Wednesday, January 20, 2010

In waiting for the urban president

POLITICS. A year ago today, when Barack Obama moved into the White House to become the 44th U.S. president, many saw this as a starting point for a new urban future in America. President Obama quickly established a new White House Office of Urban Affairs and in the summer of 2009 he presented an ambitious new urban policy agenda.
When I visited president Obama’s adopted hometown Chicago a few months later, I could sense a great deal of optimism when I met a number of prominent urban thinkers.
“We now have support for our issues in the White House, especially from Obama himself. He is an urbanist, he understands these issues”, said John Norquist, the former mayor of Milwaukee who now heads the Chicago-based Congress for the New Urbanism.
“For the first time we have an urban president who grew up in cities. Not only cities in this country, but also in Indonesia. He understands that if we don’t improve the opportunities for urban areas and aim for sustainability, it will affect the quality of life and economy of this country”, said Jacky Grimshaw, vice president of policy at the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago.
You will hear more from these urban advocates later on in this blog.
On the first anniversary of the Obama presidency, has there proved to be ground for this optimism?
It would be easy to say that expectations have not been met. At the same time you only have to mention things like health care, rescuing the American economy, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, dealing with the threat of terrorism, reaching out to the Muslim world and negotiating climate change to understand the new urban policy hasn’t exactly been on top of the president’s agenda.
Still, a lot of the stimulus money the White House has set aside for the Recovery Act to save the American economy has been earmarked for projects in line with president Obama’s urban ambitions.
This includes things like retrofitting old city buildings to make them more energy efficient, broaden access to affordable housing and investing in transit projects extending light rail-services in car-dependent cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix, just to name a few.
A few days ago, the Oregonian in Portland reported on one innovative and climate-smart transit project partly financed by stimulus money that will add to that city’s reputation as a role model for modern urban thinking.
Eventually many of the initiatives now set in motion should help the United States and its cities on its way towards a more sustainable urban future.
The White House has also started a “National conversation on the future of cities and metros”, sending high-level representatives from Washington to metropolitan areas all around the country for a new dialogue.
An unprecedented partnership between government departments like HUD (Housing and Urban Development), DOT (Department of Transportation) and EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has been hailed, like in this analysis from the Brookings Institution.
Adolfo Carrion, whom president Obama named the first director of the Office of Urban Affairs, said in an interview that there is “pent-up demand” to reverse decades of unbridled sprawl and congestion encouraged by policies that favored suburban and rural constituencies over city dwellers.
Carrion thinks Obama’s approach to urban policy brings a “refreshing perspective” to issues that haven’t gotten much attention since the 1960’s and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs.

President Obama's adopted home town.

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