Urbanist Richard Florida, in a New York Daily News op-ed, has called for President Obama to define his legacy not only by focusing on gun control, immigration and climate change, but by zeroing in on an even more important issue: America’s urbanization.
This is because today, he explains, the nation’s 50 largest metros contain two-thirds of US population, produce three-quarters of its economic output, and are home to a great concentration of its innovations. Florida, author of Rise of the Creative Class and one of New Urbanism's prime theoreticians, believes that these metros have been neglected by a government that romanticizes suburbs and small towns, while ignoring the greater productivity of dense areas. The answer to this misallocation of resources, he writes, would be for Obama to form a Department of Cities.
According to his proposal, this would fold into the now-dated Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and would represent a shift in how government approaches cities. While HUD was “created to mitigate poverty at a time of wide-scale suburban flight” by providing housing and jobs for vulnerable populations, this new department would enact reforms more in fitting with urban America’s renewed prosperity. That would include redirecting infrastructure money back into city centers, and funding bike lanes, mass transit and pedestrian zones. Zoning and building codes would be modified to allow for greater densities.
What's wrong with this idea? It's hard to know where to begin.
The proposed department would tread beyond just growth and infrastructure, and become a comprehensive bureaucracy. Its modifications to zoning laws, for example, would interfere with traditionally local police power. And the department would “absorb pieces” from a half-dozen agencies, like the Departments of Commerce and the Interior. That way, it could deal with climate change, immigration and gun control, as well as crime, education, and inequality. The department’s bipartisan advisory board, which would include mayors, developers, and academics, could even dabble in foreign affairs, by demonstrating how “urbanism and sustainability should underpin a new US ‘grand strategy’.”
Florida justified such a department by saying it would make government leaner, through the better coordination of different agencies. That, in turn, would help it streamline economic vitality and job creation in cities, using a “cut to invest” approach. But Florida didn’t note that such a department would only be possible if approved by the Obama administration that would be forming it. And that seems unlikely, given that the president’s current urban vision is little different than the old HUD model Florida bemoans. Obama’s choice for HUD secretary was Shaun Donovan, a former New York City housing commissioner who launched the city’s “inclusionary zoning” program, making it available even for six-figure households.
Obama, after all, came of age in Chicago, a city long mired in that department’s policies. He has continued funding some of its more anachronistic programs, like Community Development Block Grants, and started Choice Neighborhoods, which is an expanded version of the old Hope VI program. Meanwhile, the economic benefits of his new HUD measures are no more evident than past ones. The Strong Cities Strong Communities Initiative gave grants to six declining cities, including Detroit, which has received gobs of federal money before, but has failed to improve largely because of problems within city hall. Both the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative and the Promise Neighborhoods grants are all-encompassing attempts by the federal government to solve poverty, going beyond just housing, to include schools, policing, and health care.
The Sustainable Communities Initiative is meant to centralize the various municipalities within a given metro area. While the strategy can have advantages, it has been used by Obama merely to advance a far-left agenda: its been known to restrict suburban development.
So how likely is it that Obama would fill this new Department of Cities with the market-oriented appointees suggested by Florida, like economist Edward Glaeser, and Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, the online shoe retailer? Probably less so than Obama filling it with ones who, like himself, seem to believe the government can solve every urban problem if only given more money. Such thinking has led to continued wastefulness within HUD, and might inhibit a new city department from its stated goal of spurring growth.
Even if such a department did spur growth, it might, like other top-down entities, do so abusively—a point that seems lost on Florida. While discussing the article on MSNBC, he explained that “HUD was great for its time,” as “the bulwark of both urban renewal…and providing affordable public housing,” and that the new department would simply need to adapt to modern conditions. But the “renewal” he celebrates caused the widespread destruction of neighborhoods—and arguably cities altogether—in the 1950s and 1960s, while the public housing that replaced them was crime-ridden.
There’s no reason to think that those who ran a Department of Cities would learn from these mistakes. Yesterday’s urban renewal exists today merely in different forms. There has been a vast expansion of eminent domain powers because of 2005's Kelo v. New London, which legalized taking private property for other private uses, and is now being used for local economic development strategies, particularly in New York City. Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg—Florida thinks he would make a great cabinet member—there have been attempted condemnations of large areas, including the Atlantic Yards project underway in Brooklyn. Property would be confiscated from thousands of owners, while reshaping whole swaths of the city into master-planned projects. Who is to say a Department of Cities wouldn’t implement this method nationwide, wiping out poor neighborhoods to build yet more “redevelopments”—aka convention centers, malls, and stadiums—that perform even more poorly than the original neighborhoods did?
Florida ends his article about federalizing urban policy by, ironically, repeating a quote Bloomberg once made about the virtues of local governance: “While nations talk, but too often drag their heels—cities act.”
This just summarizes the problem with a “Department of Cities.” It would concentrate power at a level of government that is known for sluggishness in some cases, and arbitrariness in others. While a department that focused only on redirecting infrastructure into dense areas might be beneficial, the comprehensive one described by Florida would prove politically toxic, since it would veer into multiple other issues. And it would be controlled by someone who, like Obama, might use it not for economic growth, but to further propagate the growth—and wastefulness—of the federal bureaucracy.
Flickr photo by Anthony Fine: Atlantic Yards construction, Brooklyn.
Scott Beyer is traveling the nation to write a book about revitalizing U.S. cities. His blog, Big City Sparkplug, features the latest in urban news. Originally from Charlottesville, VA, he is now living in different cities month-to-month to write new chapters.