After weeks of uncertainty and anticipation, the White House Office of Urban Affairs has rolled off the assembly line. The office is designed to facilitate and coordinate programs that improve the lives of city dwellers, from the food served in urban classrooms to the bolts that gird subway lines.
President Barack Obama has finally addressed what had been a prominent pledge during his campaign, to “stop seeing cities as the problem and start seeing them as a solution.” Via a combination of city-centric forward planning in the 2011 federal budget and Recovery Act projects already underway, Obama plans to enact “a vision of vibrant, sustainable places that provide our children with every chance to learn and to grow, and that allow our businesses and workers the best opportunity to innovate and succeed.”
The crowd at the rollout of the office spoke to the multifaceted mandate it has been given. From Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to green jobs adviser Van Jones to drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, the White House gathering underscored the ambition of the Urban Affairs office. “This is a full-court press,” said Adolfo Carrion, the Bronx borough president turned director of the Office of Urban Affairs, speaking for the first time in public about the office. “We need to run on two tracks. We're dealing with a current crisis, and we also have to look at long-term events.”
It’s this tension—between a national mandate and Washington bureaucracy, sweeping ambitions and desperate immediate needs—that defines the office’s unique challenge.
The White House has certainly faced its share of criticisms about the office’s efficacy and the authority of Carrion, who reports to senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. Carrion doesn’t have oversight over any of the Cabinet secretaries or agencies that deal with urban affairs, and the office's mandate still does not include either funding or regulatory authority—but it may have something else more valuable: a place at the White House agenda-setting table.
Shaun Donovan, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development who has worked closely with Carrion, stressed that Carrion’s White House perch is crucial. “There has to be this kind of work between agencies and the coordination between the White House—otherwise we’re not going to be successful.” Another senior administration official likened Carrion to a conductor: “His job is to make sure he knows who is playing what instrument, and that they are all playing at the same time,” the official said.
In a recession, the need to tackle long-standing problems in urban areas is even more pronounced: Cities generate 87 percent of U.S. economic activity and host concentrated, suddenly expanding pockets of poverty and unemployment—especially in black communities. Many local politicians suggest that there has already been progress because of the Recovery Act: "The Obama administration is sending more money for bricks and mortar construction in cities for the first time in my lifetime," says James Perry, a mayoral candidate in New Orleans. "This administration gets it," says Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. "There were zero policies to help cities as they struggled through the recession of 2002, 2003 …. For the first time, cities can take those dollars, hire local residents and put them to work.”
But a lot of this encouraging news has come as a result not of the Urban Affairs office, but of the Recovery Act itself, which is providing those dollars directly to cities. Obama has said that without the Recovery Act, "our cities would be in a even deeper hole … and tens of thousands of police officers and firefighters and teachers would be out of a job as we speak."
The Office of Urban Affairs is still very much in an information gathering phase. It will soon convene an interagency working group that includes the 10 federal agencies that "touch every aspect of urban metropolitan life," says Carrion. This includes the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Energy, Transportation, HUD and others. The Domestic Policy Council, Office of Management and Budget, National Economic Council have also been asked to join in deliberations. The group will draft “a national urban agenda that makes sense for the future, that will touch people in the workplace, in their homes, out on the roads … all aspects of urban living,” says Carrion.
The job facing the Urban Affairs office is enormous—economic inequality in American cities such as Washington, Atlanta and New York is equal to that in developing world metropolises such as Nairobi, Buenos Aires and Abidjan.
But rumors of disorganization were not entirely unfounded. And the heavy lifting hasn't started just yet. "This was basically like a start-up business," says one administration official. "It was a little wobbly on the front end, but at least now we can consistently talk about what we're doing," he said. In fact, the main news out of the recent announcement did not revolve around Carrion: Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson and Donovan of HUD will embark on a multi-city tour in August intended to spotlight innovative practices in urban governance. The dates are not set, but they will most likely hit Philadelphia, Denver and Kansas City, according to the White House, in search of smart ideas to funnel back to the desks of Carrion and Jarrett.
Moving forward, Obama said in his introduction of the Urban Affairs office, "we're going to need to do more than just help our cities weather the current economic storm. We've got to figure out ways to rebuild them on a newer, firmer, stronger foundation for our future." But what might that new urban agenda look like?
The White House meeting with Carrion, Derek Douglas, his deputy on the Domestic Policy Council, the several cabinet secretaries involved and about 25 prominent urbanists, determined "that there was no one-issue solution, that the hallmark of a good urban policy was integrative—where housing worked with transit, worked with education, environment, the Treasury, capital markets," says Katz.
The field of urban policy is rife with new ideas, from urban gardening to innovative commuter tax schemes, to strong-armed school reforms that Obama and fellow Chicagoan Arne Duncan rolled out at the Department of Education last week. Obama quoted another Chicagoan, Daniel Burnham, in his remarks on urban policy. "Make no little plans," he said. When it comes to issues impacting urban America, the White House plans to put its ear to the pavement, in search of the big ideas that will finally take cities into the 21st century.
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.