Urban America, Urban World
Besides reveling in the renewed post-election America-philia as an American living abroad, I was happy to hear that less than a week after he became President-Elect, Barack Obama affirmed his campaign promise to create a federal Office of Urban Policy. As someone who has had her eye on urban denial in the developing world, I hadn't fully realized that the U.S. has yet to acknowledge our urban future.
The new federal office will be in charge of developing a comprehensive and targeted strategy for America’s cities and coordinating the work of agencies like the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Department of Transportation, and Department of Labor. Given its title, I thought HUD may have been doing this job, but it seems to mostly ignore the second half of its name and focus overwhelmingly on homeownership and reluctantly on public housing programs. It also doesn't bode well that HUD’s secretary resigned in the very heat of the mortgage crisis in April amid corruption allegations.
In contrast to Obama's urban focus (his campaign website included sections on "Urban Policy" and "Poverty", as well as a fact sheet on his urban strategy), the McCain-Palin camp ignored cities altogether. Their campaign website didn’t seem to even have mentioned the word; instead, they listed the right to bear arms, national service, and a space program as key issues more worthy of discussion.
Here in India, the idea that this is at heart a rural country and that migrants who come to work in urban centers are "encroachers" who should by no means be encouraged to stay with luxuries like basic shelter or sanitation is a surprisingly deep-seated, although waning, attitude. Mahatma Gandhi's oft-repeated quote —"India is not to be found in its few cities but in the 700,000 villages" — is still re-printed on half-page spreads in The Times of India. All members of the elite Indian civil service, who will go on to fill the nation’s powerful bureaucratic posts, are required to first serve a term in a rural location. Domestic development efforts are still largely focused on rural areas. Many cities are implementing development plans that remain unchanged from when they were approved two decades earlier; some cities and states lack an urban policy altogether — especially one that affords due attention to their large poor populations.
A focus on rural development and denial of urbanization as a systemic and irreversible force is not unique to India. This remains the tenor of policy in most developing countries and, by some accounts, of international aid.
What exactly accounts for the deep-seated ambivalence of America towards its cities? The agrarian ideal (famously promoted by Thomas Jefferson) and resistance to the clogged metropolises of the Old World go back to the founding days of the United States. Frank Lloyd Wright and other intellectuals, as well as developers and the media, helped to reify suburbs as incubators for model families and idyllic town-country living. Activists like Lewis Mumford and Jacob Riis helped highlight the social ills bred by city life. Then, there's always been the "frontier mentality" encouraging us to spread out because he have so much darn land. White flight, the erosion of cities’ industrial cores, and the concentration of poverty and violence have helped give cities a bad name in the last quarter-century. It is well known that "inner-city" and "urban" have become euphemisms for “violent, poor and black.”
It is fitting that we elect an "urban" president the year we become an urban world. As Obama realizes, America's cities need attention because they "house over 80 percent of the people, businesses, universities and cultural institutions… and produce well over 85 percent of the nation's wealth." In a globalized world, cities are on their way to eclipsing countries as centers of wealth and power. They are a locus of productivity, culture and innovation, but also of poverty and inequality.
Obama's urban sensitivity may have come from his days as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago — or perhaps from a cursory glance at the general state of affairs in the world — but I hope it also signals a shift on a larger scale away from idealization of suburbs and bad-mouthing of cities: not only for the sake of nurturing our own cities, but also for directing programs and resources to address the effects of urbanization around the world.
(Photos from Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Pitch Blog)