Hank Dittmar, Surface Transportation Policy Project
Friday, 4 Jun 1999
Why should environmentalists care about the fate of America’s cities? Indeed, most urban policy experts assume that the environmental community doesn’t care about urban policy, or such problems as concentrated poverty and disinvestment in communities of color. But any environmentalist concerned with preservation of open space and habitat or with reduction of the threat of global climate change should care, because if we don’t stop the hemorrhage from our cities and now our inner suburbs we won’t stop sprawl. Over the years I’ve found that many environmentalists do make these connections.
I spent yesterday as the transportation person at a gathering convened by Denver Mayor Wellington Webb to develop an urban/metropolitan agenda for consideration by the candidates in the upcoming presidential election. Webb will be installed next week as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. There seemed to be consensus among the assembled experts that cities were on the rebound in many ways — as desirable and exciting places to live, as entertainment centers, an
d as places for business to locate. Issues of livability and sprawl have hit the public’s radar screen as well, as evidenced by their prominence at the state level and by the passage of hundreds of open space and growth referenda last November. This was good news.
The data shows that crime is down in our cities, and that the drop is steeper than in the suburbs. Evidence shows that many big city mayors are turning their education systems around as well. But in the aggregate, populations and jobs in suburbs are still growing much faster than in central cities. We have stopped going backward, but cities are still losing the race.
The group discussed a range of strategies from transportation and land use efforts at the metropolitan level, to strategies to enhance metropolitan competitiveness by building on urban assets, to neighborhood improvement plans. Perhaps the most interesting discussion for me was the talk about how to frame these issues so that they were important and appealing to the candidates, and this meant moving away from a notion of dependency for the inner cities to a discussion of the city’s role in the quality of life of everybody in the metro area, and to a recognition that much innovative thinking is coming from our nation’s mayors.
Today I’m off to Milwaukee for yet another meeting. This time its the annual gathering of the Congress for New Urbanism, a group of architects, planners and developers dedicated to planning and design which enhances both livability and sustainability. These folks try to design places which reduce the need to drive, reduce the use of nonrenewable resources, and recreate a sense of community. They have been key allies in the battle against sprawl and have succeeded in capturing media attention and interest in the issue.
But first I think I’ll call home. As the father of 15-month-old twins named Cole and Clara, I don’t like to be on the road. But they’ve just gotten old enough to say hi and hold the phone. To make the call I’ll have to sign off now. Thanks for reading.