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The Return of Good Ideas

Urban density, regional planning are fashionable again

Barack Obama is getting an earful these days. His speechwriters’ work seems to indicate that he is at least beginning to listen to some of the new thinking on cities, regional economics, regional planning, and other critical issues, even though there is yet little evidence to show that Obama understands the need for a genuine paradigm shift in federal policy.

Practitioners, intellectuals, and a few of us who try to both think and act have been meeting and agreeing for years at the big talk-fests, like those at the Brookings Institution, but until gasoline hit $5 a gallon, we were mainly speaking to each other.

The Urban Land Institute ( leads local real-estate developers to see the opportunities in creative re-use of old properties in big, swelling cities. The Congress for a New Urbanism (, led by thinker-practitioner John Norquist, former mayor of Milwaukee, gets serious projects going with serious money. These folks are translating concept into housing and multiple-use developments.

A paradigm shift long ago occurred in the minds of policy analysts. Even the Luddites of the modern stage, the libertarians and anti-government ideologues over at the Cato Institute ( nowadays debate which public transit systems will work better, not whether public transit is an option. (Public transit requires tax money. O my! Taxes!)

But these changes among a few real-estate developers and ex-mayors have yet to find a national political voice. And until $5-a-gallon gasoline is seen for what it is—a fundamental economic change, one that requires a return to this 5,000-year-old notion we call “the city”—then we can’t expect Washington policy to change.

The rhetoric of olden times

Forty years on, we still hear the unreconstructed, racially coded, city-versus-suburb language that Pat Buchanan crafted especially for Richard Nixon in the 1968 election.

The only difference is, we hear it with the nuance of Bill Clinton circa 1992.

So even though gas at $5 a gallon is already pushing profound changes in consumption patterns for everything—and could create an almost instantaneous new national economics for manufacturing in the USA, and for distributing goods in local stores rather than in mega-warehouses one can only drive to—it is still easy to tell the Democrats from the Republicans because they talk in terms that only make sense in the Neverland called “Cheap Gas Here.”

Even Obama uses carefully coded language about our “distressed” or “failing” cities, making sure to promise big-city mayors that Washington dough will be coming, but couching the promise of largesse in the language of tough love, crime control, welfare reform, and modest aspirations.

Republicans are the ones who promise mayors nothing, or less than nothing, and tell the white suburbs that taxes will be cut, and that “distressed” or “failing” cities will have to be virtuous (welfare reform, school vouchers, enterprise zones) and earn their way, gol’ dang it.

One hundred bucks for a tank of gas makes those positions obsolete. Consumers whose SUVs are now worth less than they owe on them; consumers who are stranded in once desirable suburbs that now cost too much to get to; consumers who no longer consume the old way because it costs them $15 to go to the grocery story—these people will drive change. And quickly.

Metropolitan economies. Metropolitan planning?

While we await the rhetoric of national politics to catch up to the realities of the marketplace, watch carefully as mayors suddenly start getting their wishes: more new in-migrants, more yuppies, more empty-nesters, and more (if they’re very lucky) low-wage immigrants whose first language is not English. (Over 44 percent of bustling Toronto’s population is foreign-born. Almost 30 percent of New York City is immigrant. Immigrants create and sustain economic growth.)

But then watch as those immigrant-happy mayors squirm—because the infrastructure in most cities has been neglected for so long, and the tax bases have been so injured by churches and foreclosures, and then by Jack Kemp policies like Empire Zones and Empowerment Zones, that there’s no source of infrastructure money other than Washington.

Sadly, Washington’s extra money is gone, and huge deficits yawn.

One hundred bucks-per-tank gas could be ending the 50-year era of suburbanization—where jobs and shopping left downtowns and became accessible only by car—ust at the time when there is no money readily available to fix urban regions.

Barack Obama is going to have to have a 100-day plan that translates into a 2010 budget investment strategy for the next eight years. Or else John McCain is going to have to create a national transit-oriented housing strategy, complete with the new version of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “national defense highway system,” which was how the anti-tax conservative Republicans sold the public on the most massive public works program in American history.

Regions, not cities. All the intellectuals at the Brookings Institution (, and many others, have been saying that it’s time we started understanding that just as diseases and crime cross municipal boundaries, so do economies. Economies are regional.

Where have you heard this before?

It’s a federal government issue, not just a local government issue. Buffalo and Amherst and Cheektowaga are all in the same economy, and that they shouldn’t be sliced up into different Congressional districts, each competing for slices of the “city” and “suburb” pies.

The reality is, as Joel Giambra knows only too well, that elected officials are today empowered to slice up funds, plans, and projects within metropolitan regions. Giambra in 2004 was inches from reaching bipartisan city-county political agreement for at least putting a city-county merger to referendum when the institutional momentum for preserving “city” and “suburb” overtook, overwhelmed, and then smothered his initiative.

Necessity, however, seems to make breakthroughs possible.

Witness Sacremento, California. A recent Wall Street Journal report on the regional planning efforts of the four counties around Sacramento shows that hell is freezing over, or else that gasoline crisis is stimulating a return—a very abrupt return—to planning for urban density.

But note that it’s planning and land-use, and not governance, that is getting the attention.

Brookings has it right. America is indeed, as Bruce Katz says, a nation of metropolitan economies—a “metro nation.”

We need a president who will empower a policy that takes the next logical step. Where there is a metropolitan economy, there should be metropolitan planning. Where there is metropolitan planning, there should be metropolitan government.

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