Emerging Issues: Obama Urban Policy Ideas Likely to Have Consequences

July 27, 2009

"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 inter-connectedness as well as the competition among and across regions?

And where do states and local governments fit in this new reality? "Strong cities," says Obama, "are the building blocks of strong regions, and strong regions are essential for a strong America." The current White House website says the Administration will "take a regional approach that disregards traditional jurisdictional boundaries."

Clearly, a challenge going forward will be how to integrate economic, environmental and social concerns - the new metropolitan reality - with the intergovernmental aspects of this overall policy picture.

Cities as Solutions 

A second updating that's needed, according to Obama, is that "we also need to stop seeing our cities as the problem and start seeing them as the solution." This also is a major shift, a deliberate step away from what we might call the plight and blight view of U.S. cities. It's analogous perhaps to the asset approach that many analysts of neighborhood and community development urge should replace the deficit approach. This shift is a rhetorical change, and it may also imply changes in the targets for policy and programs.

Third, "an agenda that confuses anti-poverty policy with a metropolitan strategy ... ends up hurting both." The White House website says that the federal government should make investments "that result in inclusive economic growth" and avoid "creating winners and losers." The urban policy tapestry has long held multiple threads in it, including an anti-poverty focus and also a growth and development focus. Separating the two and then figuring out how best to re-weave them together may be useful. But it's hard to see the utility of keeping them apart.

A fourth new idea is to "break from the siloed approach to urban development ... and replace it with an integrated approach." On July 13, the President celebrated "a new interagency partnership on sustainable communities" that engages the Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Transportation along with the Environmental Protection Agency. On the other hand, despite the talk about the importance of regions for economic growth, there is no mention of "cities" or "urban" or "metropolitan regions" on the White House's "Economy" web page. And the fiscal difficulties that cities and towns face now and into the future don't seem to be in this picture yet.

Metropolitan regions. Asset approach. More than an anti-poverty focus. Getting the silos to work together. Obama proposes to take us to a new place, a policy framework with new consequences. With these ideas, we're not in the traditional urban policy arena anymore, and thoughtful conversations about where we're headed are surely warranted.

Details: The White House web page is at www.whitehouse.gov; find the "Issues" list and then click on "urban." The "urban policy" page includes a link to the President's July 13 speech.

The June 2008 campaign speech is not on the White House site. You can find it atwww.asksam.com/ebooks/obama-speeches/ and then look at the "Obama speeches" list. It's Number 146 in a chronological list, ending with the Inaugural Address of January 20.

The research and analysis of the Brookings Program can be found atwww.brookings.edu/metro.aspx.

Bill Barnes is the director for emerging issues at NLC. Comments about his column, which will appear regularly in Nation's Cities Weekly, and ideas about "emerging issue" topics can be sent to him at barnes@nlc.org

Previous columns are listed on the Emerging Issues webpage.