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The Obama Urban Vision: Can It Come To Pass?

William H. Hudnut III / Feb 01 2010

For Release Monday, February 1, 2010

William Hudnut An Indianapolis-area ex-CEO of a hospital group called me the other day — not about health care policy, but rather regional planning in central Indiana. He wasn’t interested in some way to force unified regional government — to expand the geographic scope of Indianapolis’ Unigov system, which Dick Lugar (now Indiana’s senior senator) founded in 1969-70 and I later led as mayor for 16 years. This ex-CEO’s concern was different: How do we get the region’s top players on the same page when it comes to such critical issues as land use, transportation and housing.

The call was heartening because it demonstrated to me how America’s business leaders are starting to grasp that in this new, mobile, wired age of ours, boundary lines are relatively meaningless and obsolete. And that some are willing to take the lead to create new ways of approaching regional problems–quite far ahead of most political leaders, I might add, who too often are little more than self-protecting institutionalists, or so rigidly ideological that pragmatism has fled them.

But the new light’s not just coming from business leaders. President Obama “gets it,” even though between understanding and implementation, between the cup and the lip, slips can occur and good ideas can die. But in remarks made to a delegation of the U.S. Conference of Mayors last week, the President talked about the importance of rebuilding and revitalizing our cities and metropolitan areas. This was not a point he made in his State of the Union address, having other pressing matters he had to deal with. But to the mayors he did outline his administration’s urban vision of creating “economically competitive, environmentally sustainable, opportunity rich communities that serve as the backbone for our long term growth and prosperity.”

The president outlined three important components of the strategy, which will be backed up with dollars in the new budget he presents in a few weeks. First, “build strong regional backbones for our economy by coordinating federal investment in economic and workforce development.” He pointed out that what’s good for a central city is also good for the region: “Today’s metropolitan areas don’t stop at downtown.” A strong Denver means a strong Aurora and Boulder in Colorado, he said. “Strong cities are the building blocks for strong regions, and strong regions are essential for a strong America.”

Second, the president talked of creating livable, sustainable communities through smart growth policies that discourage sprawl, congestion and pollution: “When it comes to development, it’s time to throw out old policies” that lead to sprawl and the isolation of communities from each other. “We need strategies that encourage smart development linked to quality transportation that bring our communities together.” And he pledged partnership between federal agencies (HUD, EPA and DOT) and cities so that “when it comes to development, housing, energy and transportation policies go hand in hand.” He commented to applause that “we will build on the successful TIGER (“transportation investment generating economic recovery”) discretionary grants to ‘put people to work and help our cities rebuild their roads, their bridges, train stations and water systems.'” (In the same week he announced his $8 billion federal high-speed rail grants–also a plus for connected metro areas.)

A third administration strategy, the president told the mayors, is to “create neighborhoods of opportunity.” He acknowledged that the causes of economic distress in many neighborhoods are “deeply rooted and complicated,” but he also spoke of “simple” things that could address neighborhood needs: “access to good jobs, affordable housing, convenient transportation that connects both, quality schools, health services, safe streets and parks, and access to a fresh, healthy food supply.”

I like that approach–encompassing, as it does, the “efficacy of the little good.” Because, truly, it is the “little” things that count, not so much big endeavors like a sports stadium or convention center (which I also believe in, and supported as mayor). The fact is there’s no magic bullet for urban revitalization. The best strategy is to mind the store well, to focus on the the basics—street lighting, sidewalks, trees, trails, corner grocery stores, pubs, police horse and/or bike patrols, newspaper stands, parks and green space, and on and on–that can make a neighborhood livable and sustainable. Combine those strategies with sensible and conserving regionalism, and you have a really powerful package.

So will the comprehensive, connected urbanism–the urban vision the president articulates–ever become reality? Will Congress and the American people support the urban vision and program? Some will say it’s too much, some say it’s not enough. Everyone wonders where the money will come from. But–if the urban initiatives the President Obama speaks of are supported in the new federal budget, the vision will be furthered, maybe historically. Let’s hope so.

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One Comment

  1. Posted February 2, 2010 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    As an urbanist and regionalist agreeing with Obama’s urban vision is a no brainer. Yet, I believe as much as physical planning (transportation and other infrastructure, etc.) we need cultural unifying forces which heritage area partnerships have been in recent decades. So, why has Obama cut the very modest Interior program in half? Very sad. Paul Bray