Obama Urban Policy Ideas Likely to Have Consequences

By Barnes, Bill | Nation's Cities Weekly, July 27, 2009 | Go to article overview

Obama Urban Policy Ideas Likely to Have Consequences


Barnes, Bill, Nation's Cities Weekly


"Ideas Have Consequences." That title of Richard Weaver's conservative classic reminds us that the way we think will shape what we do.

So, what are the ideas that are shaping the Obama Administration's efforts regarding the federal government and cities?

On July 13, President Obama's new Office of Urban Affairs convened a White House Urban and Metropolitan Policy Roundtable. The event, including the President's speech, launched the effort to translate ideas into consequences. Obama announced an inter-agency review of federal programs and a series of "conversations" to be held in locations around the nation. (See related story in the July 20 Nation's Cities Weekly.)

Obama has sketched a set of significant and far-reaching ideas that potentially take us to a federal policy. framework that is more appropriate to 21st century conditions than the ideas that have dominated the field for decades. He has not laid out an "urban policy;" he has outlined key concepts for a foundation on which such a policy might be built.

His ideas also provoke some important questions. Obama's new ideas deserve to be celebrated and more fully developed, and the questions they stimulate deserve to be fully deliberated.

In a June 2008 campaign speech, candidate Obama declared that cities "need a partner in the White House." But federal policy, he said, is stuck in "old ways" and "in an earlier era." Cities need a partner "who knows that the old ways of looking at our cities just won't do." (That is, ideas matter.)

What are these old ways? And what are the new ones?

A Metropolitan Focus

First, Obama criticized the approach that "focuses exclusively on the problems of our cities, and ignores our growing metro areas." There's a "new metropolitan reality," he said, "and we need a strategy that reflects that."

This metropolitan region focus is a major step. It brings Obama into line with much of the academic and think tank research, as well as a lot of local practice, of the past two decades. It draws especially on the work of the Metropolitan Policy Program at The Brookings Institution. Obama's 2008 speech made special mention of the program's director, Bruce Katz, and Katz and his colleagues have contributed significantly to the start-up of the urban and metropolitan parts of the new Administration.

What is metropolitan? Is this a new structure in the governance system, defined by the Census Bureau's statistical definitions? Or, is it a target of concern and an invitation to flexible, collaborative processes aimed at addressing shared problems?

What about places that are not metropolitan? On July 13, Obama slipped around this question, !declaring that "our urban and rural communities are interdependent" and therefore there's not a zero-sum game going on here. If so, why not talk about regions that encompass them both and that cover the whole nation?

More effort will be needed to get beyond the vocabulary and the bureaucratic pigeon-holes that divide regional socio-economic reality into urban and city and suburb and rural and so on.

Further, surely these metropolitan areas are not autonomous silos, independent of one another and the rest of the globe. This is particularly crucial to the economic dimension, where forward and backward flows of goods, services and money make the system work. (Think of the network of "auto communities" so much in the news these days.) So, where's the analytic framework that helps us see the interconnectedness as well as the competition among and across regions?

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