What the State of the Union Revealed About Urban Planning Under the Trump Administration

President Trump's first State of the Union address followed the rhetoric of his campaign and first year in office, offering few details about promised infrastructure investments and avoiding substantive discussion about the future of cities.

Read Time: 5 minutes

January 31, 2018, 2:00 PM PST

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell

Address To Joint Session Of Congress

President Trump delivering an address to a Joint Session Of Congress in 2017. | The White House / Wikimedia Commons

Last night's State of the Union address didn't touch on many subjects of direct or obvious relevance to planning and planners, but there were a few nuggets of relevant policy to pick up on—the main one being a suddenly ballooning number attached to the Trump Administration's long-promised infrastructure plan.

But before we talk about the infrastructure plan, let's talk about a few of the less obvious angles for planners.

Immigration Reform

One of the main themes of the speech was immigration, and here president Trump proposed a four pillar plan to reform immigration. Analyzing the political viability of this proposal, and its effects on the county, is a task for other publications, but I mention it to note, in case anyone forgot, that immigration policies do affect planning outcomes. Here's a sample of reading from the Planetizen archives surveying some of the ways that the issues of immigration intersect with the practice of planning:

Dismantling the Federal Bureaucracy

Another issue of oblique relevance to planning was the section of the speech about new powers to fire federal employees:  

All Americans deserve accountability and respect -- and that is what we are giving them. So tonight, I call on the Congress to empower every Cabinet Secretary with the authority to reward good workers -- and to remove Federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.

Most pundits are reading this section as a reference to the former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. But the mention of "Cabinet Secretaries" reminded me more of the purging underway at the Environmental Protection Agency (not a cabinet-level federal department, yes, but the arm of the federal government already implementing the removal policies Trump describes here). There's also the Department of the Interior, where Secretary Ryan Zinke has lamented the lack of loyalty to him and the president among the ranks of employees in that department. In other words, I took these words as a threat to federal bureaucrats, including planners.

This section made for an easy segue to boasts about how many regulations the Trump Administration has ended. With no environmental regulations to enforce, there will be a lot less work for planners in the federal government. 


Finally, the big ticket item that has been long awaited by observers on both sides of the aisle, teased by the Trump Administration repeatedly over the course of its first year in power, and even partially leaked earlier this year. Still, very few details are known about how the Trump Administration plans to deliver on its $1 trillion infrastructure promise.

Wait…scratch that. President Trump took the state at the State of the Union and, as he is wont to do, raised the stakes by half a trillion dollars. Here's the whole section of the speech on the subject of infrastructure:

As we rebuild our industries, it is also time to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure.

America is a nation of builders. We built the Empire State Building in just 1 year -- is it not a disgrace that it can now take 10 years just to get a permit approved for a simple road?

I am asking both parties to come together to give us the safe, fast, reliable, and modern infrastructure our economy needs and our people deserve.

Tonight, I am calling on the Congress to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment we need.

Every Federal dollar should be leveraged by partnering with State and local governments and, where appropriate, tapping into private sector investment -- to permanently fix the infrastructure deficit.

Any bill must also streamline the permitting and approval process -- getting it down to no more than two years, and perhaps even one.

Together, we can reclaim our building heritage. We will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways across our land. And we will do it with American heart, American hands, and American grit.

Following up the big dollar figure by talking about streamlining permitting and approval processes was a vague move that falls flat to anyone who has ever heard a million politicians make the same promise. Saying the process should take "no more than two years, and perhaps even one," President Trump did not mention any specifics of how that change could be realized, for what kinds of projects, and with what consideration given to local and state regulations.

The State of the Union's infrastructure talk fired up the pundits, inspiring numerous hot takes on how the developer president plans to move forward with his long-promised ambitions to rebuild the nation's infrastructure. Among the recommended reading from the Internet in the wake of the State of the Union:

An untouched transcript of the president's State of the Union address is available on the CNN website. For an annotated and fact-checked transcript, reference the work of the political team at NPR.

James Brasuell

James Brasuell is a writer and editor, producing web, print, and video content on the subjects of planning, urbanism, and mobility. James has managed all editorial content and direction for Planetizen since 2014 and was promoted to editorial director in 2021.

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