Is a (federal) urban agenda politically possible?

Few would dispute that the United States is hard to characterize as an urban nation.  Yes, we’ll always have New York City, but by world standards even the density there is simply what we’d expect of a major global city. And we could, with a little imagination and overlooking some connectivity issues, characterize the sprawl of activity from Washington, D.C. to Boston or spreading across southern California as among the great metropolitan regions of the world. But then we’d also have to recognize the relatively sparsely populated, lower density suburbs that are also so much of this fabric.

Judging by the most basic indicators of what it means to be urban–people and density and economic activity–the U.S. might not be urban. However, it is still a place where most people live in a condition that is at least metropolitan, and where the problems that we tend to think of as urban drive much of our policy debates. Despite this reality, and despite having a president with roots in Chicago, civil rights, and community development, it’s hard to find a clearly urban agenda at the federal level in 2014. Even in light of several creative and important initiatives started in the last eight years, the burden of dealing with urban problems has largely been devolved to states and local governments–places that often lack the short term resilience to make difficult but optimal long term decisions.

If we cynically view policy and politics as a game in which election and re-election are the most important prizes (a view which is perhaps not cynical but merely pragmatic), then the viability of any federal policy requires at least two things: (1) people who see it as a necessary solution to a problem they are experiencing or see as important and (2) federal politicians who can see an electoral advantage in selling such policy in their platforms and, more importantly, voting to fund it at levels that allow a meaningful impact.

More succinctly, for an urban agenda to work, people need to care about big city problems, and care about them enough to vote for people who support solving these problems. And elected officials need to see the potential for real political gain.

Historically, it’s been easy not to care. Suburbs boomed because they were the anti-city. There, the problems of the city could be left behind, and the migration was at various times in the last 100 years championed by those both on the left and right of the ideological spectrum. The U.S. has been, for some time now, a suburban nation. And, for the most part, suburbs have enabled a great sifting and sorting. But, as I’ve touched on in other posts, the suburbs are growing and changing. An interview with Leigh Gallagher, author of The End of The Suburbs, summarizes well how many suburbs are evolving into something more dense, more economically robust, more commercial, and often simply bigger. In the Los Angeles urbanized area, the basic form is one of polycentricity and evenness in density that by some measures makes it more dense than the New York City area. The movement of minority households, immigrants, the working class, and the poor to suburban cities and towns has made such locations a political battleground. Even the residents of extremely affluent and well educated suburbs–so-called super zips–are no longer quite as uniform in their political preferences.

Being a suburban nation in 2014 means something much different than it did 10 or 20 years ago.

More people today in the U.S. are living in a condition that allows them to be directly or indirectly affected by traditionally urban problems–problems of where we place affordable housing, or how we provide adequate transportation infrastructure, or manage pollution, or provide a safety net for the poor. We still have enclaves and ghettos, but the seams in that metropolitan fabric are becoming a little weaker. It’s reasonable to say that a sound, federal urban agenda could gain more traction now than perhaps ever before.

Making politicians articulate such an agenda is another story. Much of the difficulty is that solving urban problems is likely to require some kind of shift in governance toward regional control and away from local autonomy, and that would provide little political advantage. Certainly congressional districts could still survive in the midst of a governance structure that is more regional. But local government boundaries help reinforce the division–whether by race, class, or politics–that underlies district drawing. Indeed, many states require that congressional districts follow local political boundaries to the extent possible. Political homogeneity within cities, townships, villages, and counties is, therefore, a way to secure long-lasting strongholds. And, certainly, there would seem to be little political disadvantage in using federal policy to make central cities and metropolitan areas as healthy as possible, even if the motivation is only to decrease the potential for negative externalities leaping across central city boundaries. But selling such an agenda means also selling skeptical or on-the-fence voters on the potential for long term benefits that might accrue from using tax dollars to help a region or a core city where they may work and might occasionally play, but do not live.

Metropolitan problems and urban problems, which tend to occupy much of the same space, are big, complex, and obstinate. They are the type of problem that we refer to as “wicked,” making them seem even more unmanageable. The reality of even our federal politics being local–often hyperlocal–means that the same structural flaws that give rise to metropolitan ills create political opportunity and reward using “big city problems” as a partisan divide. Seeing how the “purple suburbs”–those that are not trenchantly Republican or Democrat–swing in the midterm elections this November will tell a lot about how demographic changes are translating to returns at the ballot box.

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Thomas Skuzinski is a doctoral candidate in urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on local and regional politics and governance in metropolitan areas in the United States. 

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