President Obama's Office of Urban Affairs is up and running, but for those tracking a new relationship between the federal government and metropolitan regions, there has been equal ferment at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, under Secretary Shaun Donovan. HUD has been forging new partnerships with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Energy, and a key player moved to Washington recently to help set the administration's sustainability agenda: Ron Sims, former executive of Washington's King County.
"Our idea is to sync things up," Sims said at a gathering of the Citistates Associates, led by Neal Peirce of the Washington Post Writers Group, for three days of brainstorming on regional initiatives on climate, energy, infrastructure, and transportation at Bridgewater, New Hampshire at the end of June. "I have never seen people moving more directionally on sustainability and livability."
Sims said the aim is to change the culture of HUD, and turn it back into an activist community development agency. "We must stop losing the opportunity to have an impact," he said, not just by focusing on cities but broader regions.
The new policy pathways are numerous, and they are all happening now: the $787 billion stimulus package and its implications for infrastructure, recently analyzed by SmartGrowthAmerica and the New York Times; the evolving cap-and-trade Markey-Waxman climate bill; and reauthorization of federal transportation spending.The Citistates group called for a "recalibration" based on the recognition that metropolitan regions are population centers that are hubs of innovation in the new green economy, requiring new ways of thinking of how they function most efficiently – and competitively – in the US economy. Currently states and individual cities compete for funds and conduct planning more like individual fiefdoms.
"We need a new narrative," said Bill Shutkin, director of the Initiative for Sustainable Development at the Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado. "The question is, can we respond to feedback, can we read the signals? Do we have the capacity to recalibrate and recover? We are at critical moment," he said, citing Jared Diamond's Collapse.
Regional initiatives on climate and transportation show signs of promise. But the group was guarded and pessimistic, and continued to look to Washington to seize the moment.