Greater Metropolitanism

In an article written just before the election, Alec McGinnis noted in the Washington Post that, in addition to being the nation’s first African-American president, Barack Obama could also break another barrier: He could become the first “metropolitan” candidate in a nation still obsessed with its agrarian heritage. “Would a big-city president address as never before,” McGinnis asked, “the problems of our urban cores—blighted housing, shoddy public transit, dismal schools?”

Valerie Jarrett, a co-chair of the president-elect’s transition project, indicated last week that this might indeed be the case. She confirmed that the Obama administration would be adding a new Office of Urban Policy to the president’s catalog of administrative agencies. No doubt the complex problems facing the country’s urban cores would benefit from incisive new methodological approaches, and the Obama administration should be commended for taking these problems seriously. It is unclear, however, whether this is possible if we continue to index cities’ troubles as strictly “urban” phenomena. Instead of an Office of Urban Policy, what the federal government needs is an Office of Regional Policy, recognizing that a holistic approach to environmental, demographic, and development planning lies at the center of solving the reciprocal blights that afflict urban and non-urban places alike.

In their history of the Mediterranean, “The Corrupting Sea,” Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell wondered what they might find “when the town is dissolved as a category and the full range of Mediterranean settlement is approached from an ecological standpoint and viewed in its en-tirety.” In the same way, demographers and statisticians have quarreled for centuries about what exactly determines an “urban” area. Cities, although useful imaginary totalities, are less helpful when asked to support good social science or political policy.

Just as there is no consensus on the exact geographical border outlining a city, there is no way to draw a neat border between the political problems of cities and the problems of everywhere else. Consequently, any agency which is designed to provide comprehensive policy advice to the president is going to have to think beyond these illusionary borders.

Obviously there are certain classes of policy issues whose acuteness varies in degree with population density. But what goes on in the cities is a consequence of developmental forces that do not recognize arbitrary statistical boundaries. Agricultural supply routes, real-estate markets, tourist behavior, and commuter networks are just a few examples of the ways in which cities and the countryside form a gradient, not a border.

One need look no further than the catastrophe of 1960’s-era urban renewal projects to recognize the pitfalls of talking about cities in purely urban contexts. During that period, a number of smart people came up with a number of intelligent plans for scouring out city cores based on the best information available about the housing, business, and social needs of cities, as in Ed Logue’s plans for downtown New Haven. Despite the best intentions of these planners, though, the urban renewal era is widely considered a failure, and it did very little to stop the dramatic decay of cities in the 1960s and 1970s. Why? Largely because of cheap land and interstate highway access to new suburban communities. In other words, non-urban alternatives dictated an urban problem.

The administration of spatial policy in the United States is already clumsily distributed across multiple federal agencies. We have a Department of Housing and Urban Development despite the fact that “housing” is not a concern unique to urban areas. Rural spaces are alternately administered by programs of the Department of the Interior, such as the Bureau of Land Management, and by those of the Department of Agriculture, such as the Forest Service. A whole mishmash of special agencies—not to mention state and local programs—fill the interstices.

Thus, instead of drumming up a purely urban policy office, the Obama administration ought to consider forming an agency-level or even Cabinet-level organ for regional development. Such an organization could overcome the phantom walls that have arisen between the various agencies of land development and work toward a comprehensive program of managing the country’s spatial resources.

To his credit, Obama himself has used a particular articulation of the “metropolitan” which offers an imaginative alternative to the rigid dichotomy suggested by “urban.” “Metropolis,” originally indicating the “mother” city to which the hinterlands were bound in a filial relationship, contains within it the possibility of recognizing the mutual relationships which make the city and countryside an indissoluble political unit. If Obama truly is our first metropolitan president, then, let us hope that it is under this greater metropolitanism that he will orchestrate policy.

Garrett G.D. Nelson ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies and visual and environmental studies concentrator in Cabot House. He is writing a thesis on the historical ethnography of the American rural imagination.