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Hope for Metro Regions In New White House Office?

Neal Peirce / Mar 19 2009

For Release Sunday, March 22, 2009
© 2009 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceWASHINGTON — Can the new White House Office of Urban Affairs live up to grand expectations?

Instead of primary focus on tired (and waning) subsidies for troubled inner cities, advocates for the new office are hoping for a radical shift to a federal partnership that focuses on entire metropolitan regions and their potential to produce innovation and restoke the American economy.

The reasoning’s straightforward. Unlike the hub-and-spoke city-suburban model of yesteryear, today’s 363 metro regions encompass broad swaths of multiple center cities, downtowns, suburbs and exurbs. The top 100 are an economic marvel: alone they account for 92 percent of air passenger boardings, two-thirds of major research universities, 75 percent of workers with graduate degrees, 78 percent of all patents.

All that activity–ideas and projects ricocheting across metro regions–are said to have multiplier effects that foster broad prosperity.

A companion argument is raised by Robert Weissbourd, who led Obama’s election and transition urban affairs task forces: the more smartly the metros invest in the untapped assets of their older neighborhoods and hard-pressed working class people, both in center cities and suburbs, the brighter the future of regions (and the nation) will be. The idea’s quintessential Obama–that we’re all connected, have a stake in each others’ success.

The president recognized metros during his presidential campaign, saying Washington has been “wedded to an outdated ‘urban’ agenda” mired in antipoverty policy alone–that it’s time “to stop seeing our cities as the problem and start seeing them as the solution.” So he promised an urban strategy “that’s about South Florida as much as Miami, about Mesa and Scottsdale as much as Phoenix, about Stamford and Northern New Jersey as much as New York City.”

Now he’s taken action with an Executive Order creating a White House Office of Urban Policy specifically focused on entire metros, not just cities. The office’s director will be given wide powers to work across federal departmental lines to reshape programs and approaches, making the federal government an aware and responsible partner for metropolitan America.

It’s a humongous task. Right now, says Weissbourd, a city is obliged to put together literally hundreds of “request for proposal” applications to two dozen federal departments. Metro leaders, notes Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, are frustrated by a forest of 108 federal transportation programs, 180 federal economic development programs, 44 workforce training programs. All are rife with rules and conditions.

In that “stovepiped,” rule-laden environment, how can metros collaborate with Washington to focus on key challenges? The question’s especially acute in an era when America won’t be able to solve its challenges of energy scarcity and climate change without closely aligned approaches in land use, transportation and location of housing.

So the White House Office of Urban Affairs will have to consult with metro leaders on needed reforms (and avoid getting governors annoyed in the process). It will have to work creatively with departments ranging from Transportation, Housing, Energy and Labor to the Environmental Protection Agency, coaxing historically “solo” bureaucracies into developing joint approaches. It must engage the powerful Office of Management and Budget in the process. And then it will have to persuade Congress to clear roadblocks. Phew!

One positive note: the new White House urban affairs director’s office will be well wired–reporting both to Valerie Jarrett, assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs and public liaison, and to Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

Obama’s selection of Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion to head the new office was a touch unsettling to some supporters of a more metro-oriented urban approach. They worry that Carrion’s experience is entirely New York City-related, without background either in city-suburban ties or federal policy.

The situation clouded recently as Carrion was obliged to deal with a Bronx prosecutor’s review of delayed payments for personal house design work by an architect who also received a zoning variance on a major housing project. Latest word was the issue would probably not prevent his continuing in his new office.

And the long-term possibilities for the new office are intriguing. It can encourage the administration’s macro-economists to take seriously the wealth-generating capacity of metros. Long-neglected Census tools can be ramped up to give metros a better compass on their status, mixing transportation, housing, energy and workforce issues. Federal policies that unintentionally hamper the work of metros can be singled out, targeted for change.

Weissbourd even advocates inviting civic and government leaders of individual metros to develop customized plans to connect their infrastructure, workforce, housing, transportation and business challenges, and then getting the new White House office to clear the way for positive cross-departmental federal response.

This isn’t just some kind of urban “constituency” politics, argues Katz, it’s potentially a refreshed federalism for the new century.

Still, moving it from concept to reality will be a tough test of the Obama White House’s political–and hard-nosed governmental–skills.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

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