The effort to save the American economy is front and center at the moment, but a term is four long years. Beyond the immediate crisis, President-elect Obama — who hadn’t exactly set a modest agenda before the economic collapse — hopes to transform much of America’s political landscape, from foreign policy to energy to health care.

It’s a daunting to-do list, but urbanists — planners, economists, and environmentalists seeking a change in the way America builds its cities — think that Obama’s task can be made easier. If we rethink our cities — the way we build our neighborhoods and the transportation networks that connect them — we can save energy and reduce emissions, all while giving a boost to our economy.

A man of the city himself — raised in Honolulu and for decades a Chicagoan — Obama has been called the metropolitan candidate. He ran on an “Amtrak ticket” with a man who took the train to work every day, and he’s even riding the rails to Washington for his inauguration. This has raised expectations among urbanists (your author included), and the president-elect has done little to discourage that enthusiasm. He paid homage to rail and transit during the campaign (in a landmark metropolitan speech, for instance) and since his election. And he has even gone so far as to create a cabinet-level Office of Urban Policy.

But now the rubber hits the road. While Obama’s commitment to better metropolitan policy is clear, he will need capable lieutenants who can hone policy details and push matters forward. His urban personnel — his secretaries of Housing and Urban Development and Transportation, along with the head of the new Urban Policy office — will carry the metropolitan torch for the administration. So who are they, and what do they say about an Obama urban policy?

The best member of team city, as judged by urbanists and other progressives, is likely to be Shaun Donovan, tapped by Obama as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Given a narrow focus on HUD’s explicit mandates (and its considerable problems), Donovan is an outstanding choice. A Clinton-era veteran of the agency, he’s familiar with the federal bureaucracy and managed to be effective despite institutional hurdles.

More recently, he has demonstrated his knowledge of best practices in affordable housing as a capable head of New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. In that role, he embraced the public-private partnerships that have grown popular in revitalizing urban areas. Among them is inclusionary zoning, the practice of increasing allowable densities in new developments (which is good for developers), in exchange for a commitment to include affordable units. He is a serious individual with serious ideas about serious urban issues — a major departure from recent history. And perfectly acceptable, so long as one is content with a mere improvement in policy-making.

Yet it’s unclear whether Donovan appreciates the scope of the housing challenge facing the nation. On the one hand, an epic meltdown in housing markets has created a crisis situation for millions of homeowners; Donovan, along with other officials, will have to find a way to rework hundreds of thousands of loans — a problem to which good solutions have so far remained elusive. On the other hand, the housing crash has undercut many affordable housing efforts (including the bold Bloomberg plan Donovan helped oversee) without doing much to make the nation’s best metropolitan economies any more affordable for working families.

Affordable housing programs are sufficient to keep a respectable population of low-income households in gentrifying center cities, but the more significant issue may be a continued lack of affordable homes for low- and middle-income families in successful, walkable places — like New York City — based on simple supply constraints. Given this limited supply these walkable neighborhoods and cities remain expensive, even in the wake of the housing crash. The cost of such places has driven millions of households to sprawling Sunbelt cities in recent decades, contributing to a massive increase in vehicle-miles traveled, land consumed by development, and carbon emitted. This dynamic must be addressed.

HUD, established in 1965, has long been a cabinet afterthought relative to the glamour positions at State, Defense, and Treasury. The nation’s experience with public housing in the 1960s only increased the department’s marginalization. What’s needed now isn’t an improvement so much as a total, revolutionary overhaul. The question is whether Donovan is prepared to undertake it.

Checking Under LaHood

From a visionary perspective, Obama’s Transportation pick is widely seen as the most baffling. After a year of record transit ridership, with new systems opening around the nation and new state-level initiatives for high-speed rail moving forward, urbanists were looking for a sea change at DOT. The focus among economists (and the Obama camp) on new infrastructure stimulus has only heightened expectations of an end to highway business-as-usual, and a beginning to a bold push for modal diversification.

But stunningly, Obama used the pick to name his promised Republican cabinet member (Defense secretary holdover Robert Gates excepted). Ray LaHood, a retiring downstate Illinois representative, will be handed the reins of the department at perhaps the most crucial juncture for transportation investment since the Eisenhower years.

And few know quite what to make of him. He reportedly has a good relationship with the president-elect and he has not hewn strictly to the GOP party line during his Congressional tenure. The most vocal support for LaHood has come from cyclists, who appreciate his avid support for federal funding of pedestrian and bike trails. LaHood has also supported recent and popular bills to fund Amtrak, though he has at times opposed rail service improvements in Illinois, including steps toward high-speed rail systems. He is, in a nutshell, a Pretty Good Republican on transportation issues and an Illinoisan; these seem to be his chief qualifications.

Given the availability of men and women with career-long interests in transportation issues and an inclination toward bold ideas — people like Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and New York City DOT head Janette Sadik-Khan — the easiest interpretation for this move is political expediency. Obama needed a Republican, and a GOP member at Transportation is easier for Democrats to swallow than at, say, Labor.

The president-elect used his introduction of LaHood to cast him in a reformist mold, and indeed, his simple failure to champion highways anywhere and always casts him in a positive light relative to many of his predecessors. While transportation reformers are currently focused on the stimulus package, the reauthorization of the nation’s transportation funding rules (SAFETEA-LU, in bureaucratese) that will take place in late 2009 is in many ways more important. LaHood may well help bring the GOP along on more transit funding in that unglamorous but hugely important piece of legislation. In that case, LaHood would easily count as a hero for urbanists (as well as those more focused on energy efficiency or carbon emissions). Yet the selection of a man virtually unknown in
the urbanist community has already led to feelings of betrayal.

You Down With OUP?

Less remarked upon by urbanists but perhaps more disappointing, on the face of things, is Obama’s choice for head of the new Office of Urban Policy. The department, as described by the president-elect, has the potential to be the institutional skeleton on which a new, green, metropolitan framework is built. Says the Obama camp:

Today, government programs aimed at strengthening metropolitan areas are spread across the federal government — including the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Transportation, Department of Labor and Department of Commerce — with insufficient coordination or strategy. Worse, many federal programs inadvertently undermine cities and regions by encouraging inefficient and costly patterns of development and local competition. Obama and Biden will create a White House Office of Urban Policy to develop a strategy for metropolitan America and to ensure that all federal dollars targeted to urban areas are effectively spent on the highest-impact programs. The Director of Urban Policy will report directly to the president and coordinate all federal urban programs.

Whether the new bureaucracy lives up to its potential depends upon the actual authority invested in it by the president, and on the individual running the department. And so the choice of Bronx Borough president Adolfo Carrion was also somewhat underwhelming.

Carrion is at least nominally qualified. He’s a trained urban planner and a veteran of the New York political scene. He helped engineer redevelopment of underused portions of the Bronx — successfully, for the most part, though many progressives are rightly frustrated by his support for Yankee Stadium subsidies, particularly given revelations that the new venue will have more parking available than the old despite its smaller capacity and increased transit access.

To his great credit, Carrion did take a courageous stand in favor of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan — an outlier among outer borough leaders. But the overall image is of a decent local politician. Not a brilliant administrator, and certainly not the kind of individual one might expect to lead an effort to establish metropolitan policy as the fulcrum between improved energy, environmental, and economic performance in America.

And seemingly not the man to explain how this focus can be developed and deployed outside of a handful of the nation’s larger and older cities. There is little in Carrion’s resume to indicate that the Bronx lifer can explain the necessity of a difficult transition to increased density to residents and leaders of the nation’s great suburban expanses. Carrion’s political experience will translate well in Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Boston, but how will it sell in Houston? It is the Houstons of the world, after all, that will have to change the most.

City Limits

Taken as a whole, the contrast with Obama’s economic staff is illustrative. There the president-elect named a team of consummate professionals, highly respected by economists on both the left and the right. And though some progressives would have preferred a more liberal-leaning team, they could at least point to the intellectual pedigree of the appointments and the clear awareness of the scope of the challenges facing the country the selections represented.

With the urban team, the picture is far muddier. And as Inauguration Day has grown closer, other factors have contributed to a nervousness among greens and urbanists. While Obama has spoken in favor of infrastructure spending as stimulus on many occasions, “rail and transit” have often been conspicuously absent, where “roads and bridges” routinely appear in the president-elect’s statements. Has Obama already forsaken his urbanist supporters, even before taking the oath of office?

While potentially the case, this should not be seen as plausible. For one thing, Obama has made a radical change in energy policy one of his top priorities, and significant action on this front essentially necessitates a move toward better urban policy. It is practically impossible to imagine America meeting Obama’s goals for energy use and emissions without a move away from sprawling homes and extreme commutes.

Just as important, the political constituency for transit and rail funding is shifting. Metropolitan demand for transit systems — and therefore, for transit funding — is at an all-time high. With cities like Phoenix, Houston, and Charlotte building new rails, the votes for a shift in funding are there, at the ballot box and (particularly after November’s results) in Congress.

And hints from stimulus discussions suggest that a seriousness toward a new urban outlook remains. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has indicated that the stimulus bill may include an initial $20 billion for transit — a considerable amount, given the short time horizon of the bill. The decision to allocate up to 40 percent of the stimulus toward tax cuts may, counterintuitively, indicate a similar commitment to transit. Economic conditions require a significant and immediate boost to the economy. To overweight the stimulus bill with infrastructure spending would of necessity push money toward poorly conceived and automobile-oriented projects. Given the permanence of infrastructure, greens should welcome a slow push toward such spending. Delay may also allow Obama to improve the institutional oversight of such spending, by creating a National Infrastructure Development Bank. In doing so, he could defuse complaints concerning waste, or the political nature of funding choices.

There is a great deal of speculation here. What is clear is that Obama’s early decisions on the urbanist front reflect the inevitable intersection of idealism with political reality. The American political system is not built for radical legislative change, and November’s Democratic triumph nonetheless left Obama short of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. This was a truth that all of Obama’s supporters were going to have to face at some point. Eventually, decisions have to be made, priorities prioritized, pots back-burnered.

Given their high expectations, it’s understandable that urbanists are feeling some combination of nervousness and disappointment. What we must remember is that no lasting damage has been done, and that by all accounts, Obama is more committed to changing energy policy than to anything other than economic recovery. So long as that remains the case, an activist, green, and progressive urban policy cannot remain far from the presidential agenda.