlighted the urgent need for coordinated action, using the analogy that endangered species serve as society’s early warning system for troubled ecosystems. Likewise, she said, “The indicator species for a sustainable, livable community is pedestrians. If you have a growing and vibrant population of people who have the option of getting around using their own two legs–if you have that component built in, it really does change everything.”

Was I hearing the nation’s top environmental official encourage redesigning infrastructure to support sustainable communities? In Chicagoland and around the country, developers, local officials, and residents like Sandra Young would like to see many more well-designed, walkable communities with homes located near jobs and served by transit. But as was evident in Oakwood Shores, this type of development is too often stymied by the complexity of combining all the financial ingredients.

Among the places itching to put these emerging priorities into practice are 28 of Chicago’s south suburbs, now working together to leverage currently separate federal funding streams to rehab and resell foreclosed homes, to make energy efficiency improvements, and to attract new investment along the Calumet River and existing and planned transit lines. This groundbreaking alliance submitted a joint application for Neighborhood Stabilization Program funding, which inspired them to go further, sharing staff, creating a one-stop-shop for development approvals, pursuing joint economic development–and quickly catapulting to a national model.

The listening tour was a great first date, and metropolitan Chicago is among the regions decidedly ready for a fully committed relationship between local leaders and the federal government. Multiple federal agencies need to invest together in data-rich planning to prioritize and coordinate projects and grant flexibility to pursue regional priorities, while holding us accountable for sustainable results. We’re thrilled to hear the feeling is mutual, and we’re ready to move this relationship forward.

MarySue Barrett is president of Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council. Her e-mail address is columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to

One Comment

  1. Posted October 28, 2009 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    By changing international development focus toward the Urban Cities, are we abandoning the basic cultural elements of the small towns and agricultural communities that have been the foundation for the independent moral and ethical standards that underlie the world’s democracies and other free societies?