After years of being on the outs, cities now believe they have a friend in the White House.
“In some ways, we have elected our first urban president,” said Georgia Sen. David Adelman, who chairs the state Senate’s urban affairs committee.
President Barack Obama has spent most of life in cities — Honolulu, Jakarta, Los Angeles, New York, Boston and Chicago.
“He has embraced his urban roots,” added Adelman, citing the fact that in his first couple of months in office, Obama established the Office of Urban Affairs. And the top leaders in his administration are “people who have direct experience with cities,” with the largest group coming from Chicago. “The entire cabinet is virtually urban.”
So how will that translate into specific urban initiatives? The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, also known as the first stimulus package, funneled about $787 billion to Georgia.
Only $292 billion of that money was actually money to be allocated given that the stimulus funds also offered tax credits and designated funding to certain programs.
And here is the rub. For the sake of expediency, most of the federal stimulus dollars were passed through the state government and its agencies. And Georgia, like most states in the union, has an anti-urban state government and legislature.
“Georgia politics since the beginning has mostly been about resentment of Atlanta,” said Adelman, who represents DeKalb County. And Adelman does not see those attitudes changing in the next couple of years.
Once the 2010 census is tabulated, however, metro Atlanta’s influence is expected to increase with the possibility of at least one new urban congressional district.
“For the first time in the history of our state, the majority of the people (in Georgia) will live in metro Atlanta,” Adelman said. “Winning campaigns might be willing to embrace an urban affairs agenda.”
Adelman, a partner with Sutherland, Asbill and Brennan law firm, was part of a panel Friday morning at the Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable, one of the best monthly forums in Atlanta. He was able to speak from his unique vantage point as the director of Obama’s presidential campaign in Georgia.
Leon Eplan, former planning commissioner for the city of Atlanta, moderated the program. The other panelist was Dan Reuter, director of land-use planning for the Atlanta Regional Commission, who described the growing political power of Georgia’s cities.
“Eighty percent of the state’s population lives in urban areas,” Reuter said. “And in metro Atlanta, 80 percent of the jobs and 80 percent of the residents live in five counties. We are more urban sometimes than we know.”
Georgia certainly is more urban than most of its legislators realize or admit.
“The rural politicians control the state,” Adelman said. “It’s still good politics to run against Atlanta.”
For the first federal stimulus package, that translated into the city of Atlanta and the metro region not getting their fair share (based on population) of those dollars.
“The most effective way to get the money out to shovel-ready projects was through state agencies and defined channels,” Adelman said. “In a perfect world, where we are not trying to stabilize economies… there could be a more thoughtful metod about the delivery of funding. Hopefully, when this economy recovers, this (funding going directly to cities, counties and metro planning organizations) is what we will see.”
Signs are hopeful.
The Obama administration is accentuating a change that began last fall in President George W. Bush’s administration where investments in transportation are made in sync with land-use policies.
“Housing policy, transportation policy and urban policy are coming together for the next transportation bill,” Reuter said.
By having a coordinated urban policy that promotes the development of environmentally-friendly cities, there’s promise that metro areas will finally be back in the forefront.
That means there will be more investments in transit, urban infrastructure, mixed-income housing in town centers and greener developments. Finally, there’s an administration that inherently understands the societal costs of suburban development and appreciates the value of cities.
In February after signing the executive order establishing an Office of Urban Affairs, President Obama told U.S. mayors: “We all share the same vision for our cities…vibrant places that provide our children every chance to learn and the grow, that allow our businesses and workers the best opporutnity to innovate and succeed, that let our older Americans live out their best years in the midst of all that metropolitann life can offer.”
For metro Atlanta, the question will be whether it will be able to seize upon the opportunities being offered by a pro-urban federal administration.
Will the Obama administration increase dedicated funding to cities, counties and metro areas rather than relying on an anti-Atlanta state government?
Will Georgia begin electing representatives who understand that the demographic trends are building the politican muscle of urban areas?
Will metro Atlanta figure out how to build direct channels of influence with Washington, D.C. — giving the region less need to beg the state legislature for even minimal assistance and support?
Let’s hope the answer to those three questions is “yes.”