President Obama and the forgotten urban agenda

Posted: January 18, 2012 in Politics, Socio, The People's History
Tags: , , ,

Under President Obama, key federal agencies have begun to shift away from subsidizing suburban sprawl and toward reviving cities and creating dense, walkable, transit-friendly communities. Obama has put smart-growthers and new urbanists in key positions, begun to realign government agencies to prioritize sustainability, and launched partnerships and initiatives that one Bush administration veteran calls “mind blowing” — in a good way. Even Obama’s allies agree, however, that serious reform may have to wait for a second term. If there is one.

The bigger picture includes a jumble of agencies and acronyms that’ll glaze your eyes and numb your brain. But here’s a quick list of some of the more notable things that Obama has done for cities, followed by a tale that might make you tear your hair out.

  • Obama created a special post at the White House for cities. Derek Douglas, a Yale-trained attorney who once worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, served as the president’s special assistant for urban affairs until he departed recently for a post at the University of Chicago.
  • The administration funneled more than $2.6 billion in stimulus money to transportation projects through the so-called TIGER grants. A significant chunk of this money went to transit and “complete streets” projects that benefit bicyclists and pedestrians as well as cars.
  • Another stimulus offshoot, the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, sent $7 billion to cities and states to help deal with the aftermath of the housing crisis. The funding allowed cities to repurpose or redevelop abandoned and foreclosed properties.
  • Through a pilot program called Strong Cities, Strong Communities, six struggling burgs have received expert help in the form of “fellows” who’ve helped fill understaffed city offices and promote economic revitalization.

Obama’s most farsighted effort — and the one that best illustrates what he’s up against — is the Sustainable Communities Initiative, which brings together the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to decide where government development dollars are best spent. How sensible, you’re thinking — let’s get the people who build the roads (or train lines or bike lanes) together with those that oversee housing and development policy, and toss in the people charged with making sure that we don’t create a mess of the environment in the process. But this wasn’t happening before.

“Having a real and functioning partnership with HUD and DOT was beyond my wildest dreams,” says Ilana Preuss, who spent seven years in the EPA’s smart growth division under George W. Bush. Preuss, who is now chief of staff at Smart Growth America, says her work received consistent funding during the Bush years, but it wasn’t because of leadership from the top. Bush’s first two EPA chiefs, both former Republican governors — Christine Todd Whitman from New Jersey and Michael Leavitt of Utah — came from states that had strong smart growth policies.

“The major difference now is that [smart growth] is getting White House support, and there is this cross-agency partnership,” Preuss says. “That is a night and day difference.”

via President Obama and the forgotten urban agenda | Grist.

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