The budget that President Clinton just submitted to Congress shows signs of a substantial administration interest in the fate of U.S. cities, which, for all the cheerful rhetoric about new stadiums and revitalized downtowns, have been left out of the national economic boom. The budget recognizes that we need specific policies to stimulate business investment in urban neighborhoods where unemployment remains high, poverty is concentrated and the middle class is disappearing.
These are important and praiseworthy initiatives. But they are not enough.
These proposals are undermined by other government policies that distort where and how we live. Almost all of the country’s metropolitan areas are experiencing unsustainable growth—explosive sprawl into farmland and open space matched by overall decline and abandonment in central cities and older suburbs.
This development is not simply the product of the marketplace and consumer preferences. Rather, government policies underwrite exurban expansion by disproportionately funding the expansion of roads into the countryside, rather than the repair of existing infrastructure, and by enabling developers to build bigger homes on bigger lots in exclusive suburban enclaves.
But a new generation of local and state leaders, joined by an eclectic set of regional coalitions, is taking the government out of the business of subsidizing unsustainable growth. From Chattanooga, Tenn., to Portland, Ore., metropolitan leaders are choosing infrastructure repair, mass transit and anti-congestion strategies over road expansion and the consumption of precious green space.
Last year, Maryland enacted Smart Growth laws to steer state road, sewer and school money away from open spaces to areas targeted for concentrated growth. Minnesota, under state Rep. Myron Orfield’s leadership, has moved in recent years to upgrade metropolitan governance in the Twin Cities area and expand suburban obligations for affordable housing. This year, new Jersey, Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania will consider similar reforms.
What defines these efforts are the notions that place matters and that, despite conventional wisdom, common ground exists between the cities and many suburbs on transportation spending, economic growth, environmental protection and fiscal equity.
A Different Approach
If the federal government really wants to boost cities, it must encourage and reward these state and metropolitan efforts to curb sprawl and promote reinvestment. Most importantly, the national government has to spend federal transportation dollars differently.
It can, in the next transportation bill, strengthen the role of local governments in deciding on transportation matters. It can require full disclosure of spending patterns by jurisdiction, which helps local leaders to see the trade-offs between rebuilding existing infrastructure and subsidizing sprawl. It can encourage states and metropolitan entities to integrate transportation, land use and economic development.
Metropolitan solutions will not cure all our urban problems. Cities need to fix falling schools, eliminate burdensome regulations, improve services and reduce crime even further before private-sector investment and middle-class families return. And the federal government should build on the president’s recommendations to leverage the potential of neighborhood markets and the power of community-based institutions.
But the regional agenda is the first attempt in years to bring cities out of their embattled crouch and into majority coalitions, pushing for genuine, systemic change. This is powerful stuff, a different way of thinking collectively and a different way of acting politically.
If the president and Congress are serious about cities, they need to develop and embrace such an agenda.