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Message to President Obama: Do Not Forget the Suburbs

Robert E. Lang and Lawrence Levy / Mar 19 2009

For Release Sunday, March 22, 2009

Robert LangLawrence LevyAmerican suburbs are increasingly diverse places and the economic engines that drive metropolitan areas, which are the key to the nation’s prosperity. Suburban voters provide the decisive margins in congressional and presidential elections, including for Obama, who won big in the formerly Republican-leaning suburbs outside Denver, Minneapolis, Detroit, Orlando and Washington, DC. And suburban lawmakers, like their constituents, will be the “swing vote” in shaping his national agenda. If he cannot sell it just beyond the city lines, then he cannot sell it, period.

But we should not view the suburbs in political opposition but as part of a larger metropolitan area. That means treating cities and suburbs as seamless, synergistic wholes. As the Brookings Institution has documented in its Blueprint for American Prosperity, focusing more federal resources on metro regions and their considerable assets is essential to the nation’s ability to compete in a global economy.

That is why Obama should ensure that his urban advisors adopt a broader metro focus by creating an advisory council that includes suburban members as partners.

This is not a petulant call for pandering to vote-rich regions. If anything, bringing the suburbs in forcefully—and officially—into the administration would improve Obama’s chances of building support for the nation’s cities. Helping cities and suburbs realize that their futures are inextricably–and now desperately–tied will go a long way toward promoting powerful regional coalitions for mutually beneficial projects.

So far, in his pronouncements and appointments, including those of Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion Jr. as the White House Director of Urban Affairs and Derek Douglas as a special assistant to the president for urban affairs, Obama has sent less than reassuring signals to suburbanites. The locus of their professional and personal lives, as well as Obama’s, has been decidedly urban. In citing statistics about the need to boost cities, Obama erred–statistically and symbolically–in a way that seemed to leave the suburbs from the metro equation. Despite his assertion, 80 percent of the American people do not live in urban areas or cities. That is number living in metro areas. And almost two-thirds of the metro population locates in the suburbs.

This is not petty semantics. The misused data reflects a wide-spread misunderstanding of the suburbs’ role in American life–which, like it or not, is enormous. And the suburbs demand for more attention–including more federal stimulus funds–is not merely parochial pleading from prosperous people who don’t know real economic pain. They do.

Based on any number of indicators, from the rate of home foreclosures and poverty to a Hofstra University poll that showed 40 percent of suburbanites “living pay check to pay check,” the pain beyond the city lines is being felt more profoundly than ever before. In fact, according to a myth-busting Brookings study, the suburbs are home to more poor people than their central cities. Add to that the concerns about congestion and pollution, and the suburbs bear no resemblance to the stereotypes that have fed public misperceptions.

By bringing suburbia onto his metro radar, Obama can help himself politically and save the suburbs from a downward spiral that can only lead to more economic stagnation and social dysfunction. The suburbs cannot afford to simply perpetuate old problems–the sprawl, congestion and pollution–that reflect abysmal failures of planning and political will.

Instead of spending more on suburban road widening and extensions, a strong suburban advisory group would urge that Obama use his bully pulpit on behalf of expanding suburban bus and rail lines. Instead of digging up undeveloped land, suburban leaders would advise Obama to promote the replacement or expansion of sewers in suburban downtowns. The additional sewage capacity will allow for higher rise residences and businesses that could be more affordable and exciting and consume less energy.

Overall, Obama should advocate that suburbia not only get its fair share of federal funds, stimulus and otherwise, but that the money serve as a catalyst for change–for developing more walkable, environmentally friendly and energy efficient communities. Obama’s watchword should be “sustainability,” in city and suburb, now and in the future. And he should literally watch his words: It’s not urban or suburban policy he should talk about, but the more inclusive metro one.

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