President Obama has made smart investment and smart growth a top priority for his administration. Not for its own sake, but because the President believes that we ought to be investing in what’s good for America’s future. Last year the President said to the nation’s mayors at their annual conference, "we need to promote strong cities as the backbone of regional growth….we also need to stop seeing our cities as the problem and start seeing them as the solution…strong cities are the building blocks of strong regions, and strong regions are essential for a strong America…" This in a nutshell is why the Office of Urban Affairs was created. Our job is to advance a new federal vision that recognizes cities and metropolitan areas as dynamic engines for our economy, and develop federal policy built on these strengths.
This task is far more urgent than ever before because for the first time in history, the majority of the world’s population lives in cities. By the middle of this century this figure will likely grow by 37 percent. In the United States, 83 percent of people and 85 percent of jobs are located in the nation’s 363 metro areas. Beyond the numbers, the overwhelming majority of the nation’s assets — airports, hospitals, universities, financial institutions, infrastructure, manufacturing plants — are concentrated in metropolitan regions and generate almost 90 percent of the nation’s economic production.
(Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative Innovators and Cabinet Secretaries participate in Town Hall event moderated by White House Office of Urban Affairs Director, Adolfo Carrion. Pictured from right to left: Carrion, Philadelphia Mayor Nutter, Secretary Locke of Commerce, Dep. Secretary Sims of HUD, Secretary Vilsack of Agriculture, Rep. Dwight Evans, Jeremy Nowak from the Reinvestment Fund, Lucinda Hudson from the Parkside Community Association, Jeff Brown from ShopRite, and Yael Lehman from the Food Trust. Photo Credit: Shasti Conrad.)
The President has asked us to lead a conversation about what makes sense for the future of cities and metros, given the new realities we face. I’m thrilled that President Obama has asked us to take this conversation to the experts. The experts, of course, are the people in communities who have figured out how to rebuild neighborhoods, build businesses, educate their kids, make their communities safe, clean up the environment, or come up with the latest technological or scientific innovation, in spite of government. The President says that "Washington can’t solve all our problems…change in this country comes not from the top-down, but from the bottom up." President Obama believes that government should serve to support American ingenuity and creativity.
In that spirit, we kicked off the National Conversation on the Future of America’s Cities and Metropolitan Areas on July 23rd in Philadelphia, PA. The tour takes the discussion of a new vision for urban America outside of the Beltway and into cities and metro areas that are working on innovative ideas and integrated solutions to address the challenges we face today. For example, in Philadelphia, we highlighted Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI), an effort that brings fresh food to underserved communities, both rural and urban – also known as "food deserts". The FFFI is a public-private partnership between the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, The Reinvestment Fund, The Food Trust, and the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition, that provides a statewide grant and loan program for grocery store development. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and Deputy HUD Secretary Ron Sims traveled with us to learn more about the FFFI and the impact on communities across Pennsylvania.
We toured Jeff Brown’s Parkside ShopRite supermarket in the Park West Town Center, where we witnessed the success of the FFFI in providing jobs, healthy food, economic benefit and uplifting the morale of this community. The first display we encountered was a beautiful spread of bright green peppers, squash and tomatoes grown by students from the local Martin Luther King High School. ShopRite partnered with the high school to sell produce grown by the students. The supermarket not only offers fresh produce, delectable store-baked sweet potato pie, and virtually every product that a family shopper could want, but it also boasts a well-trained professional workforce that lives in the surrounding neighborhood.
(ShopRite employee serves Town Hall audience members fresh food. Picture Credit: Shasti Conrad.)
On our walk, Secretary Locke noted the importance and personal significance of this effort. As a kid who grew up in public housing and whose parents owned a grocery store, he knows that something as simple as a clean and welcoming place to purchase nutritious food for a reasonable price can change lives and transform a community. The ShopRite has not only provided that physical space, but has engendered business investment and affordable housing development in the surrounding Parkside community. Parkside Community Association President Lucinda Hudson asserted that before efforts like the FFFI, her neighborhood had been overlooked for far too long.
Following the tour, more than 300 people from the community joined us for a conversation with Jeremy Nowak from The Reinvestment Fund, State Representative Dwight Evans, who provided the visionary leadership for FFFI, Jeff Brown, Lucinda Hudson, Yael Lehmann from the Food Trust, and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. We had a lively exchange among the panelists that spanned the inspiring local story of the ShopRite and the FFFI to the federal agencies’ current initiatives to lift communities in similar circumstances. We discussed the Department of Agriculture’s "Know your Farmer, Know your Food" program and Ron Sims explained Secretary Donovan’s commitment to put the "UD back in HUD," along with lots of questions from the audience and suggestions for ways the federal agencies could help to support urban innovations like this.
The Philadelphia Conversation was a great start to the "National Conversation on the Future of America’s Cities and Metropolitan Areas." At each stop on the tour we will bring local innovators together with Obama Administration staff to discuss ways in which Washington can be a partner and catalyst for community-based solutions, instead of a bureaucratic obstacle. We look forward to the next stop and the opportunity to hear from people who are working every day to ensure that their cities and neighborhoods are places of opportunity.
Adolfo Carrión, Jr. is the Director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs and Deputy Assistant to the President