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Will The New Office Of Urban Policy Go Green?

Among the major reorganizing principles telegraphed in the early days after president-elect Barack Obama’s win, I’m most intrigued by his announcement of an office of urban policy, to be stationed in the White House proper. Political psychologists might suggest this initiative stems from Obama’s background as a cosmopolitan president—the first, says Alec MacGillis, in forever; it may be grounded in his background as a community organizer working with an urban manufacturing base; it may be the influence of Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor and longtime player within Chicago's urban development and public works corps. And in fact, Obama has spoken more than any other candidate in recent memory about the issues facing rural America, particularly poverty and the digital divide—but clearly, he’s got special love for the heart of the city.

So what does the unprecedented focus on higher-density urban areas mean for energy action and environmental stewardship? The current lay of the land is a mixed bag: In some cities, like Chicago, Seattle or Denver, zoning decisions and innovations in building practices are making new development incredibly clean and efficient; mayors like R.T. Rybak in Minneapolis are reclaiming brownfields for manufacturing and tech job sites; in the San Francisco area and in Hawaii (a state, but still) construction of a smart grid for electric cars has been announced for 2012; in others, like New York City, the vastly underfunded MTA is telling commuters to prepare for a "doomsday scenario," wherein rail lines will be shut down, halved or made more infrequent.

Dana Goldstein took a great look at both the executive branch position and the intellectual forbears of the new urbanism, noting Obama’s promises to improve the educational and economic prospects for city-dwellers, but also

a hint that Obama was following the work of younger regional planning reformers, the voices of a new movement defined by urban farming, anti-car activism, and environmental justice (the idea that the poor should not be disproportionately burdened by the effects of environmental degradation). You can read about this movement's obsessions on Web sites such as Streetsblog and Greater Greater Washington. And on his campaign Web site, Obama, too, pledged to "build more livable and sustainable communities" with parks, bike paths, and public transit options.

These are great ideas that I’m on record as favoring strongly. And the appointment of a dedicated “city czar” would certainly signal Obama’s further commitment to some of them. But whether these initiatives go from “a hint” into concrete policy is probably more dependent on what happens during the passage of a second economic stimulus package, either in this month’s special session of Congress or immediately after Obama takes office. If (as some prayerfully expect) the new infrastructure investment fund that Obama has proposed to kick-start job creation ends up with a decidedly greenish hue, then there could really be some good work for a urban policy czar—liaising with departments like Health and Human Services and the EPA (on nutrition, asthma and air quality concerns), Transportation (smart growth, bridges, tunnels, and new/improved public transit), and local offices of economic development (rehabbing businesses to lower energy costs and creating eco-friendly local jobs).

Jarrett held a private meeting in Washington yesterday with community organizers, an off the record chat “to solicit ideas on urban issues,” Jeanne Cummings reports. No word on whether any of the topics dealt specifically with the "broader vision of land-use planning" Brad discussed this week—but, I‘ve learned, environmentalism can be found in the oddest of places, so here’s hoping.

--Dayo Olopade

(Photo: Presdent-elect Barack Obama's motorcade leaving his downtown, Chicago, transition offices on November 19, 2008. Courtesy Getty Images.)