A President Of the City and For the City

November 6th, 2008 · 1 Comment · Beyond Gotham

On the balmy night of Nov. 4, a jubilant crowd gathered at New York’s Times Square, arms uplifted, flags waving, many shouting “Obama! Obama!” They poured into the crossroads of the world to celebrate the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States.

How fitting that such an outpouring for Obama’s victory happened at one of America’s main city spaces. Revelers also took to the streets in Harlem and Washington, D.C., among other places around the globe caught up in the night’s elation.

For the site of their own post-election gathering, Obama and his campaign chose not a suburban hotel ballroom but a great city park, Chicago’s Grant Park, the scene of open-air concerts, festivals, and major civic events. The very place where police and demonstrators clashed in bloody confrontations during the Democratic Party’s national convention in 1968 became the scene of a glittering night where thousands wept tears of joy upon hearing the news that Obama had defeated John McCain and became our first African-American President. The healing of a public space reflects the continuing healing of a country.

It’s wonderful that cities took center-stage on this night. For Barack Obama is a man of the city in ways beyond what many of our recent Presidents have been. And that – fortified by his sense that thriving cities and towns are important to the health of America – portends good possibilities for urban policy, historic preservation, smart growth, sustainable development, anti-sprawl efforts, energy conservation, and intelligent transportation priorities.

This hope – and it is a hope, not a conclusion – is grounded in Obama’s biography, his values, and his policy proposals. Obama and his family live in Chicago’s Hyde Park, a racially diverse neighborhood that is home to the University of Chicago (where Obama taught Constitutional law for 12 years) and many other cultural and educational institutions. In his mid-20s, Obama worked for a church-based community organization on Chicago’s South Side in areas such as tenants’ rights, job training, and college-prep tutoring. When he later graduated from Harvard Law School, Obama turned aside high-paying job offers from New York firms and instead headed back to Chicago to join a law firm there.

In my view, our incoming President is a refined kind of street guy. He plays hoops and enjoys going to his favorite city restaurants with his wife, Michelle. One can sense Obama’s comfort with and pride in Chicago. Does this matter? I think so. City life shapes a consciousness of community, neighborhood, and the interconnectedness of city and suburb in metropolitan regions. Though it may seem paradoxical to some, it means supporting rural communities and farms in a comprehensive approach as strongly as cities.

Hearing Obama speak about communities, I believe he “gets it” about how we need to be ever-vigilant and hard-working in restoring, revitalizing, and preserving our cities and towns and in taking a regional approach. In a campaign swing in Ohio over the Labor Day weekend, Obama told his audience that “we need to allow communities like Toledo to get back on their feet,” according to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. He warned those living in suburbs not to think their localities are protected from the hard times cities have often seen. “We’ve got to get past the notion that we can leave the cities to rot,” Obama said.

Actions Beyond the Words?

The Bush-Cheney Administration’s urban policy over eight years can best be summed up in two words: “ignore” and “imperil.” In contrast, the urban, energy, and rural policy proposals and views of President-Elect Obama and incoming Vice President Joe Biden give reasons to hope for progress, especially their Blueprint for Change. Among their key proposals:

  • Revise government priorities to promote walkable cities and take smart growth into account.
  • Support the building of more livable and sustainable communities. Obama has pledged to devote significantly more attention to investments that will make it easier to walk, bicycle, and access other transportation alternatives.
  • Reform federal transportation funding – which has been highway-centric and geared to no-longer-cheap gasoline – so that mass transit and alternative means of transportation receive a fairer share.
  • Support the increase of affordable housing.
  • Work with cities to dramatically increase the energy efficiency of buildings.
  • Create a White House Office on Urban Policy that will develop a comprehensive strategy for metropolitan areas and ensure that federal dollars are spent on the highest-impact programs.
  • Establish “Promise Neighborhoods” to bring concentrated strategies to areas of concentrated poverty. As part of this effort, leverage historic values as a component to revitalize the neighborhoods.
  • In rural areas, increase incentives for farmers and other private landowners to conserve land.
  • Upgrade rural infrastructure.

These are only part of the many proposals for a better urban and rural policy that Obama made public during the campaign. Now let’s be real. The new President and Vice President have a lot on their plate. The global economy is broken. The U.S. is losing hundreds of thousands of jobs. The nation is fighting two wars. Deficits are piling up. Health care is in dire need of attention. And the federal government, on a day-to-day basis, doesn’t shape land-use and growth decisions as much as local and state governments do.

However, a new Administration can make a significant difference. Plus, I take encouragement from President-Elect Obama’s observation that Presidents must “walk and chew gum at the same time.” Presidents, through the federal government’s powers in establishing funding priorities, tax incentives, and regulations and undertaking other actions, and through the bully pulpit, can indeed influence the progress of cities and towns.

Obama has said that the federal government needs to look at cities in new ways, not as problems to be taken care of, but as strong building blocks for entire regions. We can also take big clues from the types of people Obama appoints to key Cabinet and other federal posts that have to do with urban policy, transportation, energy, health and human services, and commerce, etc. Remember, we have an Administration currently that appoints foxes to watch the hen coops.

How to Learn More

It’s important to hold the new President and his Administration accountable in following up on their promises and in making the federal government a full partner in promoting, protecting, and sustaining cities and towns, fighting sprawl, expanding historic preservation, and making wise transportation decisions. Unfortunately, our nation is much more easily convinced of the importance of this when gasoline averages $4 a gallon than when it is $2.50. Yet the convergence of historic preservation, economic revitalization, and green policies is timely and necessary. The energy crisis and climate change are heightening the sense of how all of these issues interconnect.

You can read the Obama-Biden urban and rural policy proposals at barackobama.com. A grass-roots network of people from the preservation and rehabilitation communities named Historic Preservation for Obama supported the Democratic ticket and is seeking to make the President-Elect’s Blueprint for Change a reality. The National Trust for Historic Preservation wants to hear from you in setting preservation priorities that it will promote to President-elect Obama.

Lastly, I also plan to keep my eye on the Obama team’s plans – in switching from campaign mode to governance – to make use of the Internet and other technologies to expand citizens’ input and participation in key issues. (The Obama-Biden transition team has put up a new Web site and offers a place for citizens to share your vision of where the new Administration should lead the country.)

Historic preservation, smart growth, green energy, sustainable communities…those may seem like back-burner issues when an investment bank is going under, a corporation cuts thousands of jobs, or a family can’t afford to pay its bills. Ultimately, however, the Obama-Biden Administration must give these issues primacy precisely because the dots do connect to the larger forces of the economy, the environment, and the health of the planet and its people.

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