Expert Voices 2016: Urban Policy and the Presidential Election

Penn IUR Faculty Fellows and Scholars weigh in on the 2016 Presidential election. What urban issues should the candidates be focusing on?

16 minute read

January 27, 2016, 12:00 PM PST

By Penn IUR

With all eyes focused on the presidential race, now is the time to discuss the great challenges that our nation faces. The candidates have a unique opportunity to address the issues that affect the lives of their fellow Americans, but what are those issues and how should they think about them? What major urban policy issues should the candidates address? We posed this question to our Penn IUR Faculty Fellows and Scholars. In the following eleven essays, they explore the urban policies that deserve the candidates' attention. From their insights, it is clear that no city is alone. Local governments share common challenges, and national politicians can make a difference in urban lives, from their health and environment to their housing and transportation to their safety and wealth. By putting a spotlight on these priorities, we hope Americans get the debate they deserve -- and the leadership informed by rigorous policy discussion they need -- in 2016. Further, the U.S. is not alone in the world in being a majority urban nation. Today there is a global conversation on sustainable urban development at Habitat III, the UN’s conference held once every twenty years. It will be held in Quito, Ecuador next October—maybe some of the ideas proffered below will have application among many nations and their cities. (-- Eugenie Birch and Susan Wachter, Penn IUR Co-Directors) 

Raphael W. Bostic | Affordable, Sustainable Housing for All: A Vision for Post-Crisis America

Charles C. Branas | Addressing Income and Class Divisions

Richard Florida | A Century of Cities Requires Urban Policy

Mark Alan Hughes | Supporting Cities in Reducing Emissions

John L. Jackson, Jr. | Addressing Issues of Poverty in a Land of Plenty

Daniel Lee: America’s | Inadequate Transportation Infrastructure

Laura Perna | Improving College Access and Success 

Wendell E. Pritchett | Cities as Laboratories of Diversity

Megan S. Ryerson | Federal Funding To Support Transportation Infrastructure

Eric Schneider | Freedom from Mass Incarceration

Saskia Sassen | Who Owns the City?

Affordable, Sustainable Housing for All: A Vision for Post-Crisis America

Raphael W. Bostic, Penn IUR Scholar, John and Judith Bedrosian Professor Chair in Governance and the Public Enterprise, Sol Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California

Although the housing market is the single largest asset class in the United States and it was the epicenter of the worst global recession since the Great Depression, housing has been almost entirely ignored by this year's presidential candidates. This is a big problem, because there are many housing-related challenges that need answers.

We are in the midst of a rental housing crisis. In a majority of cities, rents are rising much faster than inflation, leaving most of America's urban centers needing affordable housing. On the ownership side, although housing prices have largely recovered from their post-crisis lows, mortgage lenders are still hesitant to finance new homeowners. Ironically, these problems exacerbate the economic and racial inequities that plague our system and fill the candidates' stump speeches, and yet we hear no mention of policies in this area to improve the situation.

The federal government has tremendous influence over housing policy, from tax incentives to HUD programs to oversight of the secondary market. The presidential candidates face a choice. They can view these policies as tools and craft an affordable, sustainable housing strategy that heals some of the deepest rifts in our economy and our society. Or they can bury their head in the sand and ignore the centerpiece of our middle-class wealth and the beating heart of our banking system.

We have tried the latter before, and we are still living with the consequences long after the Great Recession has ended. Let us hope this presidential race charts a new course away from the mistakes of the past and moves us toward the safe, affordable, sustainable housing that all Americans deserve.

Addressing Income and Class Divisions

Charles C. Branas, PhD, Penn IUR Faculty Fellow, Professor of Epidemiology, University of Pennsylvania  

Cities are attractive and exciting places to live because of their diversity.  Stand on a street corner in any city and you see all walks of life, in all directions.  But today’s cities, especially in the U.S., are becomingly increasingly sorted along income and class lines.  Possibly more than ever before.  This threatens urban sustainability and may dismantle what little progress many cities have already made in terms of well being, quality-of-life, and better health for their residents.  The 2016 U.S. Presidential candidates should address this and can promote ideas like mixed-income housing, broadly accessible urban amenities, and “in situ” development activities that encourage residents to stay in their home neighborhoods without the need to relocate.  Our cities are not just bouncing back, they are bouncing forward. Let’s make sure that they do so in a way that maintains the diverse fabric of urban life while at the same time bringing together urban residents of all walks of life. 

A Century of Cities Requires Urban Policy

Richard Florida, Penn IUR Faculty Fellow, Director, Martin Prosperity Institute,  University of Toronto, Global Research Professor, NYU, and Co-Founder and Editor-at-Large of The Atlantic’s CityLab

Let’s cut to the chase: When was the last time you heard a national politician even utter the word “cities” or “urban policy?” They’ve barely been a footnote in the current Presidential debates.

The disconnect could not be more troubling. Cities are the fundamental social and economic organizing units of our time. They are our premier platforms for economic innovation and wealth creation the laboratories in which their solutions are devised and tested.  But the ongoing urban revival also generates deep challenges. “Cities are the contradictions of capitalism, spelled out in crowds,” wrote Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker. “They are engines of prosperity and inequality in equal measure, and when the inequality tips poor they look unsavable; when it tips rich, they look unjust.”

It’s time for a new national urban policy that sees cities as centers of innovation and wealth creation and gives them power to cope with the challenges they face. This new urban policy would focus its activities around five key areas that are essential for future urban and overall economic growth.

  • Help cities increase density and clustering by reforming outmoded zoning and building codes and replacing the property tax with a land value tax to encourage denser development.
  • Invest in transit to better connect cities and suburbs, and in high-speed rail to connect cities and metros to one another, while enabling the development of denser neighborhoods around transit hubs.
  • Redirect the enormous federal subsidies that accrue to wealthy homeowners and encourage sprawl to more centrally located rental housing, while relieving the extraordinary financial burdens faced by less advantaged renters.
  • Turn 70 million low-wage service jobs into family-supporting middle-class jobs by instituting higher local minimum wages, shortening the work week, and helping companies see better paid workers as sources of innovation and productivity improvement.
  • Tackle persistent poverty through people-based approaches which invest in skills and encourage mobility and comprehensive place-based approaches that rebuild distressed neighborhoods.

As urban policy regains steam in the UK, Canada, Australia and elsewhere across the globe, it has not even registered in the United States. Our long-run economic growth, our ability to generate good jobs and restore our middle-class and rekindle the American Dream depend upon it.

Supporting Cities in Reducing Emissions

Mark Alan Hughes, Penn IUR Faculty Fellow, Professor of Practice, Penn Design, Faculty Director of Kleinman Center for Energy Policy

The climate change agreement that emerged last December from the COP 21 meetings in Paris has been widely and rightly celebrated as an important turning point in the transition to a low-emission energy system.  A key element of that Paris agreement and a policy approach very different from earlier COP meetings in Kyoto (3) and Copenhagen (15) is the INDC, or “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions”. INDCs are pledges made by nations to take actions calculated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a stated amount between 2015 and 2030. One hundred and sixty nations, representing 188 of the 196 parties to the COP process as well as more than 95% of global GHG emissions, have submitted their INDCs.

This approach, which abandons a top-down international treaty in favor of bottom-up voluntary actions aligned to a common measurement and reporting system, has been estimated to reduce global GHG emissions enough to limit median global warming from pre-industrial levels to 2.7◦C by the year 2100 ( This estimate assumes that the actions of the INDCs are continued beyond 2030, and is far short of the reductions needed to meet the stated goal of the COP process to limit warming to 1.5-2◦C. But the GHG emissions expected under current policies are estimated to produce catastrophic 3.6◦C warming. Hence the celebration and the hope that COP21 leads to a ratcheting of increasing commitments in the future.

But here is the challenge for urban policy. Over 50 percent of the actions embedded in the INDCs rely on local and other subnational governments ( Perhaps the greatest unexamined assumption of the COP21 agreement is the capacity of cities to effect the actions necessary to preserving an inhabitable climate. Cities are hailed as policy makers but at some poorly understand limit they are policy takers. They need resources and jurisdiction that only national governments can give them. With stakes so high, the most important urban policies facing presidential candidates are those needed to support cities in reducing their GHG emissions from buildings, transport, and energy supply and delivery.    

Addressing Issues of Poverty in a Land of Plenty

John L. Jackson, Jr.Penn IUR Faculty Fellow, Richard Perry University Professor, Dean, School of Social Policy & Practice, University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia is an exceptionally poor place, the poorest big city in America—and with the highest degree of “deep poverty,” residents living at half of the poverty line or worse. For the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2), colloquially known as Penn’s “Social Justice School,” Philadelphia is exactly where we need to be. Every year our matriculating students conduct over 250,000 hours of scientifically contextualized, humanely enacted, and academically required community-based work, and we are having an impact. SP2 aims to train the best civic leaders, policymakers, and social service providers on the planet, and we have been working on that for well over 100 years now in “the city of brotherly love and sisterly affection.”

The issues we face are massive, and we need electoral candidates with the political will to fend off partisan-posturing, ideological cant, and mass-mediated desensitization in service to the aim of making people’s lives healthier and happier. For the presidential candidates running for office this election cycle, addressing issues of poverty in a land of plenty is not just good for the poor. It is good for the country and the world.

America’s Inadequate Transportation Infrastructure

Daniel Lee, Penn IUR Faculty Fellow, Professor, Director, GRASP (General Robotics Automation, Sensing, Perception) Lab, UPS Foundation Chair

One key question for the 2016 Presidential candidates is how they would address the shortcomings of America's infrastructure, particularly in the transportation area. Compared to a number of countries in Europe and Asia, the general state of American transportation infrastructure is woefully inadequate.  Development of efficient public transportation, air transportation systems, reconstructing roads and bridges, and safe access for bicyclists and pedestrians in urban areas are all major issues that need to be planned, funded, and implemented in a rational manner.

Unfortunately, our recent history in America does not give us reason for optimism.  Research and development of next generation transportation systems have been funded in a haphazard manner, from sequestration to short-term continuing budget resolutions in the last few years.  This is the most opportune time to take advantage of explosive growth in information technologies to truly revolutionize our transportation systems and bring them into the 21st century.  For this to occur, the future President will surely need to show enlightened leadership in the area of transportation infrastructure.

Improving College Access and Success 

Laura Perna, Penn IUR Faculty Fellow, James S. Riepe Professor, Executive Director, Penn AHEAD, Chair, Higher Education Division, Graduate School of Education

Higher education has emerged as one of the major issues in the 2016 Presidential election. Front and center has been the topic of student debt and the tremendous challenges that young people in our country face in paying for higher education. In addition to addressing this essential issue of student debt, the Presidential candidates must also address the complex and overarching problem of education-workforce mismatch. 

A key challenge facing many metropolitan areas is ensuring that workers have the education and training that is required for available jobs. Increasingly, available jobs require some education beyond high school.  But many metropolitan areas are experiencing a mismatch, as the share of new jobs that require some postsecondary education exceeds the share of the population that is educationally qualified for these jobs. This is particularly true for low-income and first-generation students in urban settings. Urban minority students are more likely than their white peers to attend high-poverty schools, and these urban minority students are also less likely to enroll in higher education.

Improving college access and success for low-income and first-generation students requires a multi-faceted, comprehensive approach, and commitment from multiple stakeholders, including the federal government and the President. This comprehensive approach must help ensure that: students have the necessary financial resources to pay college costs; students are adequately academically prepared for college-level requirements; and students have the information and knowledge required to understand college-related requirements and processes, make appropriate college-related choices, and navigate the complicated pathways into, across, and through higher education institutions.

Cities as Laboratories of Diversity

Wendell E. Pritchett, Penn IUR Faculty Fellow, Presidential Professor of Law and Education, University of Pennsylvania Law School

While I don’t expect urban issues to become significant ones during the 2016 Presidential Campaign, I hope the candidates will discuss how we can support cities as laboratories for diversity.  With increased interest in city living across the country, we have the opportunity to create cities where people of different backgrounds live together.  We know that living in mixed-income neighborhoods is of great benefit to low-income families---among other benefits they have greater health, education and job outcomes.  We have an opportunity to build cities that help families emerge from poverty, but this requires strategic investments in affordable housing and interventions to enable low-income families to participate in urban revitalization.  I hope that the Presidential candidates will discuss the ways we can exploit the rebirth of cities for the benefit of all Americans.

Federal Funding To Support Transportation Infrastructure

Megan S. Ryerson, Penn IUR Faculty Fellow, Assistant Professor, Department of City and Regional Planning, Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering

The presidential candidates should focus on policies that support urban transportation infrastructure such that it promotes urban livability and quality of life, regional and national economic development, and environmental sustainability.

They should start by focusing on surface transportation finance. From urban potholes to the collapse of interstate bridges, we need to maintain surface transportation infrastructure. To do so, the nation needs a stable funding source for transportation infrastructure. The federal gasoline tax which supports roadway funding has not been raised since 1993 (sitting at 18.4 cents/gallon); as automobile consumption per mile has decreased, surface transportation funding has dwindled. States and local governments are now leading the charge to raise money for infrastructure maintenance and construction, with eight states raising their gasoline taxes in 2014 and numerous local governments championing successful ballot initiatives for new transportation sales taxes. Yet, federal funding is critical as we need to support infrastructure of national significance: from an interstate bridge connecting multiple regions to a freight trucking route that traverses the country.

The presidential candidates should also consider how the transportation system at a local, national, and international level will move a growing number of Americans. As urban populations rise and cities morph and change, their transportation system needs will grow and change too. The candidates should therefore emphasize that infrastructure funding for projects not be through modal agencies of the Department of Transportation (i.e., Highway, Aviation, Rail, Transit) but rather the DOT should support grant programs, such as theTransportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program, that evaluate projects of any mode of transportation that promote national, regional, and local mobility and access. As populations grow and fuel demand for transportation, how people travel will become less critical than if they can travel.

Freedom from Mass Incarceration

Eric Schneider, Penn IUR Faculty Fellow, Assistant Dean and Associate Director for Academic Affairs, Adjunct Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania

Mass incarceration is a national shame.  With only 5 percent of the world’s population, we house 25 percent of the world’s prisoners and have the world’s highest per capita incarceration rate.  Communities of color bear the brunt of our carceral practices; in some urban neighborhoods, half of young men have felony convictions that produce a form of civil death, including the inability to access food stamps or public housing, to acquire Pell Grants for higher education, and in some states, to cast a vote or serve on a jury.  As the leader of the “free world,” we often address human rights issues in other parts of the globe; it is time to look to our own back yard.

The rise of mass incarceration is frequently attributed to the War on Drugs.  The number of state and federal prisoners increased from approximately 200,000 in 1967, when President Richard Nixon declared his drug war, to 1.5 million today.  Current reform efforts focus on reducing mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders and restoring judicial discretion. 

While laudable, this is insufficient. Drug offenders comprise a small fraction of those incarcerated: of the 211,000 federal prisoners, only about half are sentenced for drug offenses, while another 212,000 drug offenders are in state prisons. Even if all drug offenders were released tomorrow, we would still have 1.2 million state and federal prisoners. 

Clearly we need to expand our conversation beyond the War on Drugs.  One power of the presidency is that of a bully pulpit.  Use it to encourage states to follow federal drug reform efforts; propose legislation restoring ex-felons’ access to federal benefits; begin a conversation about ending “three strikes” legislation and reducing the length of prison sentences.  Restore freedom to the land of the free.

Who Owns the City?

Saskia Sassen, Penn IUR Faculty Fellow, Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology, Columbia University

Assuming that at least some of those asked will have said “modest priced housing,” I will build on that and argue that the time has come to ask “Who owns the city?” especially in relation to major cities.  One key aspect here, which also contributes to the lack of modest priced housing in major cities worldwide, is the massive foreign and national corporate buying of urban buildings and urban land that took off after the 2008 crisis.

We need to ask whether this trend signals an emergent new phase in major cities. Taking just the two most recent years, from mid-2013 to mid-2014, corporate buying of existing properties reached over US$ 600 billion in the top 100 recipient cities, and over a trillion from mid-2014 to mid-2015. This figure includes only major acquisitions (e.g. 5 million dollars minimum in the case of New York City) and it excludes large amounts spent on the buying of urban land for site development (e.g. Atlantic Yards). (See my recent article in theGuardian for the numbers).

At the same time, in a growing number of countries there have been massive foreclosures on low and modest income households, especially in the US, but also in countries such as Hungary and Germany; one result has been an abundance of empty urban land, which at some point can be transformed into more corporate types of buildings.

We might ask why this large corporate investment surge matters to a city. Are not cities about density and built-up terrain? But not all densities are the same: some types of density actually de-urbanize the city by eliminating urban tissue (little streets and squares, mixed small-scale uses, etc.) and turning whole sections of a city into basically office enclaves and luxury apartment towers. Such massive buildings privatize urban space. This is a type of density that does not add to the urbanity of a city.

Bottom line, cities are the spaces where those without power get to make a history and a culture, and even a local economy. Immigrant communities, especially, have made this visible, but it also happens in non-immigrant neighborhoods. The city is also a space where economic power, increasingly intermediated and invisible, hits the ground and becomes women and men and firms that want it all and get it all, thereby making economic power, today increasingly abstract and intermediated, concrete and visible.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016 in PennIUR

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