Obama’s Urban Agenda


by Toni L. Griffin

Reprinted from NOMA Magazine Issue 05 Fall 2009

For the first time in our nation’s history, we have an “urban” president, a world leader who has worked shoulder-to-shoulder with America’s urban poor and under-represented communities. This is extraordinary on many levels that are obvious, but it is particularly significant at this time because the top 100 metropolitan areas of our nation now house two-thirds of the American population and the vast majority of people of color (including immigrants). Generating three-quarters of our gross domestic product, these urban centers not only remain our greatest economic engines, but also house our oldest building and transportation infrastructure, and the majority of our poor, unemployed and under-educated citizens. Despite the modern relevance of cities, the changing demographics of suburban and rural areas, and the concentrated poverty of the inner cities remains a serious challenge. The 2000 census showed that 7.9 million people live in communities of “extreme poverty”, with the overwhelming majority located in urban areas with minority populations.

I am the Director of Planning & Community Development for New Jersey that despite some progress, is still emblematic of many of today’s urban challenges. Four decades of disinvestment in people and place have contributed to crumbling transportation infrastructure, aging public housing and school facilities, and poorly maintained public recreational spaces. As the metropolitan area continues to sprawl outward and jobs become increasingly dispersed, the options for the urban poor to live near where they work becomes even scarcer. Nationally, two-thirds of low-income, minority families are more likely to live in central city neighborhoods that have limited access to jobs, good schools and opportunities to create wealth. The need for a serious, aggressive and innovative urban agenda is real! So, can President Obama’s newly deployed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act really make a difference in our most troubled cities and in the lives of urban residents? Has the design profession played enough of a role in both shaping and executing this ambitious agenda? Can the Administration’s plan for remaking our nation’s cities offer unique opportunities for architects, planners, designers and developers of color?

Let’s take the last question first. If we take this question to mean increased numbers of project commissions to firms of color, I think the answer may sadly be no, at least not in significant numbers in the near-term. The pipeline of public works projects funded by the federal stimulus program will continue to use the traditional forms of procurement, requiring the pre-qualification of firms who meet established criteria for capacity and relevant public sector experience. The March 2009 issue of Architecture Record was devoted to the impact of the recession on the profession and highlighted some of the challenges many firms face in securing public sector work. The process can be overwhelming for firms who have never gone through the federal procurement process. However, taking an aggressive and long-range approach could yield positive results for future commissions. One strategy includes seeking collaborations with firms that already have relationships with the federal government. With layoffs still on the rise, joint venture arrangements rather than taking on new employees as work comes along may be a smarter approach for firms who will continue to keep a watchful eye on their bottom line over the next few years. Similarly, the government has recently been using design build structures that may offer smaller firms, in particular, the opportunity to gain experience on public works projects. Now is also a good time to think ahead about putting in the research and work required to qualify for the governments “indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity” (IDIQ) contracts. This will position firms to be ready for the next wave of transportation and building projects that are now in the planning stages. With the future in mind, I think the greatest opportunity for professionals and firms of color is to engage now in both the policymaking and strategic planning of rebuilding our inner cities. I am most encouraged by Secretary Donovan’s appointment of Ron Simms as Deputy Secretary for the Department of Housing and Community Development (HUD) and the Department’s FY2010 Budget Proposal, “A Road Map for Transformation”. Both Donovan and Simms have built successful careers working in some of our country’s most challenging urban environments and have a keen understanding of the important relationship between inners cities to their metropolitan regions. HUD’s 5-point budget plan for urban transformation outlines a promising attempt to make comprehensive investments in urban communities that rebuild neighborhood.


  • Setting Priorities: Addressing Housing and Economic Crisis First
  • Restoring Leadership: Catalyzing Affordable Rental Housing
  • Rebuilding Place: Invest in Urban and Rural Communities
  • Going Green: Driving Energy Efficient Housing and Sustainable Inclusive Growth
  • Governing Smart: Transforming the Way HUD Does Business

Under each theme, HUD proposes several funding programs designed to achieve specific neighborhood revitalization outcomes. There are three specific program proposals that stand out as unique opportunities for the planning and design profession.

  1. The first is the creation of a new University Community Fund. This program would make funding available to universities that engage in innovative community development activities that respond to the needs of their local communities. Urban universities are often the major employer in cities, procure local goods and services and yet often times, sit within neighborhoods that have suffered from years of disinvestment. The University Community Fund offers an excellent opportunity to replicate the efforts of institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania and University of Cincinnati, who have leveraged their own resources to initiate tangible revitalization projects -including housing, retail and public realm improvements – in their respective neighborhoods.
  2. The second program proposal is the transformation of the HOPE VI program into a more comprehensive Choice Neighborhoods Initiative. This program challenges public, private and nonprofit partners to extend neighborhood revitalization efforts beyond public housing construction and link housing development more closely with school reform and early childhood intervention. Some of the most successful HOPE VI projects have been efforts that leveraged federal funding with additional local public and private investments in the development of adjacent housing, commercial and civic institutions that support neighborhood and family life. Building on these lessons, the Choice Neighborhood Program would make resources available for assisted housing development, acquisition and renovation of private building stock, and the development of mixed-income housing. This approach would broaden the pool of eligible applicants beyond public housing agencies to include other city or regional agencies, nonprofit intermediaries and private firms working in neighborhoods where community development initiatives also include a focus on school reform and early childhood development.
  3. The third highlighted program is the creation of a Sustainable Communities Initiative, a program designed to integrate transportation and housing decisions in a way that maximizes choices for residents and businesses, lowers transportation costs and encourages more sustainable regional development patterns. This program is rooted in the firm promotion of dense, walk-able, mixed-use, mixed-income, transit-oriented neighborhoods that create energy saving and reduce commute times, thereby lowering household expenditures and expanding access to wealth creation opportunities.

The program would dedicate HUD and Department of Transportation (DOT) funding to jointly sponsored local and regional planning efforts that set an integrated vision for growth and set regional policy for housing and transportation investments. The program further promotes the mandate for smart growth by also providing community challenge grants to metropolitan and local municipalities to make incentive-based, market-shifting changes to zoning and land use regulations.

Several other funding proposals are presented in the budget plan, including additional resources for expanding affordable housing supply, Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) allocations, and a program that promotes energy retrofitting. The aggregate of these programs offer opportunities for the profession that align with transitional methods of practice, but also suggest the potential for a recalibration of our services and a reassessment of our strategic alliances. The good news is that most of these funds will flow to local municipalities and in some cases nonprofits that have more flexible requirements for procuring consultant and construction contracts.

Throughout my career, I have practiced as a licensed architect, urban designer and urban planner as distinct disciplines. In my current role as a public official, I have blended these disciplines into an integrated approach to addressing our city’s social, economic and environmental challenges by creating design and development policy and land use regulation. I believe we are at a point in time where invention and innovation in urban planning policy and building technology is required to address the long-standing blight of our urban communities and the economic exclusion of our minority urban poor. Practitioners who can legitimately operate at the scale of the region, city, block and building will ultimately be the most successful in partnering with the public (and nonprofit) sector in realizing the outcomes proposed by the programs outlined above.

Like our President, many practitioners of color come from and work in urban environments. Architects, urban designers, planners, builders and economists must collaborate and become a collective voice creating a shared narrative for progressive urban reform and neighborhood-building. We can no longer collaborate only within professional design circles – we must expand our conversation into the forums where planning and design should be shaping urban reform policy but currently does not. Seek strategic partnerships across and outside of the design disciplines that better position you to compete and have a voice in the planning process as well as the development process. Spend part of your career in the public sector as a policy maker and builder of the public realm. Serve on local and national nonprofit boards, Mayoral task forces, or local or regional planning boards and committees where the voice of design and the built environment can be registered. Establish relationships with local media outlets that can link urban reform and planning and design policy as a part of the mainstream discourse. President Obama and his administration have set the table for us to engage in the urban agenda. Let’s find as many traditional and non-traditional ways to do so as possible.





Toni L. Griffin is currently the Director for the Division of Planning and Community Development in Newark, New Jersey and an Adjunct Associate

Reprinted from NOMA Magazine Fall 2009