is bold enough, the pol itician known as the president of
the United States can influence social and economic history
for decades to come. Here’s what President-elect Barack Obama’s
task could be:
so shape federal policies on energy, infrastructure, transportation,
housing, and environment that the 60-year trend toward suburbanization
could change, such that the city once again becomes the focus
of human activity in this country.
are about density. Density fosters creativity. Density requires
civility. Density enjoys efficiency. Density stimulates innovation,
a sense of shared purpose, distinctive regional identities.
And it creates wealth, too.
a tall order for a mere politician. Few American presidencies
have actually mattered to American culture and American economics
as much as have wars, technological changes, and Supreme Court
decisions like Roe v. Wade and the one that said, essentially,
that municipal boundaries will limit desegregation orders.
a visionary president actually changes America for decades
and Eisenhower changed America. Harry Truman created the engine
of American prosperity—the college- educated middle class—by
funding the G.I. Bill, which let veterans go to whatever college
accepted them. Dwight D. Eisenhower literally reshaped the
American landscape with his commitment to the interstate highway
system. Both Truman and Eisenhower endorsed another policy
that had a transformative impact: subsidized mortgages for
Reagan, as Obama has recognized, was a transformative force.
Reagan endorsed the upward redistribution of income and the
polarization of society by wealth, and when he pulled Jimmy
Carter’s solar panels off the White House roof, Reagan explicitly
committed this country to 30 more years of fossil-fuel dependency
and the petrocapitalists’ dominance of American politics.
needs a focus for his own transformative agenda. His focus
should be the city.
has said that his policy priority will have to be energy independence.
laudable, necessary, and intelligent, that. Oil tycoon T.
Boone Pickens is already at work on his $2 billion west Texas
wind farm. A compelling study of the potential economic impact
of Great Lakes wind-turbine development lays out that achieving
even a 20-percent threshold of electricity production via
wind turbines would mean tens of thousands of jobs for the
Rust Belt, plus great ecological benefit.
also has endorsed a national infrastructure initiative. Bravo,
bravissimo—especially if that infrastructure investment is
focused on wastewater. A Brookings Institution study says
that the price tag for cleaning up the sewer systems in the
Great Lakes watershed will be about $26 billion, including
a $600 million project for the Buffalo area. It’ll be money
well spent: Thousands of jobs will be created and the long-term
habitability of the North Coast will be enhanced. The mammoth
cost for the rest of the country will have to be met too,
because clean water means life everywhere.
ambitious president should be ambitious enough to create a
framework for these efforts.
are we really after? If we think about 2020 or 2050—if we
think in the longer-term perspective that a transformative
leader must have—then the key instrumentalities of our daily
lives must serve our civilization, and not just enable our
culture, which is built on energy overconsumption, is depleting
the capital bequeathed to us from several centuries of a civilization
that was city-based and city-centered.
to use an old Joe Biden phrase from his first presidential
campaign in 1987, “eating our seed corn.”
current culture, our suburban lives depend upon a level of
individual overconsumption that is unsustainable—and that
does not happen in cities. But getting folks to make the connection
between energy efficiency and city life, between American
energy independence and the need to live more densely, will
require that the rewards for city living will have to go up,
and the subsidies for less-dense, more-sprawled-out life will
have to disappear. In short, if energy efficiency is going
to be a part of the policy march toward energy independence,
then the economic incentives for suburban life will have to
change will be a huge problem. As UCLA economist Matthew Kahn
wrote in Green Cities: Urban Growth and the Environment,
there has long been an association between rising gasoline
consumption and rising income. Of course there is—because
Eisenhower’s highways, Truman’s mortgages, and Supreme Court
Chief Justice Warren Berger’s desegregation decisions, plus
empowered little-box local governments, have both prodded
and financially incentivized middle-class folks to “escape”
escape, however, has made everybody poorer—and when I say
everybody, the climate scientists agree. Greenhouse gases
from widely dispersed settlements, car exhaust, and other
inefficient energy usage are contributing to climate change,
which means that everybody on the planet will suffer if we
persist in our ways.
Obama talks about bringing America together, there is a national
security rationale for that goal, an energy rationale, a climate-change
rationale—but overall, a civilizational rationale. We have
to begin the march toward an urban-focused 2050 on Obama’s
our new president to understand that the chief political obstacle
to creating our new civilization is the highly visible, highly
intractable, ugly, ongoing problem of the urban drug trade.
So as confident as I am about Obama’s understanding of the
need for new energy and infrastructure policies, the true
radicalism ahead may well be contained in the policy direction
of the federal government on drugs. What direction will that
be? I don’t know.
Kahn: “Suburbanization has greatly increased the physical
distance between the middle and upper middle class and the
poor. Consequently, it is much easier and less risky for wealthier
taxpayers to ignore the problems of those who are less well
the great divide that afflicts America today. The map of that
divide is the map of cities that are isolated from suburbs.
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study of unemployment among
adult black males stated (some say overstated) a problem—that
50 percent of black males in Milwaukee and Buffalo and Detroit
aren’t in the workforce. Overlooked in most news accounts
was another finding in that study: that more than 35 percent
of white males in those cities aren’t in the workforce, either.
among working adults in cities has gone up greatly just in
the last eight years. This past summer, Alan Berube of the
Brookings Institution study found that Rochester now has two
ZIP codes dominated by folks in poverty. Of 58 large metropolitan
areas studied, 34 experienced increased rates of concentrated
poverty among working adults, with older industrial metro
areas suffering the greatest increases, but Sunbelt metros
doing less badly.
State College urban geographer Wende Mix has a more profound
finding that should shape federal policy for as long as it
takes to fix it: that in metro areas where the city is a small
part of the overall land area of the urban region, the poverty
is more concentrated and folks are worse off than in metro
areas where more of the land is “city” land.
matters, but so do bad old legacies that people less powerful
than God can actually change. Everybody knows that old industrial
areas are expensive to fix, but that they can be fixed. Policymakers
understand dealing with the physical hangovers of old policies,
such as brownfields. But what’s really hard to deal with is
political hangovers from the bad old days—especially old municipal
and activist David Rusk remains right after almost 20 years:
The “little boxes” he excoriated in his seminal book Cities
Without Suburbs really do screw the old urban regions.
The poor get isolated inside municipal boundaries. A whole
metropolitan political infrastructure gets calcified and reinforced,
as city mayors yelp for federal and state handouts for their
municipal islands, while suburban town boards do go-it-alone
zoning, go-it-alone budgeting, and go-it-alone educating,
while Eisenhower-minded, suburb- oriented governors from Albany
to Harrisburg to Columbus to Madison leave Home Rule ruling.
Environmental Protection Agency has designated Superfund sites,
the worst of the worst brownfields. But the toxic waste of
old municipal separateness is what lingers on and on. It is
so toxic that even the bright minds who advise Obama advise
him not to try to trouble with it. The Metropolitan Center
at the Brookings Institution has not engaged—nor, I believe,
will it ever engage—the question of metropolitan-wide governance,
because to do so would be to enter into the quicksand of localism,
and to challenge an American political culture empowered by
the suburban mentality that has come to dominate our culture.
is that culture that must give way to a new civilization.
Obama drive for energy independence offers the federal government
a framework within which to confront this enormous problem—for
in order to achieve the goal of energy independence, energy
efficiency has to be achieved. And energy efficiency is not
just a matter of the how of technological advance—smarter
engines and cleaner motors for end-users, local production,
wind turbines, and other eco-friendly sources on the supply
side—but also of the where of energy use.
the where of energy use be set forever in America by Eisenhower’s
highways? Because where we use energy determines how well
we use energy, and how much we use.
location, location. The city must once again be the value
proposition for our culture. For young people, it may already
city, as in most, the swankiest private and most demanding
parochial and public high schools are located where the tycoons,
the bishops, and the social reformers of the 1900s built them:
in the central city. The Eisenhower- and Truman- and Berger-enabled
suburbs tend to supply most of the kids for these private
and parochial schools. That means that their classmates who
live in the city, like mine, have a constant stream of weekend
have a rationale for pestering us about sleepovers. I hear
it every Friday: “There’s nothing to do where I live.”
interest of domestic harmony, city-dwelling parents have become
bed-and-breakfast hosts. That’s how we’ve learned so much
about how domicile shapes expectations and behavior.
obvious difference between city and suburban classmates is
that the city kids are less scheduled than their suburban
friends, even though every last one of them is involved in
after-school activities. That’s because the city-dwellers
get around on their own. They walk. They take the bus or the
subway. They do their music, sports, or clubs, and they don’t
need the Mom & Dad taxi service.
why city kids are more spontaneous about social gatherings.
They are more likely to congregate suddenly at the art gallery
or to text-message each other about meeting at a certain used
bookstore or joining in a pickup ball game.
Diversity. Knowledge of geography. Mobility without cars.
The diversity of these city kids is racial, but it’s also
about income, school affiliation, and interests. And the middle-class
kids from educated families have figured out about how to
stay safe from the kids who are in the drug trade. Nobody
has any illusions. Nobody walks alone.
critic Nat Hentoff said the same thing decades ago: He raised
his son in Manhattan so that the kid could learn how to handle
for 2050 needs to be the president who understands that kids
need to grow up knowing how to handle themselves. Technology
already enables elites to live wherever they want to live.
It is imperative that the next elite be comfortable living
next to poor people, so that everybody, at every income level,
understands our shared destiny.
by income, by race, and by individual cul-de-sac was enabled
by a foreign policy totally focused on petroleum for sacrosanct
automobiles. What energy independence and energy efficiency
can mean—if federal policy on what gets subsidized changes—is
a trend toward an end, over the next few decades, of the inefficient,
polarizing, atomizing, civilization-destroying dispersal away
that explicitly focuses on energy independence will implicitly
refocus policy on cities—but it won’t happen naturally. The
divisive culture of suburbia must, and can, be shifted to
become the inclusive civilization of the city, but only if
explicit infrastructure and land-use policy steps are taken.
won’t be identity politics, or the narcissism of those who
wanted a president or a vice-president “who’s just like me.”
Civilization needs a leader, a transformative force, an unapologetic
advocate for that form of human organization that has lasted
millennia: the city.
Fisher is visiting professor of Economics and Finance at Buffalo
State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and
Policy Studies. This article first appeared in Artvoice,
Buffalo’s alternative newsweekly.