Obama Paints a New Vision for Nation's Urban Policy
By Robin Shulman
Addressing a White House urban affairs summit on Monday, President Obama called for the "reinvention" of America's cities and metropolitan areas and vowed to spark a public conversation to create a "new, imaginative, bold vision" for urban policy.
The speech was Obama's first as president dedicated to urban issues, a subject he called "near and dear to my heart."
He promised to send Cabinet members across the country this summer to engage Americans toward the creation of a national urban agenda, and he announced, for the first time in 30 years, an intensive interagency review to take a "hard look" at how federal policy impacts urban areas.
The summit was the first indication that the White House might back its newly created Office of Urban Affairs with the kind of muscle that Obama suggested during his campaign. That goal, introduced before the economic collapse, would reverse decades of federal disinterest in cities.
The meeting convened dozens of policy experts, along with mayors, county officials, governors and a half-dozen agency heads to discuss how the federal government can help build competitive, sustainable and inclusive urban areas.
Obama noted that he has lived almost all his life in cities, including studying in Los Angeles, New York and Cambridge, Mass., and founding his political career in Chicago.
But he said that he defined "urban" as not just inner cities, but also their surrounding suburbs, asserting that there is no longer a divide between the two.
"Even as we've seen many of our central cities continuing to grow in recent years, we've seen their suburbs and exurbs grow roughly twice as fast," said Obama. "It's not just our cities that are hotbeds of innovation anymore, it's our growing metropolitan areas."
He said he would send members of his Cabinet and the Office of Urban Affairs to look at innovations in cities around the country to elevate as best practices.
Obama noted Denver, for its plans to build a public transit system to handle the city's anticipated growth; Philadelphia, for its urban agriculture; and Kansas City, which has weatherized homes and built a ecologically minded transit system in one low-income neighborhood.
The president also said he has directed the Office of Management and Budget, the Domestic Policy Council, the National Economic Council, and the Office of Urban Affairs to review federal policies impacting urban areas, in terms of infrastructure, transportation, housing, energy, sustainable development and education.
Obama acknowledged that the economic crisis has caused four out of five American cities to cut services, and 48 states to face the prospects of budget deficits in the coming fiscal year. But he said the federal government must do more than just help cities weather the current economic storm -- it must figure out ways to "rebuild them on a newer, firmer, stronger foundation."
He also presented a comprehensive effort to build sustainable communities, led by the secretaries of the Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Transportation, and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
"For too long, federal policy has actually encouraged sprawl and congestion and pollution, rather than quality public transportation and smart, sustainable development," said Obama.
He said that developing housing, transportation and energy-efficiency should "go hand in hand."
Posted at 7:00 AM ET on Jul 14, 2009
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