News Summary: Urban Policy and the Obama Presidency

The balloons have fallen, and the yard signs have been yanked up. The people have chosen, and in a historic win, Senator Barack Obama will soon be our next president. Now the hopes and promises of the campaign must harden into reality. Managing Editor Tim Halbur summarize what we can expect from an Obama presidency in regards to urban issues.
President-Elect Barack Obama

Unlike his opponent, the Obama camp has been putting together a cabinet and prepping for the job ahead for some time now. Obama's team is particularly strong in foreign policy advisors, as an extensive article in the New Yorker details. What is less well known is how his team will tackle the issues, such as transportation, energy, infrastructure and housing policies. Over the past month, a number of urban experts have read up on Obama's briefs and statements and have each taken a look into the crystal ball and asked, "What impact will an Obama presidency have on urban policy?"

A Regional Outlook

Mayor Manny Diaz of Miami was at the U.S. Conference of Mayors back in June, and witnessed one of the few speeches by Obama focused on the concerns of local government. Diaz believes that Obama will be a significant force for urban issues. "From business incubators to the college tuition tax credit," the mayor told Planetizen, "from the National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank to the Foreclosure Prevention Fund, Barack Obama has offered comprehensive programs to invest in the assets of cities."

"[W]e need to strengthen our cities," said Obama to the crowd of mayors. "But we also need to stop seeing our cities as the problem and start seeing them as the solution. Because strong cities are the building blocks of strong regions, and strong regions are essential for a strong America."

Noted city specialist Neal Peirce thinks that Obama's regional focus will lead to a federal government that is very active in city issues, but with an approach that differs from the classic Democratic policy. In particular, he points to Obama's promise to invest $200 million in annual grants to bolster "innovation clusters" -- areas of cutting-edge thinking in technology and applied science. Peirce concludes that there are, of course, many challenges ahead for an Obama presidency, but "metro America's chances [will] surely be brighter."

But Steven Malanga, senior editor for City Journal, thinks Obama's urban policies -- in particular, his support of the Community Development Block Grant program -- are outdated maneuvers that could have a detrimental effect on cities. "The block grants," Malanga writes, "are perhaps the most visible example of the failure of federal urban aid, plagued, as so much other War on Poverty spending was plagued, by vague goals, a failure to demand concrete results from the groups it funds, and a reputation for political patronage."

Energy Policy

The subject of energy is of great interest to Planetizen readers, and has surfaced frequently in this presidential election. Much of the rhetoric on energy has focused on the obvious: reducing reliance on foreign oil, investing in renewable energy sources, cutting excess use and expanding domestic production of "clean" energy. In August, Obama called for an investment of $150 billion in renewable energy production -- an investment towards a goal of doubling the nation's renewable energy sources to 10% of total needs. This is a goal he hopes to achieve by the end of his first term.

"Well I think he's certainly got a few robust policies that will give us a lot of leverage in the years ahead," says Stephen Daley, who covers the industry through his podcast Inside Renewable Energy. Daley says that the promises of funding "gives a lot of people in the renewables industry confidence in his ability to lead in this area at the federal level. His nuclear policy is a bit sketchy at the moment, and he's also a big supporter of clean coal and traditional food-based biofuels. The industry is looking to see how much he supports these as-yet unproven technologies."

And though initially opposed to off-shore drilling, Obama has begun to warm up to the idea. He's called for more use of the country's Strategic Petroleum Reserve and a plan to lease more of the Alaskan Petroleum Reserve for increased production. He has, however, remained strong on the front of increasing a windfall profits tax on oil companies.

In a more recent interview on MSNBC, Obama touched lightly on infrastructure and energy policies, including an allusion to a New Deal-style public works program. The U.S., he says, is falling behind countries like China that are investing heavily in rail and ports, infrastructure key to economic development and global competetiveness. But Obama says one of the most important infrastructure projects that the country needs is an entirely new electricity grid system that allows for more efficient transmission of energy derived from renewable sources. Such a large-scale update and the "new energy" it creates could stand to inject more than 5 million jobs into the U.S. economy, according to Obama. He says it's time to take on the huge costs of fixing the country's crumbling infrastructure -- an investment he calls crucial for maintaining a healthy economy.


The campaign's emphasis on infrastructure extends to transportation policy as well. As explained at The Daily Kos, Vice-President Elect Joe Biden famously rides Amtrak to work, and was the original co-sponsor of the Amtrak Reauthorization Bill. "For 30 years, I have witnessed Congress dangling a carrot in front of Amtrak's eyes, funding it just enough for it to limp along," said Biden as he introduced an early version of the bill. "And I'll tell you, this has to stop. Now is the time to commit politically and financially to a strong, safe, and efficient passenger rail system."

"I think the first step in solving any problem is properly defining it," says David Goldberg, Communications Director for Transportation For America, a coalition of organizations advocating for change in transportation policy. "I think Obama's defining transportation as a metropolitan issue is very promising. We have to temper our enthusiasm a little bit, because in the debates and on the trail, he has singled out roadbuilding as an important issue. But I think his administration is likely to support a direct relationship of the federal government in terms of funding and accountability on transportation issues."

Federal vs. Local

In the end, as Planetizen blogger and land use law professor Michael Lewyn reminds us, the hands-on work of urban planning, zoning and development are firmly in the hands of local government and therefore won't be directly impacted by a new president. But if the evidence is to be believed, an Obama presidency will be much more hands-on in making decisions about urban policy, particularly when it comes to significant investments in infrastructure for energy and transportation.

You can also listen to a podcast version of this analysis in the player below, or download it.

Tim Halbur is managing editor of Planetizen. Nate Berg is assistant editor of Planetizen.



There is hope.

Obama had to keep quiet about public transit during the race. That topic is not allowed. Anyone of public stature who openly advocates it will be savaged mercilessly by the corporate press. Most public transit funding is slipped through on the QT.

Urban planning will always be non-Euclidean and convoluted as long as there are heavy subsidies for the auto and sprawl. The taxpayer and the economy are paying the price for this destructive and wasteful system.

But now at least we have some hope.

Michael Lewyn's picture

Stop the bleeding

All this pie-in-the-sky talk is very nice. But if Obama wants to do something for cities and their suburbs, his first priority should be to stop the bleeding- that is, to help preserve the municipal public services that are endangered by the financial crisis. Right now, tax revenues are declining, and some transit agencies are in special danger because they used the wrong insurer or engaged in complex financial transactions that did not turn out well.

That's a one-sided view of CDBG

Your references to CDBG are from the same group, the Manhattan Institute, that has "Obama plans a party where his radical friends once ran wild," and "The Financial Crisis and the CRA: A generation ago, the government began forcing banks to make bad loans" among other right-wing offerings on their current website page.

I have seen first hand how the adaptable and flexible CDBG program promotes significant economic, environmental, and social progress in hundreds of communities. Earmarks disguised as CDBG should end (this is one way Congress puts out the pork) but the annual program does the heavy lifting for infrastructure development in poor communities.

Mr. Malanga's opinions on CDBG are likely (and thankfully) to be even more in the minority with this election.

Eric Hartzell, AICP

Time Will Tell

I'm particularly interested in finding out more about what the Obama administration and Congress plan regarding alleviating the housing crisis (as in the affordable housing trust they put forward in the campaign). The impact of the current crisis on property tax collections and sales tax revenues impacts so many cities and towns. And so many developers are unable to borrow the money to realize large projects right now, bringing development plans to a halt in some areas. What role might federal spending have?

In terms of how this election impacts planning, I'll also be looking at the consequences of transportation-related ballot measures. For example here in California, voter support for a high-speed train between our two main urban centers could have profound impact on transit-oriented development.

Anyway, thanks for getting the conversation started. I'd like to see a regular column detailing the likely policy outcomes and appointments through this transition period, so we can stay abreast of the impact on urban planning. For example, who is in the running for director of urban policy in his administration? That will be interesting to watch.

And as an aside, it's great to see cities and towns across the country coming together to celebrate this historic moment. The footage of people dancing in the streets last night suggested a sense of solidarity and citizenship I haven't seen in my lifetime.

California Results

In terms of how this election impacts planning, I'll also be looking at the consequences of transportation-related ballot measures. For example here in California, voter support for a high-speed train between our two main urban centers could have profound impact on transit-oriented development.

It looks like both High-Speed Rail and SMART (Sonoma-Marin Transit) passed narrowly (for SMART, that means a bit more than the needed two-thirds majority).

In Berkeley, the anti-BRT initiative (Measure KK) lost overwhelmingly, by a margin of more than three to one.

A good election for transit in California.
Charles Siegel

Linking urban policy with smart growth and the environment

Thanks very much for this post, which adds a great deal of insight into what we can expect. I think we can expect a better understanding of urban issues from president-elect Obama than from anyone in high office for quite a while. (Personally, though, the lawn sign in my yard is NOT coming down for a while!)

Readers may be interested in a similar analysis on my own blog at NRDC, with more of a focus on smart growth and the environment. Please take a look at

transportation future

Clinton's big failure was his unwillingness to stand up and say to the people "I know this may not be to your liking, but it's the fundamentally right thing to do." Clinton "reached across the aisle" and got burned by the right more than once.

I hope that Obama has the courage to make good choices even if they are not popular in the beginning, and I hope that the democratic senate can defy the powerful automobile and highway infrastructure lobbies.

I also hope that he looks to Germany and the Scandinavian countries where environmental policies are sourced at the top, and not the result of hard-fought battles that result in too little, too late.

This is a great opportunity to bring this country into the 21st century. I hope the opportunity isn't lost.

rob bregoff

Obama: Urbanite Elect

Yeah, I have a lot of faith that with Obama, urbanites have the best chance in a generation of pushing forward their agenda.

But Obama hardly represents the old faction on urban issues. Most notably, we can see Obama abandoning the rust-belt economy with his endorsement of high-tech and green business development.

Visit my blog at

Governing from the center - Chicago style

When I delivered the three absentee ballots from my household to my poling place on Tuesday morning, November 4, I told the election workers I was from Chicago and so I was following the adage, "vote early and often." At first they weren't sure whether to laugh or call the cops.

Barack Obama's choice for his chief of staff of fellow Chicagoan, Congressman Rahm Emmanuel, known for his tough, competitive, but smart style, reminds me that for good or ill, all the presidents in my memory have relied upon an inner circle of aides from their region -- people they knew or knew about and felt they could trust. Kennedy had his Ivy Leaguers and large family, Johnson his Texans, Nixon and Reagan their Orange County crews, Jimmy Carter -- alas, Ham Jordan and Bert Lance, Bush 41 establishment conservatives and Bush 43 Texans and neocons. The Clintons drew both from their Ivy education and Arkansan experience, which may account for their many paradoxical qualities. The political culture of the president's people is rooted in their place of origin, and shapes the political culture of the nation for the term of that presidency.

While in truth I'm not actually from Chicago, I did live there for over a year as a young adult and I paid attention. Carl Sandberg's Chicago as, "hog butcher to the World" was gone but some of the tang of the stockyards lingered. Chicago is that anomolie, a truely Midwestern city -- city on the scale and urbanity of New York, London, Paris or Rome but with none of the pretensions. Broad-sholdered, flat voweled, pragmatic, but worldly - home of world-class art, music (classical, jazz and rythm & blues), academia, sports, entertainment and culture that came of age with the World's Fair of 1933.

It was, and probably mostly still is, both incredibly ethnically diverse (unlike much of the rest of the Midwest) and highly segregated. You knew which neighborhoods were Swedish or German, Polish, Italian, Jewish, Hungarian, Korean, Puerto Rican, etc. Neighborhoods in Chicago corresponded with towns and counties in the South or Appallachia. People went to and settled in a part of Chicago because someone else from whereever it was they were from had gone there first and maybe could help them find their footing in this alien new place. Riding the "L" (for elevated train) through the South Side was like (I imagined) seeing Berlin after World War II. On the North Side, the area with high-rises arrayed along the shore of Lake Michigan is called the Gold Coast, and could be Miami, except, of course, for the bitter cold winters sweeping in off the Lake and arctic Canada beyond.

Politics in Chicago was the machine, with Richard J. Daley as the living anachronism at its head, that left a legacy of political culture apart from its general reputation for corruption. Identity mattered. Relationships were critical, with organization and connections that ranged from the block to the ward to City Hall and beyond. The chief virtue was to get things done and to take care of those who helped take care of you.

I witnessed an officer of the infamously tough Chicago police stop a redneck from harrassing a black man who was shoveling a load of coal from the street into a basement storeroom in a northside neighborhood, by loudly confirming (perhaps facetiously) the black man's southside neighborhood gang affiliation and then telling the redneck theywould not come back when he called for help.

Barack Obama is not really from Chicago, either. Despite his mother and grandparents' Kansan roots he wasn't even a midwesterner, but brought an exotic blend of his father's Kenyan genes, Hawaiian, Indonesian, New York and Ivy experiences to working the streets as a community organizer, trained in the methodology of another tough, pragmatic midwesterner, Saul Alinsky. He could work the streets, but have the intellectual chops to teach Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago. This brilliant but essentially rootless man searching for his identity found it and his connection, comfort and engagement with the American experience, in work, church, marriage and family in Chicago.

Chicago - somewhat north and a little east of the geographic center of the lower 48 continental United States - big city tough, but almost naively American despite its complexity and contradictions-- sets the style for the new administration. The next administration will be governing from the center -- the center of the United States -- Chicago style.

Joel Ellinwood, AICP Lawyer-Planner, Rocklin, CA

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