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The President for Cities

Eisenhower shaped America for 50 years. Will Obama?

If he is bold enough, the politician known as the president of the United States can influence social and economic history for decades to come.

president-elect Barack Obama

Here’s what President-elect Obama’s task could be:

He could so shape federal policies on energy, infrastructure, transportation, housing, and environment that the 60-year trend toward suburbanization could change, such that the city once again becomes the focus of human activity in this country.

Cities are about density. Density fosters creativity. Density requires civility. Density enjoys efficiency. Density stimulates innovation, a sense of shared purpose, distinctive regional identities, and creates wealth, too.

It’s a tall order for a mere politician. Few American presidencies have actually mattered to American culture and American economics as much as have wars, technological changes, and Supreme Court decisions like Roe v Wade and the one that said, essentially, that municipal boundaries will limit desegregation orders.

But sometimes, a visionary president actually changes America for decades to come.

Truman and Eisenhower changed America. Harry Truman created the engine of American prosperity—the college-educated middle class—by funding the GI Bill, which let veterans go to whatever college accepted them. Dwight D. Eisenhower literally reshaped the American landscape with his commitment to the interstate highway system. Both Truman and Eisenhower endorsed another policy that had a transformative impact: subsidized mortgages for veterans.

Ronald Reagan, as Obama has recognized, was a transformative force. Reagan endorsed the upward redistribution of income and the polarization of society by wealth, and when he pulled Jimmy Carter’s solar panels off the White House roof, Reagan explicitly committed this country to 30 more years of fossil-fuel dependency and the petro-capitalists’ dominance of American politics.

Obama needs a focus for his own transformative agenda. His focus should be the city.

To what end energy independence?

Obama has said that his policy priority will have to be energy independence.

Wonderful, laudable, necessary, and intelligent, that. Oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens is already at work on his $2 billion west Texas wind farm. A compelling study of the potential economic impact of Great Lakes wind-turbine development ( lays out that achieving even a 20 percent threshold of electricity production via wind-turbines would mean tens of thousands of jobs for the Rust Belt, plus great ecological benefit.

Obama has also endorsed a national infrastructure initiative. Bravo, bravissimo—especially if that infrastructure investment is focused on wastewater. A Brookings Institution study says that the price tag for cleaning up the sewer systems in the Great Lakes watershed will be about $26 billion, including a $600 million project for the Buffalo area. It’ll be money well spent: Thousands of jobs will be created and the long-term habitability of the North Coast will be enhanced. The mammoth cost for the rest of the country will have to be met too, because clean water means life everywhere.

But an ambitious president should be ambitious enough to create a framework for these efforts.

What are we really after? If we think about 2020 or 2050—if we think in the longer-term perspective that a transformative leader must have—then the key instrumentalities of our daily lives must serve our civilization, and not just enable our current culture.

Our current culture, which is built on energy overconsumption, is depleting the capital bequeathed to us from several centuries of a civilization that was city-based and city-centered.

We are, to use an old Joe Biden phrase from his first presidential campaign in 1987, “eating our seed corn.”

In our current culture, our suburban lives depend upon a level of individual overconsumption that is unsustainable—and that does not happen in cities. But getting folks to make the connection between energy efficiency and city life, between American energy independence and the need to live more densely, will require that the rewards for city living will have to go up, and the subsidies for less-dense, more sprawled-out life will have to disappear. In short, if energy efficiency is going to be a part of the policy march toward energy independence, then the economic incentives for suburban life will have to change.

But true change will be a huge problem. As UCLA economist Matthew Kahn wrote in Green Cities: Urban Growth and the Environment, there has long been an association between rising gasoline consumption and rising income. Of course there is—because Eisenhower’s highways, Truman’s mortgages, and Supreme Court Chief Justice Berger’s desegregation decisions, plus empowered little-box local governments, have both prodded and financially incentivized middle-class folks to “escape” cities.

Their escape, however, has made everybody poorer—and when I say everybody, the climate scientists agree. Greenhouse gases from widely-dispersed settlements, car exhaust, and other inefficient energy usage are contributing to climate change, which means that everybody on the planet will suffer if we persist in our ways.

So when Obama talks about bringing America together, there is a national security rationale for that goal, an energy rationale, a climate-change rationale—but overall, a civilizational rationale. We have to begin the march toward an urban-focused 2050 on Barack Obama’s inauguration day.

We need our new president to understand that the chief political obstacle to creating our new civilization is the highly visible, highly intractable, ugly, ongoing problem of the urban drug trade. So as confident as I am about Obama’s understanding of the need for new energy and infrastructure policies, the true radicalism ahead may well be contained in the policy direction of the federal government on drugs. What direction will that be? I don’t know.

To quote Kahn: “…suburbanization has greatly increased the physical distance between the middle and upper middle class and the poor. Consequently, it is much easier and less risky for wealthier taxpayers to ignore the problems of those who are less well off.”

That’s the great divide that afflicts America today. The map of that divide is the map of cities that are isolated from suburbs.

Density and the definition of cities

A recent University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study of unemployment among adult black males stated (some say overstated) a problem—that 50 percent of black males in Milwaukee and Buffalo and Detroit aren’t in the workforce. Overlooked in most news accounts was another finding in that study: that over 35 percent of white males in those cities aren’t in the workforce, either.

Poverty among working adults in cities has gone up greatly just in the last eight years. This past summer, Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution study found that Rochester now has two ZIP codes dominated by folks in poverty. Of 58 large metropolitan areas studied, 34 experienced increased rates of concentrated poverty among working adults, with older industrial metro areas suffering the greatest increases, but Sunbelt metros doing less badly.

Buffalo State College urban geographer Wende Mix has a more profound finding that should shape federal policy for as long as it takes to fix it: that in metro areas where the city is a small part of the overall land area of the urban region, the poverty is more concentrated and folks are worse off than in metro areas where more of the land is “city” land.

Sunshine matters, but so do bad old legacies that people less powerful than God can actually change. Everybody knows that old industrial areas are expensive to fix, but that they can be fixed. Policy-makers understand dealing with the physical hangovers of old policies, such as brownfields. But what’s really hard to deal with is political hangovers from the bad old days—especially old municipal boundaries.

Author and activist David Rusk remains right after almost 20 years: The “little boxes” he excoriated in his seminal book Cities Without Suburbs really do screw the old urban regions of the North Coast. The poor get isolated inside municipal boundaries. A whole metropolitan political infrastructure gets calcified and reinforced, as city mayors yelp for federal and state handouts for their municipal islands, while suburban town boards do go-it-alone zoning, go-it-alone budgeting, and go-it-alone educating, and Eisenhower-minded, suburb-oriented governors from Albany to Harrisburg to Columbus to Madison leave Home Rule ruling.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has designated Superfund sites, the worst of the worst brownfields. But the toxic waste of old municipal separateness is what lingers on and on. It is so toxic that even the bright minds who advise Obama advise him not to try to trouble with it. The Metropolitan Center at the Brookings Institution has not engaged—nor, I believe, will it ever engage—the question of metropolitan-wide governance, because to do so would be to enter into the quicksand of localism, and to challenge an American political culture empowered by the suburban mentality that has come to dominate our culture.

But it is that culture that must give way to a new civilization.

And the Obama drive for energy independence offers the federal government a framework within which to confront this enormous problem—for in order to achieve the goal of energy independence, energy efficiency has to be achieved. And energy efficiency is not just a matter of the how of technological advance—smarter engines and cleaner motors for end-users, local production, wind turbines, and other eco-friendly sources on the supply side—but also of the where of energy use.

Must the where of energy use be set forever in America by Eisenhower’s highways? Because where we use energy determines how well we use energy, and how much we use.

Infrastructure stimulus that helps cities

From the Economic Policy Institute’s October 29, 2008 testimony before the US House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, a list of projects identified as ready-to-go that will stimulate the economy and promote urban density:

Transit projects: 246 ready-to-go projects totaling more than $3.6 billion, could be implemented within 90 days of federal funding.

New transit projects: Approximately 400 projects totaling $248 billion proposed, with 58 of those—totaling $25.2 billion—far along in the planning process. Most of those 58 projects have already completed the environmental process and could begin within four months to a year.

Highway: 3,000 ready-to-go projects totaling $18 billion.

Bicycle/pedestrian projects: $325 million in ready-to-go projects.

Fleet greening: $3.9 billion for clean vehicles, and retrofitting existing vehicles with green technology.

Wastewater treatment projects: $4 billion in ready-to-go projects.

The wisdom of teenagers

Localtion, location, location. The city must once again be the value proposition for our culture. For young people, it may already be.

In my city, as in most, the swankiest private and most demanding parochial and public high schools are located where the tycoons, the bishops, and the social reformers of the 1900s built them: in the central city. The Eisenhower- and Truman- and Berger-enabled suburbs tend to supply most of the kids for these private and parochial schools. That means that their classmates who live in the city, like mine, have a constant stream of weekend suburban visitors.

The suburbanites have a rationale for pestering us about sleepovers. I hear it every Friday: “There’s nothing to do where I live.”

In the interest of domestic harmony, city-dwelling parents have become bed-and-breakfast hosts. That’s how we’ve learned so much about how domicile shapes expectations and behavior.

The most obvious difference between city and suburban classmates is that the city kids are less scheduled than their suburban friends, even though every last one of them is involved in after-school activities. That’s because the city-dwellers get around on their own. They walk. They take the bus or the subway. They do their music, sports, or clubs, and they don’t need the Mom & Dad taxi service.

That’s why city kids are more spontaneous about social gatherings. They are more likely to congregate suddenly at the art gallery, or on a whim to bike en masse over to the Rose Garden in Delaware Park, or to text-message each other about meeting at a certain used bookstore or joining in a pickup ball game.

Spontaneity. Diversity. Knowledge of geography. Mobility without cars. The diversity of these city kids is racial, but it’s also about income, school-affiliation, and interests. And the middle-class kids from educated families have figured out about how to stay safe from the kids who are in the drug trade. Nobody has any illusions. Nobody walks alone.

Jazz critic Nat Hentoff said the same thing decades ago: He raised his son in Manhattan so that the kid could learn how to handle himself.

The president for 2050 needs to be the president who understands that kids need to grow up knowing how to handle themselves. Technology already enables elites to live wherever they want to live. It is imperative that the next elite be comfortable living next to poor people, so that everybody, at every income level, understands our shared destiny.

The segregation by income, by race, and by individual cul-de-sac was enabled by a foreign policy totally focused on petroleum for sacrosanct automobiles. What energy independence and energy efficiency can mean—if federal policy on what gets subsidized changes—is an trend toward an end, over the next few decades, of the inefficient, polarizing, atomizing, civilization-destroying dispersal away from cities.

A presidency that explicitly focuses on energy independence will implicitly refocus policy on cities—but it won’t happen naturally. The divisive culture of suburbia must, and can, be shifted to become the inclusive civilization of the city, but only if explicit infrastructure and land-use policy steps are taken.

This won’t be identity politics, or the narcissism of those who wanted a president or a vice-president “who’s just like me.” Civilization needs a leader, a transformative force, an unapologetic advocate for that form of human organization that has lasted millennia: the city.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of Economics and Finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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