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President's in the 'Hood
Obama's new urban policy post seen as boon to cities

Rampant sprawl. Rusting infrastructure. Rising tides. Such is the legacy of federal policy gone MIA from urban areas. “The absence of policy over the last eight years, when you take a step back, is just shocking,” said Thomas Wright, executive director of the Regional Plan Association. “Policy has been an innocent bystander.”

So as President-elect Obama assembles his staff, no position has been more anticipated among architects and planners than the White House director of urban policy. This new post, reporting directly to the president, will take charge of all federal urban programs. And it is widely expected to champion urban initiatives long hobbled by Washington dysfunction.

Most promisingly, the post should help coordinate agencies that shape urban affairs. “Each of the various departments, whether it’s Energy or Transportation or Housing, often ends up being siloed and unintentionally working at cross-purposes,” said Maureen McAvey, executive vice president of the Urban Land Institute’s initiatives group. “If this office can have a really integrated policy—particularly between housing and transportation and climate change and energy use—that would be really helpful.”

Such a strategy could encourage homeownership near transit hubs, Wright points out, by providing incentives such as location-efficient mortgages, or loans that factor in transportation costs. It could combat climate change by creating federal programs to encourage pedestrian-friendly streets. In the context of global warming, it could rethink funding formulas that dole out far greater federal subsidies for building roads than for mass transit.

And as Obama has noted, many federal programs undermine cities by encouraging development that makes no sense within today’s more regional growth patterns. “Washington remains trapped in an earlier era,” Obama told the U.S. Conference of Mayors in June, “wedded to an outdated ‘urban’ agenda that focuses exclusively on the problems in our cities, and ignores our growing metro areas.” In response, he hopes to overhaul transportation funding to encourage smart growth; prod metropolitan planners to enact policies that favor bicycles and pedestrians; and support regional “innovation clusters,” among other ambitious goals.

Yet some question how much headway Obama can make. “The combination of neglect and outright hostility from previous administrations is daunting,” said Tom Angotti, director of the Center for Community Planning and Development at Hunter College. “It’s going to be a very difficult road.” Angotti also emphasized that Obama’s metro-area focus could shortchange other pressing needs. “Instead of rebuilding highways that are only going to put more polluting automobiles out there, let’s rebuild low-income housing,” he said. “I’m just afraid that these really urgent issues are going to get lost in a broad smart-growth strategy.”

Little is known about the new position’s specific mandate. Obama has been mum on candidates for the job, though one contender is thought to be Bruce Katz, the Brookings Institution’s chair in urban and metropolitan policy (Katz has called such speculation “premature”). What’s clear is that the White House is amassing urban experience, notably in senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, who served as Mayor Richard Daley’s planning commissioner and as chairwoman of the Chicago Transit Authority. That has given many cause for hope.

“This will be the first time in my professional life that we’ve had a president who comes from a city and has a strong urban agenda,” Wright said. “That position is not going to be your grandparents’ urban policy.”

Jeff Byles