Thursday, April 30, 2009

Obama and Urban Development

This post is my paper when I was one of the panelists at the Interactive Forum of Faculty and Students, “The Election of Barack Obama”, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Savannah State University in Savannah on April 28, 2009.

The election of Barack Obama as the forty forth president of the United States was also greeted enthusiastically by urbanists in the U.S. The changes to the previous government policies promised by Obama during his presidential campaign are also expected to take place in urban development.

The criticism frequently raised by urbanists is the lack of the federal government attention to inner city areas. Inner city areas are the highly concentrated areas of the minority and also the pockets of poverty in urban areas. Suburban areas have been the focus of urban development with the development of strip malls and residential areas. Not surprisingly, there is a growing gap between inner city areas and suburban areas in most American cities.

Commitment to Urban Development

Obama started his career as a community organizer in the poor areas in the Southside of Chicago. Obama succeeded in advocating residents in those areas in employment and investment in housing and infrastructure. From this experience, Obama understands the challenges faced by communities in low-income neighborhoods in urban areas.

In a campaign event in Toledo, Ohio, in August 2008, one participant offered a book to Barack Obama and said that the book is very important on how to build an ideal city in the U.S. Before the participant mentioned the title of his book, Obama responded that the book is Jane Jacobs’s work titled "The Death and Life of Great American Cities." This book was first published in 1961 and regarded as one of the most influential publications in the field of urban planning because it emphasizes the importance of space on how the city can improve the interaction among residents. Obama's attention to this important publication in the field of urban planning is interpreted by urbanists as an important thing for a leader who knows and understands how a city works.

Obama has an understanding that city is an important driving force for national prosperity. Cities in the U.S. are the places for 80 percent of the American population and economic activities. American cities also generate more than 85 percent of the national wealth. Obama understands that downtown areas must be built in order to reduce the gaps with suburban areas. Prosperity that occurred in suburban areas will not be sustainable if inner city areas are still left behind.

The Changes of Urban Development Policy

One of the most important policies made by Obama in the urban development policy is the establishment of the Office of Urban Policy, which is placed directly under the President in the White House. This office is expected to coordinate all urban development programs and report to the President.

Urban development programs in several departments such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation, and Department of Energy have a weak coordination. Programs in various departments are considered inefficient and created local competitions that are unhealthy and expensive. The Office of Urban Policy is expected to ensure that any funds given to the development of cities can be used for programs that have the biggest positive impact for urban development.

The Obama administration also reactivates the Community Development Block Grant, which was reduced during the Bush administration. This program is specifically directed to poor areas by providing assistances in housing and employment.

The attention to the poor in urban areas will also be done by the Obama administration through a new strategy named Promise Neighborhoods. This strategy is based on the successful experience in the city of New York through the Harlem Children's Zone. This program will be implemented in the area that has a high crime and poverty and a very low achievement of high school students. This program will include the involvement of students and their parents in the area that will be selected to achieve several targets such as the creation of medical and mental health of children, parental involvement in the success of their children in schools and the availability of employment.

Another thing that brings change in the field of urban development includes the appointment of Shaun Donovan as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Donovan has an architecture background and has the experience of how to create programs and development plans for the house low-income homes and eliminate foreclosure. The last person with a background of architects and town planners who led the department of Housing and Urban Development is Henry Cisneros between 1993 and 1997 under the Clinton administration.

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