An Echo of Past Mistakes in Florida’s “Department of Cities”

Recently Richard Florida wrote in the Daily News that for President Obama to define his legacy, he must not only focus on gun control, immigration and climate change, but on an even more important issue: America’s urbanization.

This is because today, he explained, the nation’s 50 largest metros contain two-thirds of its population and three-quarters of economic output, while most innovations are even more concentrated. But these metros have been neglected by a government that romanticizes suburbs and small towns, while ignoring the greater productivity of dense areas. The answer to this misallocation of resources, wrote Florida, would be for Obama to form a Department of Cities.

This would fold into the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and would represent a shift, from that dated agency, in how the government approaches cities. While HUD was “created to mitigate poverty at a time of wide-scale suburban flight,” by providing housing and jobs for vulnerable populations, this new department would enact reforms more in fitting with urban America’s renewed prosperity. These would include redirecting infrastructure money from pork–barrel projects back into city centers; funding bike lanes, mass transit and pedestrian zones; and modifying zoning and building codes to allow for greater densities.

Of course this proposed department would also tread beyond just growth and infrastructure, and become a more comprehensive bureaucracy. Its modifications to zoning laws, for example, would mean interfering with a traditionally local police power. And besides HUD, the department would also “absorb pieces” from a half-dozen other agencies, like the Departments of Commerce and the Interior. That way it could deal with the aforementioned climate change, immigration and gun control issues, as well as crime, education, and inequality. The department’s bipartisan advisory board, which would include mayors, developers, and academics, could even dabble into foreign affairs, by demonstrating how “urbanism and sustainability should underpin a new U.S. ‘grand strategy’.”

Florida justified such a department by saying it would make government leaner, through the better coordination of different agencies. That, in hand, would help it streamline economic vitality and job creation in cities, using a “cut to invest” approach. But Florida didn’t note that such a growth-oriented department would only be possible if approved by Obama, the one forming it. And that seems unlikely, given that the president’s current urban vision is little different than the old HUD model Florida bemoans.

Obama, after all, came of age in Chicago, a city long mired in that department’s policies. He has continued funding some of its more anachronistic programs, like Community Development Block Grants, and started Choice Neighborhoods, which is an expanded version of the old Hope VI. Meanwhile the economic benefits of his new HUD measures are no more evident than past ones. The Strong Cities Strong Communities Initiative gave grants to six declining cities, including Detroit, which has received gobs of federal money before, but has failed to improve largely because of structural problems within city hall. Both the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative and the Promise Neighborhoods grants are all-encompassing attempts by the federal government to solve poverty, going beyond just housing to include schools, policing, health care, and “place-based” strategies. But they hardly acknowledge the role that could be played by economic development, which Florida has said is how the “poverty agenda in the United States has to be reframed.”

The Sustainable Communities Initiative gives grants for “regional planning,” a strategy that is meant to centralize the various municipalities within a given metro area. While the strategy can have advantages, it has, according to Stanley Kurtz, been used by Obama merely to advance a far-left agenda. Championed by Myron Orfield and David Rusk—both past Obama advisors—the strategy has been known to restrict suburban development and mandate revenue-sharing across municipal lines. The problem with this kind of regionalism is that it strips localities of their autonomy, which is the very thing that enables certain of them to thrive over others.

Many of these initiatives arose not only under HUD, but Obama’s Office of Urban Affairs, another bureaucracy spouting vague allusions about “sustainability” and “inclusion.” According to the office’s website, the issues once worked on by its executive, Raquel Russell, include “nutrition policy”, “women’s issues”, and the president’s health care law. Obama’s choice for HUD secretary was Shaun Donovan, a former New York City housing commissioner who launched the city’s “inclusionary zoning” program, making it available even for six-figure households.

So how likely is it that Obama would fill this new Department of Cities with the market-oriented appointees suggested by Florida, like Edward Glaeser and Tony Hsieh? Probably less so than Obama filling it with ones who, like himself, seem to believe the government can solve every urban problem if only given more money. Such thinking has led to continued wastefulness within HUD, and might inhibit this new department’s stated goal of spurring growth.

But even if this department does spur growth, it may, like with other top-down entities, do so abusively—a point that seems lost on Florida. While discussing the article on MSNBC, he explained that “HUD was great for its time,” as “the bulwark of both urban renewal…and providing affordable public housing,” and that the new department would simply need to adapt to modern conditions. But the “renewal” he celebrates caused the widespread destruction of neighborhoods—and arguably cities altogether—in the 1950s and 1960s, while the public housing that replaced them was stolid and dangerous, further condensing previous slums.

Yet there’s no reason to think a Department of Cities would learn from these mistakes, since yesterday’s urban renewal exists today merely in different forms. There has been a vast expansion of eminent domain powers because of Kelo v. New London —which legalized takings of private property for other private uses—and they are now being used for local economic development strategies, particularly in New York City. (This city also pioneered urban renewal in the 1940s before it became widespread federal policy). Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg—who Florida thinks would make a great secretary—there have been attempted condemnations of large areas across multiple boroughs, including the Atlantic Yards project underway in Brooklyn. These would confiscate property from thousands of owners, while reshaping whole swaths of the city into master-planned projects. Who is to say a Department of Cities wouldn’t implement this method nationwide, wiping out poor neighborhoods to build yet more “redevelopments”—aka convention centers, malls, and stadiums—that perform even worse?

Florida ends his article about federalizing urban policy by, ironically enough, repeating a quote Bloomberg once made on the virtues of local governance: “While nations talk, but too often drag their heels—cities act.”

But this just reiterates the problem with a “Department of Cities.” It would concentrate power at a level of government that is known for sluggishness in some cases, and arbitrariness in others. While a department that focused alone on redirecting infrastructure into dense areas might be beneficial, the comprehensive one described by Florida would prove politically toxic, since it would veer into multiple other hot-button issues. And it would be controlled by someone who, like Obama, may use it not for economic growth, but to further propagate the growth—and wastefulness—of the federal bureaucracy.

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1 Comment

  1. While R. Florida is right about the need to revitalize cities by creating a nationally-oriented organization, he is patently wrong about the need for a new federal agency, since it would just abuse its power in ways similiar to what happened across the country in the 50’s to 70’s. A department of cities would only be created using the old, top-down, authoritative business model of the previous century and would fail in our new era of shared responsibility. So how about a Washington D.C. based organization with a public-funds based directive to redirect growth to the urban core through policy initiative. If no concerted effort at all is done at the federal level, then we risk another kind of sluggishness, as well as inconsistancy, in the revitalization of our urban areas and will continue to grow our sprawl patterns.


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