Future Competitiveness and Sustainability of U.S. Cities

The Penn Institute for Urban Research at the University of Pennsylvania held an event at the National Building Museum. In a full day of planning-related events, which included a half-day symposium on the hundred years of U.S. planning (1909-2009), planners, architects and key policymakers discussed the range of factors that will determine the future competitiveness and sustainability of U.S. cities.

Derek Douglas, Special Assistant to the President on Urban Affairs: Douglas, former director of the Economic Mobility project at the Center for American Progress, outlined the Obama administration’s approach to cities, arguing that cities are central to building regions, not the other way around. The new “metro reality sees cities as the solution” for how to build competitive regions. Douglas noted that 75 percent of U.S. citizens will live in cities by 2050, and cities must be strengthened to be “anchors for regions,” arguing that the national economy is only an agglomeration of regional economies.

On the issue of economic competitiveness, Douglas said cities need to focus on talent, innovation, and connectivity (as well as social equity). The top 100 cities account for the vast majority of talent and innovation, including more than 75 percent of knowledge economy jobs, patents, research and development (R&D) expenditures. Douglas talked about the regional innovation cluster program, which would help strengthen innovation centers through grants and incentives. In terms of connectivity, he cited the new high-speed rail investment, the infrastructure bank, and further broadband Internet access upgrades.

With regards to the future sustainability of U.S. cities, Douglas contends that 75 percent of C02 emissions come from cities, and needs to be reduced dramatically. Building green cities will require focusing on both “green economy” aspects, and “consumption.” The Green Recovery Act includes USD 20 billion of funds for creating sustainable economic development. Also, there is USD 5 billion for the weatherization of low-income families’ homes. Douglas focused on the need for retrofitting inefficient buildings, and how this will be a key source of green jobs. On the consumption side, he also wants to reduce demand for cars by reducing miles traveled and improving the walkability of communities.

Douglas highlighted the interdependent nature of urban problems, and the need to understand this in the policymaking process. He said the Obama administration is focused on breaking down the silos between competing bureaucracies, and will set up a urban affairs taskforce, which will function like an “urban affairs cabinet.” “Smart urban policy must integrate stakeholders” and incentivize this integration. Douglas noted a partnership between the US Department of Transportation and HUD on livable, walkable communities, and cited this as an example of cross-department policy coordination and action.

Harriet Tregoning, Director, Office of Planning, Washington, D.C.: Tregoning mentioned that 46 percent of commuters in D.C. bike, walk or take mass transit to get to work; only New York City had a better rate. Tregoning said planning officials are using the D.C. sales tax as a transportation indicator. The D.C. sales tax revenue was up 4.4 percent last year, which means more people are coming in to D.C. to shop, and shopping locations are more easily accessible to transit.

Tregoning pushed for D.C. residents to get rid of their cars. Doing so can save D.C. residents up to USD 8,500 per year. Tregoning said D.C. shed 4,000 cars last year.

Marian Khoury, Director, Town Planning, Duany Plater & Zyberk: Khoury wondered how the U.S. can “unsprawl” itself. Where do we infill? Where do we put local suburban centers? Which areas are preserved?  How are distributed suburban centers connected? Khoury argued for a “multi-modal system,” and denser mixed-use environments. Khoury argued for retroffiting suburbia by re-doing areas for malls, parking lots to create walkable communities. Khoury said the small things are big things: communities need sidewalks and shade trees. Also, agriculture should be integrated into urban areas.

Andrew Altman, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Development, City of Philadelphia: Philadelphia has a huge wealth gap. According to Altman, there is enormous poverty, but also great universities and hospitals, and a dynamic downtown. There is a green sustainability plan, which targets row houses for weatherization. Altman said the city is graduating the first class of “retrofitters,” which mostly come from lower-income parts of the city. (The program was funded in part with Federal funds). Retrofitting the city is seen as a key strategy for creating and sustaining green jobs.

Altman also talked about “energy efficient block grants,” which enable the city to partner with real estate developers to retrofit buildings in Philly’s downtown. The goal is to get 30 percent of the city energy-efficient, going block by block.

Robert Yaro, President, Regional Plan Assocation, and Professor, University of Pennsylvania: Yaro said the U.S. was built on “cheap energy and cheap land,” and, in effect, created a “throw-away landscape.” The urban or suburban landscape was designed to “torn down in 20 years.” However, with 130 million new U.S. citizens expected in 40 years, the U.S. faces a challenge of how to grow without “paving the rest of the country.” The civic sector needs to be involved, and there needs to be a new focus on density and networks linked by transportation systems. The Northeast corridor is an example of a U.S. mega-region, and there are ten others emerging in other parts of the U.S.

Yaro thought that even with the new investments in high-speed rail, the U.S. is far behind other developed nations, including the E.U. and Japan, as well as some developing countries, such as Morocco, China and India, which are aggressively investing in high-speed rail.

Paul Farmer, President, American Planning Association: Farmer said the U.S. economy is built on carbon. He cited comments from Steven Chu, U.S. Energy Secretary, in which he said carbon functions like “100 servants.” The U.S. needs to “give up some of its servants in order to be sustainable.” The challenge will be asking developing countries with “fewer servants” to give up theirs before they get to U.S. levels. The U.S. needs an economy based on walkability — economic activity needs to be local, and accessible. Human settlements should use the landscape, and build on nature. “Planning needs to change.”

Farmer also argued that the U.S. can gain competitive advantage by addressing complex issues of race and ethnicity through planning. Farmer argued that planners in the E.U. still haven’t gotten this right, and, by doing so, the U.S. can yield a competitive advantage. Furthermore, the U.S. needs to prepare for transformative change, and create “big plans.”

All panelists cited the openness of the new Federal government to innovation in urban planning as a major benefit to their own regions. All argued that interconnectivity was crucial, as well as sustainable transit-oriented development. Many mentioned the need to retrofit suburbia and making communities more livable and walkable. A few also mentioned that local urban farms can help create local food security. “Good planning equals good governance,” but also, “planning needs to be engaging.”

Learn more at the Penn Institute for Urban Research

Image credit:  U.S. Department of Transportation

2 thoughts on “Future Competitiveness and Sustainability of U.S. Cities

  1. wassup 06/02/2009 / 11:39 am

    That map looks very interesting, but I cannot find it. Can you please post a link or include a proper citation? Also, I do want to read more about the planning event, but the link to the Penn Institute is not very helpful, especially since you fail to provide the name of the event!

  2. asladirt 06/05/2009 / 2:34 pm

    It’s from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Unfortunately, I don’t have the link for that. The title of the conference was “The Future Competitiveness and Sustainability of U.S. Cities” – Hope this helps.

    – The Dirt blog

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