This article was co-authored by Nation contributing editor Joel Rogers. Itoriginally appeared in the September 17 issue of the New Statesman.
On the campaign trail, Barack Obama promised to champion America’scities and help them help themselves. So how are they faring under hispresidency?
America is a metro nation. About 80 per cent of the US population nowlives in metropolitan areas, which together cover about 20 per cent ofthe country’s land and create roughly 90 per cent of GDP. The top 100metros alone, on 12 per cent of American land, account for 65 per centof the population, 75 per cent of GDP, and comparable or greater sharesof critical infrastructure, education and research institutions.
While cities have long been to a large extent invisible in Americanpublic life, the country now has a president who actually likes them andunderstands their centrality. He recognises that almost all the bigtrends in US demographics (smaller households, ageing), culture (moretolerant, less racist), economics (the need for innovation, less waste,greater self-sufficiency) and the environment (dying) either predict orrecommend the growth of cities. And he thinks their present dysfunction- the source of most of the country’s main domestic problems, such asinequality, unsustainability and declining competitiveness – can becured.
During his campaign for president, Barack Obama promised to championcities and, most urgently, to change the way that federal programmestackled their multiple but often interrelated problems. For years,initiatives touching many of the same people and places but originatingfrom different departments – housing and urban development, energy,education, transport and environment – had too little shared purpose andco-ordination to get much done, and enough red tape to strangleinnovation. They were victims of a bureaucracy driven by process ratherthan outcome.
Since taking office, Obama has made good on his pledge to address this.After a series of strong appointments, and with firm instruction, thevarious government agencies are collaborating as never before. Havingformalised working agreements and joint staff teams, they aresynchronising complementary interventions (on matters of housing andtransport, for example, or – to be more specific – regenerating homesand installing broadband access at the same time), and they are askingcities to match that co-ordination with their own.