National Planning for America’s Cities

One of the disappointments for many urban planners about the stimulus bill was the lack of innovation for urban development. Funds for community development, foreclosure response, and transportation funding flowed through existing programs and formulas, meaning the stimulus funds would share their idiosyncrasies. Perhaps this is for the best: for the interest of expediency and management clarity, our jury-rigged system for federal funds in infrastructure and urban development already functions according to well-known rules. The Obama administration’s appointees can try to mitigate the worst problems: anti-urban biases in funding formulas, contradictory federal goals, inflexible approaches and rules.

“While America is more metropolitan than ever,” point out several scholars with the Brookings Institution in a recent article, “As a nation, we remain fixed in old arrangements, established decades ago and kept in place by bureaucratic inertia and entrenched political interests.” This results in a miss-allocation of resources and a lack of strategic vision for metropolitan development. Their article contains a few concrete suggestions. On the topic of infrastructure, they adopt a couple ideas percolating in Washington I’ve written about before – an infrastructure bank for financing and an independent commission to replace earmarks with national planning:

… Congress should create a permanent, independent commission—the Strategic Transportation Investments Commission (STIC)—to set a unified priority map for U.S. transportation and use its work to inform the activities of a new National Infrastructure Bank (NIB).

This approach differs significantly from our current strategy, which puts money and decision-making power into the hands of 50 state departments of transportation and hopes that the sum of all these decisions will yield a strong national system.

The article also urges greater metropolitan governance and regional cooperation, including additional funds and powers for metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), and applying regional policies to existing funding programs.

Such proposals are reasonable and necessary, but longtime observers may remember older arguments, including David Rusk’s “Cities Without Suburbs” from the early 90s, an even older “regionalization” debates and proposals dating back to the birth of suburbia in the 1940s and 50s. Has America ever had national planning to shape metropolitan development?

National Planning in America

“The great paradox of national planning,” muses historian Robert Fishman, “is that Americans have practiced it so successfully while continually claiming it doesn’t exist.” In his provocative article “1808 – 1908 – 2008 – National Planning for America” Fishman describes three episodes of national planning.

1808 was the year of Albert Gallatin’s Report on Roads and Canals, a Federal government report that Fishman argues remains “a model of long-term strategic thinking tied to national policy.” The plan clearly identified a set of key infrastructure investments for the Federal government, and related these investments to what were perhaps the two most important policy goals – distributing vast western lands to small farmers, and provide for the transportation links to connect these hinterlands with the east. Written before the railroad, the plan proposed a bold system of highways and canals. Although implementation took nearly a hundred years, many of these connections were ultimately built by the turn of the century.

Fishman National Planning Final (12 pages)

1908 stands for the next major phase in national policy. The success of the earlier policies to use canals and railroads to link agriculture with urban markets precipitated the problems troubling Theodore Roosevelt. The year marked a Conference of the Governors of the United States where environmental issues were discussed, along with the “unbalanced transportation system dominated by railroad monopolies” that resulted in “economic inefficiency and regional imbalance.” To Fishman, “The interstates completed the regional restructuring that was implicit in the 1908 vision, helping to shift population from the rail-dependent cities of the East and Midwest to Sunbelt regions where systems of federally-financed infrastructure (water, electricity, roads, ports, housing) made possible the explosive growth that has re-shaped this country over the last sixty years.”

Where does that leave us today, at the time of the article in 2008?

As we reach the hundred-year marks for both these plans, there is ample evidence that, as in 1908, we have now reached the point where the planning vision that had shaped the nation for the previous century is exhausted and even counter-productive. The 1908 Conservation/National Development vision has done its work in saving millions of acres of threatened forests and farmlands and bringing hope and prosperity to once-neglected and poverty-stricken regions of the South and West that are now leaders in growth and prosperity. But the inherent contradiction between the conservation and national development aspects of the plan are now inescapable. Ironically, a plan based on an ideal of conservation helped to create a decentralized nation whose basic patterns of intensive land, energy and water consumption are now unsustainable. Moreover, the vision of national equity and regional regeneration inherent in the plan has been lost as some favored cities and regions forge ahead while others lag.

New Paradigm Emerging?

One irony is that the mode chosen to break the railroad monopolies in the 20th Century — highways — is now a major source of environmental harm, cause of undesired forms of metropolitan growth, and catalyst of the decline of passenger rail. This brings us to the one major exception to the stimulus bill’s use of conventional funding mechanisms: high speed rail. The bill earmarked $8 billion for development of high speed rail, separate from Amtrak. Qualifying projects must be along one of the several identified national corridors. Like Gallatin’s plan, embedded in this map of the corridors is a vision for future urban growth. Instead of re-creating a nationwide network such as we had at the turn of the century, the system features six discontinuous networks. Yes, it’s primarily a regional and metropolitan investment, not a national one, and a plan sure to bolster the economies of our largest metropolitan areas.

hsr_corridors_2009.pdf (1 page)

Will the next transportation bill (whether called CLEAN-TEA or any other name) usher in a new era of national and metropolitan planning? Perhaps. Still awaiting reform is the constallation of other Federal programs related to urban development, ostensibly coordinated by Obama’s much-discussed Office of Urban Affairs. Given other priorities, the long list of policies in that area remains largely untouched. Only time will tell which reforms and proposals will take root in this new era of national planning.

Author: Rob Goodspeed