Cities Still In Search of Solutions

AP Photo/Eric Gay

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, right, with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, left, during a campaign event, Thursday, October 15, 2015, in San Antonio. 

A New York Times 2008 editorial, “In Search of A Real Urban Policy” declared that,  “For more than a generation, presidential aspirants have mostly resisted acknowledging the importance of the cities’ well being. Voters deserve to hear a lot more from the presidential candidates—in position papers, public speeches and debates—about how they intend to help the cities.”

The Times cited urban issues like New York City graduation rates, the Katrina debacle, and like the Minneapolis bridge collapse as worrying issues on the urban landscape. The 2008 Democratic presidential candidates, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, had “pieces of an urban agenda” while Senator John McCain, the major Republican contender, didn’t have much to offer.

Nearly decade later, the issues facing American cities remain intractable. Some problems have either only marginally improved, like New York City graduation rates, or go by new names like Sandy, for natural disasters responses, or Flint for infrastructure crises.

Earlier this year, a group of urban policy specialists at the Penn Institute for Urban Research at the University of Pennsylvania offered their views on election 2016. For Richard Florida, the noted urban affairs scholar and fellow at the Institute, little has changed. “Let’s cut to the chase: When was the last time you heard a national politician even utter the word ‘cities’ or ‘urban policy?’” Florida said. “It’s time for a new national urban policy that sees cities as centers of innovation and wealth creation and gives them power to cope with the challenges they face.”

In 2016, the Democratic presidential candidates have again offered pieces of an urban agenda. Hillary Clinton has targeted issues like infrastructure, affordable housing, and racial justice with a detailed set of economic revitalization prescriptions. Bernie Sanders, a former mayor, has struck a chord with his proposals on addressing income inequality. Both candidates have laid out thoughtful infrastructure plans and racial justice agendas.

Huffington Post politics reporter Julian Craven has noted that that even Donald Trump materialized on the scene with ideas for cities, though they are ones that have been largely cribbed from Clinton and Sanders. However, those ideas don’t make up for sowing a campaign season’s worth of bigotry and demagoguery that discredits him from a role as any sort of urban mechanic.

But overarching urban policy commitments have proven elusive, particularly in light of the deep economic dislocation that has exposed deeper unresolved philosophical quandaries.

No one gains when urban residents, be they the working poor or the middle class, continue to pay ever-increasing percentages of their income for an apartment or a home in a city. Nor does anyone benefit when those residents are driven further out into the suburbs in search of housing that does not cripple their budgets and then are forced to commute into city centers on pothole filled roads or subpar transit systems.

The dilemma is this: At the center of our urban policy strategy is a struggle to move the working poor, through education, employment opportunities and better housing choices, into the middle class. But unless we can address the tenuousness of a middle-class existence today, such a strategy merely replaces one group’s problems with those faced by the people on the economic rung above them

The path forward for cities in the 21st century, where the majority of Americans now live and work, continues to be an elusive goal in that search for a national commitment. In the 1960s, the debate over the future of American cities was all the rage, because rage put it front and center: the African American frustration over inequality and lack of education and employment opportunities that produced the urban riots reshaped cities across the country.

Today, cities are undergoing another seismic shift. Many that are still emerging from the shadows of those urban tragedies have become vibrant beacons for new generations of residents. But some of the same problems that lit the tinderboxes of the sixties continue to fester, including failing schools, police brutality, and institutional racism.

The road to the White House is strewn with policy prescriptions. But the politically viable formulas to pay for urban essentials like housing and infrastructure that are integral to livable cities never seem to gain traction along the way. What’s needed are not only strategic plans but ways to break the deadlock in Washington to create enduring coalitions willing to fit together pieces of an urban agenda into something approaching coherent policy.

As Penn’s John L. Jackson Jr. noted, “The issues we face are massive, and we need electoral candidates with the political will to fend off partisan-posturing, ideological cant, and mass-mediated desensitization in service to the aim of making people’s lives healthier and happier.”

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