November 9, 2008

Livable communities in the Obama era

[caption id="attachment_759" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="Obama campaign's Boston phonebanking office, day before Election Day"]The Obama/Biden campaign's phonebanking center in Boston, the day before Election Day.[/caption]

This isn't a "political" blog, but now that the election is history -- congratulations to President-elect Obama, and to all of us who worked so hard to make it happen! -- it's time to take a look at what an Obama administration might mean for the goals of more walkable, livable communities.

President-elect Obama will have a full plate of crises when he takes office in January, what with the economic woes and two wars. So I'm under no illusions that community planning issues will be atop his agenda. However, he has strong opinions about transportation and community development, ones that see our urban centers not as "unreal America," but as centers of vibrancy and innovation. He has pledged to create a White House Office on Urban Policy and to financially support "innovation clusters" defined as "regional centers of innovation and next-generation industries."

Happily, he is also on record favoring "more livable and sustainable communities." Says his policy Web site: "Our communities will better serve all of their residents if we are able to leave our cars, to walk, bicycle and access other transportation alternatives. As president, Barack Obama will re-evaluate the transportation funding process to ensure that smart growth considerations are taken into account. . . .
How a community is designed – including the layout of its roads, buildings and parks – has a huge impact on the health of its residents. For instance, nearly one-third of Americans live in neighborhoods without sidewalks and less than half of our country's children have a playground within walking distance of their homes. Barack Obama introduced the Healthy Places Act to help local governments assess the health impact of new policies and projects, like highways or shopping centers.

His campaign's 4-page transportation plan includes funding for Amtrak, development of high-speed passenger and freight rail service, invest in public transportation and create more incentives for mass transit use (such as ending the tax code inequities that allow employers to provide more tax-free parking benefits to workers than for carpooling or mass transit).
As president, Barack Obama will re-evaluate the transportation funding process to ensure that smart growth considerations are taken into account. Obama will build upon his efforts in the Senate to ensure that more Metropolitan Planning Organizations create policies to incentivize greater bicycle and pedestrian usage of roads and sidewalks. As president, Obama will work to provide states and local governments with the resources they need to address sprawl and create more livable communities.

At the highest of levels, the election of our first African-American president running on a platform of change, inclusiveness and personal responsibility sends a powerful signal that we're all part of this great nation. We're all equal partners, and we're all partners -- no one is going to make positive change happen for us, not unless we're all willing to do the work to make it happen. And we're likely to see more citizen involvement in trying to bring about the change people seek.

I never quite understood the reasoning behind Republicans disparaging community organizing. Seriously, it's a bad thing for people to band together to try to improve their communities?

(Sorry for the long delay since the last post. My home computer gave up the ghost, it's taken awhile to get a new computer set up.)


  1. Don't forget Joe the V.P. elect is a regular on the Amtrak and was recently quoted as saying "If we are elected, we will be the most transit friend administration in history." That sounds good to me!

  2. Thanks for gathering up Obama's positions on this topic Sharon. I was a campaign volunteer and I hadn't heard some of this stuff!

    Let's also remember his leading by example - living in the city of Chicago rather than decamping for the 'burbs once he got some money.

    I think this administration will "get it" more than many of the past ones, that livable communities are good for the economy, and good for the people in communities!

    I spent last weekend in one of the most walkable (and livable, to some people) cities in the US - New York City. It's no coincidence that it's one of the most expensive places in the country (the world?) to live, and that it's a place where you can live a lifetime without a car, and never have to leave the city for anything you need. It was my daughter's first visit, and this teenager that I can barely get to walk a block here in Framingham walked around NYC for hours without complaint. We visited a friend who has lived on the Upper West Side for 30 years, and enjoyed a true urban village. My daughter was fascinated that everyone WALKS to the supermarket to do their food shopping - what a foreign concept to a kid raised in the suburbs!

    At the end of the trip, she said to me with conviction: "I want to live here someday."

  3. My grandparents in New York never had a car, and never needed one. In fact, New York City is the only place in America where more than half of workers take public transit to work. Boston is a walkable city too if you live there, but public transit into Boston from more than a couple of miles beyond the city line is a joke.

    It's funny, isn't it, how the same people who wouldn't walk half a mile in a hideous pedestrian environment like a Route 9 will happily walk for hours in a place that's appealing for foot traffic. Streetscape matters. New York is a pedestrian paradise. People who don't know the city think it's this huge intimidating place, but in fact it's a connection of intimate neighborhoods where you're probably more likely to know the local shopkeepers than in a car-based suburb.

    I walked to school as a kid, walked to pick up groceries, could walk with my friends to go out for a slice of pizza or an ice cream. It's a much nicer lifestyle than having to be driven everywhere.