Pete Souza/White House

President Obama's urban policy focused primarily on regions and on assets as much as problems.

Among the elements of President Obama’s legacy that could be shelved or shredded as soon as he leaves office—like the Affordable Care Act, the Paris climate accords or his many executive orders—the president’s place-based initiatives have garnered little attention.

After all, the Obama administration’s efforts to encourage transit-oriented development and link federal funding to regional planning occupy pretty wonky territory. There are no imaginary “death panels” or fake climate scientists to fire up opposition to policies like the Sustainable Communities Initiative.

Those efforts do have passionate—some might even say paranoid—enemies on the right, however. Take author Stanley Kurtz, who wrote a column for The National Review in July 2013 headlined “Regionalism: Obama’s Quiet Anti-Suburban Revolution.”

Kurtz began by denouncing the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “affirmatively furthering fair housing rule,” a regulation that acknowledges the deep roots of U.S. residential segregation by requiring local governments that receive federal housing funds to demonstrate not just that they aren’t overtly discriminating, but that they are actually trying to counter the legacy of past policies that excluded people of color and the poor. Conservatives see the rule as misguided social engineering.

For his part, Kurtz views it as one facet of a larger plot. “The new HUD rule,” he wrote, “is really about changing the way Americans live. It is part of a broader suite of initiatives designed to block suburban development, press Americans into hyper-dense cities, and force us out of our cars.”

“Government-mandated ethnic and racial diversification plays a role in this scheme, yet the broader goal is forced ‘economic integration,'” Kurtz continued. “The ultimate vision is to make all neighborhoods more or less alike, turning traditional cities into ultra-dense Manhattans, while making suburbs look more like cities do now. In this centrally-planned utopia, steadily increasing numbers will live cheek-by-jowl in ‘stack and pack’ high-rises close to public transportation, while automobiles fall into relative disuse.”

Others on the right also sounded the alarm about Obama’s attempts to foster regional planning. “Thanks so much to all of you wonderfully generous Socialists and Fascists who are running our Federal government. I just don’t know how I can return the favor,” read a screed at Freedom Outpost in 2013 responding to an Obama resiliency initiative called Agenda 21. “Oh wait. You have that all figured out, too! You can tax and enslave my grandchildren to pay for more of this Agenda 21 Plan for Amerika [sic].”

Fans of Obama’s approach dismiss those critiques as hyperbole. In a sense, however, they agree with their foes that the outgoing administration has had a quiet but profound impact on the way governments approach planning—so much so that Obama’s allies are optimistic the shift will survive the change in power at noon this Friday.

A regional approach

Obama came to office with perhaps the most urban pedigree of any president—a former community organizer with a political base in the nation’s third-largest city whose victory in 2008 was secured in large part by a huge margin in the urban vote over Republican nominee John McCain. As a candidate, Obama promised to create a new Cabinet-level office of urban policy, and when he took power he named then-Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion as its first director.

Carrion left after little more than a year and amid the battles over the stimulus package and healthcare, the urban policy effort didn’t achieve the visibility that some advocates had sought for it, but it triggered changes that have had impact.

The low profile was due, in part, to Obama’s thinking about how the federal government should approach cities. When running in ’08 the then-senator had rejected urban policies that focused exclusively on cities or concentrated primarily on problems. What was needed instead, Obama said, was a lens on metro areas—or even broader regions—and an emphasis on assets and growth. Put simply, federal policies needed to focus on places, not problems.

What’s more, separate federal agencies that operated different programs in the same place needed to coordinate better.”What the administration did was recognize that at the federal level, there are a lot of silos that need to be broken down,” says Christopher Coes, vice president for real estate policy and external affairs at Smart Growth America.

Taken together, the Obama approach wasn’t well-suited to ribbon-cuttings or other glamour moments. Instead, it took shape in the dull world of interdepartmental memos. In one such missive in 2009, Carrion directed all federal agencies to inventory their programs and identify ones that were primarily place-based. According to Shelley Poticha, director of urban solutions at the Natural Resources Defense Council and a one-time leader of the Obama sustainability program, this effort came out of Cabinet secretaries Ray LaHood (Transportation) and Shaun Donovan (HUD) as well as the EPA’s Lisa Jackson “very early getting together and talking about how they could work together.” She adds: “I think that conversation, that leadership really was critical in rallying around places and really trying to find ways of being really kind of at service to communities rather than being an enforcer.”

The results of the policy review formed the basis for Obama’s suite of place-based initiatives. One, the Promise Neighborhoods program, sought to attack poverty with measures based in schools but aimed at broader issues. Another, called Choice Neighborhoods, took the same approach—only with an anchor in public housing.

The focus of Kurtz’s ire was the Sustainable Communities Initiative, which coordinated previously separate place-based spending by HUD, the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency. Communities and regions were invited to apply for planning grants to create more liveable places by providing more transportation choices, creating affordable housing and aligning those distinct streams of federal spending.

Impact within constraints

All the Obama place-based programs ran into budget blockades on Capitol Hill, limiting their scope. This began as soon as the Republicans took power after the 2010 midterm elections. “When Congress switched you had different players in charge of the pursestrings. You had a number of Republican members who would call out the SCI and say, ‘We’re not going to fund it,'” Coes recalls. “There were a number of attempts in the House to ban spending on anything that says ‘sustainable’ or ‘liveable’ or ‘smart growth.'” The administration tried to protect the effort from Congressional destruction by renaming it the Office of Economic Resiliency. And natural disasters like Sandy “allowed the administration to fine-tune or rebrand their effort to a language that was more palatable to Republicans,” Coes says.

Over time, 143 Sustainable Communities planning grants were issued in 48 states. Bridgeport, Conn., focused on transportation planning. Greensburg, Kan., concentrated on green building in the wake of a tornado. In the north end of Milwaukee, an EPA-funded brownfield remediation was linked with mixed-income housing and retail development to revive a key corridor.

“I think it was important,” says Kalima Rose, vice president for strategic initiatives at PolicyLink which was contracted by the administration to evaluate plans under the initiative. “I think it played a significant role in changing both practice and policy in the field.” The three-year length of the grants and their requirements were key, she says. “It gave them time to shift the practice of what they do or the culture of what they do. It required every grantee to think about income and spatial and racial disparities. I would venture that 80 percent of them had never engaged in that exercise before.”

The grants also required the development of local leadership, she says. “There was just a lot of creativity of people thinking about their economies and who was left out.”

Conservatives aren’t the only ones who have taken issue with the program and its impact, however. Skeptics of Mayor de Blasio’s rezoning of East New York and its potential impact on low-income residents note that the redevelopment plan began as an SCI project. The grant program did stress that the plans had to support “existing communities” through mechanisms like land recycling. Whether those will have long term success remains to be seen.

What’s clear already, according to Rose, is that the alarmist rhetoric about the program was far off-target. “There was nothing in this initiative that required anyone to move anywhere,” she says. “This allowed regions to understand their competitive strengths and to leverage their resources to capitalize on them.”

New planner, new plans?

Supporters hope the value of the program to local and regional leaders will be its salvation. Should the Trump administration and lawmakers try to undermine that approach, “I think that we will see local places speaking out for their own interests,” predicts Rose. “They will be talking to Congress, weighing in on what they want to see.”

SCI’s allies also believe that inertia is on their side—that, thanks in part to Obama’s leadership, the culture of planning at federal agencies and their local counterparts has shifted to focus on places rather than problems and emphasize partnerships across agency and municipal lines. “That train has left the station,” Rose says.

Poticha agress. “The optimist in me says that this way of making decisions makes so much sense that it’s very hard to undo.” What’s more, “There’s lots of career staff at the federal government who have made this the way they do their work. I think they’re going to keep doing it.”

The future remains murky, however, because so much of the president-elect’s agenda is vague. The prospects for the agencies that are part of the SCI are uncertain at best. It’s not clear what Dr. Ben Carson—who has opposed the “affirmatively furthering fair housing” rule—will do at HUD. As for the EPA, “There are going to be a lot of attacks on that,” says Coes. “What we don’t know is how far they’re going to go in unravelling that. That’s a huge unknown.”

President-Elect Trump’s promises to oversee ambitious improvements to the nation’s infrastructure, if fulfilled, will pose a robust test of whether Obama’s approach to planning has fundamentally reshaped the way public-works money is spent.

“I think the question is where those dollars go,” says Coes; another is who decides, and how they decide, what to do with the dough once it gets there.

* * * *
Join City Limits this evening for a panel discussion on the possibilities and potential pitfalls of infrastructure improvement under President Trump, from 6-8 p.m. at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism at 219 West 40th Street in Manhattan. Seats are scarce but we’ll be webcasting the event here and welcome your comments on NYC’s infrastructure priorities via email or social media.