The Next Urban Agenda

By Katz, Bruce | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, February 4, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Next Urban Agenda


Katz, Bruce, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


The U.S. Conference of Mayors convened in Washington just in time to hear President Bush convey a renewed interest in domestic policy. As they digest the president's priorities and the response from congressional Democrats, the nation's mayors need to consider the next urban agenda.

It would be a mistake to rely on the urban policy playbook from the 1970s, or even the 1990s. Cities and the suburbs surrounding them have changed dramatically over the last 15 years; federal policy must change radically if it is to help cities extend their newfound prosperity and realize their full economic potential.

Broad forces have given cities a second life in the United States. Demographic forces -- immigration, aging, the rise of nontraditional households -- have reversed the urban population decline of the 1970s and '80s. At the same time, an economy based on innovation bestows new importance on densely configured urban places (where ideas are transferred easily from firm to firm) as well as institutions of knowledge -- particularly universities and medical research centers, many of which are located in the heart of central cities and urban communities.

As a consequence, cities once left for dead -- New York, Chicago, Boston, Louisville and Chattanooga -- are enjoying a rebirth. Asian and Hispanic immigrants are repopulating neighborhoods and spurring housing markets. Homeownership is up, unemployment is down. Cultural institutions, parks and restored waterfronts are adding to the livability of many cities. The picture, of course, is not complete - - poverty remains high, crime is a perennial issue and smaller cities like Camden and Hartford continue to struggle -- but the general direction is positive.

At the same time, suburbs are no longer the picket-fence commuter enclaves of the post-World War II era. Instead, many older suburbs are facing challenges similar to cities -- aging infrastructure, deteriorating schools and commercial corridors and inadequate housing stock -- while others are becoming more vibrantly urban, attracting high-density apartments, restaurants, walkable shopping districts and the other amenities of successful cities.

Despite these transformative changes, federal policy remains locked in a time warp of Great Society ideas about how cities and suburbs are defined, what their challenges are and how to address them.

Federal "urban" policy largely has been whittled to a series of policies -- subsidized housing, community reinvestment, empowerment zones -- that focus explicitly on the "deficits" of distressed urban communities.

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