Nonprofits Play Important Role in Urban Planning

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January 5, 2011; Source: City Limits | Like many Obama administration program initiatives, its urban planning efforts appear to have been slow out of the gates, but they are getting going finally, in part because of the quiet leadership of former Bronx Borough President Aldolfo Carrion who Obama named to head the White House Office of Urban Affairs.

Acccording to City Limits, Barack Obama won 63 percent of the urban vote compared to 35 percent for John McCain. The thinker that he is, Obama's campaign platform called for planning geared to the different needs of different kinds of cities, noting in 2008 that the nation was "wedded to an outdated 'urban' agenda that focuses exclusively on the problems in our cities, and ignores our growing metro areas, an agenda that confuses anti-poverty policy with a metropolitan strategy, and ends up hurting both."

In 2009, Carrion called for a "place-based review" of federal programs, to analyze how various efforts could be more focused for impact in specific areas. Nonetheless, critics such as Harry Moroz of the Drum Major Institute have suggested that this tiny White House office hasn't exactly been a ball of fire in pushing for "momentum behind a broader kind of urban agenda."

Carrion left the White House position in March to become HUD's New York/New Jersey regional director, leaving behind only two staff people and as of yet, still no one appointed to replace him. But the White House is pointing to a few efforts that show its commitment to comprehensive planning for cities, such as HUD's Choice Neighborhoods and the Department of Education's Promise Neighborhoods.

In addition to these, there is the HUD/DOT/EPA "Sustainable Communities" program meant to make sure that housing, transportation, and environmental protection do not operate on the ground at cross purposes. Busting through policy "silos", the Partnership for Sustainable Communities awarded $166 million to 107 communities this past October.

Nonprofits working with public agencies are playing important roles in these sustainable communities grants. For example, the Regional Plan Association is developing a Housing Incentive Fund to get more housing development around public transportation centers and is running a strategic planning process to help New York City prepare for the impacts of climate change, and the Kansas City's Mid-America Regional Council is working on a 10 year plan to create a regional housing capacity system to determine when, where, and how to locate housing.

Of course, planning isn't implementation. With these planning efforts just getting underway for the last two years of the Obama Administraiton, the problem is that the programs and projects that these plans might generate could well be undermined by a lack of interest and willingness on the part of the new, more conservative 112th Congress to provide implementation funding.—Rick Cohen