Office of Urban Affairs Blog

  • World Urban Forum 2010: "Our Urban Future"

    At the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, General Motors unveiled "The Futurama" exhibit, a captivating model that displayed a vision for the not-so-distant "future" of 1960. Visitors to the exhibit, most of whom did not own cars, were left in awe of the “ideal city of tomorrow,” imagining themselves riding in a vehicle amidst breathtaking skyscrapers on concrete multi-lane highways, speeding toward a previously untouchable countryside with a sense of personal freedom.

    The exhibit proved prescient, perhaps inspirational, but with many unforeseen and adverse effects on the American city. Today, our cities are faced with overdevelopment that has simultaneously damaged our environment, isolated low-income communities in the urban core, and maintained an unsustainable economic model.

    Government has a responsibility to make smart investments and encourage smart planning. We can no longer continue developing our cities and metros with 20th century plans. We need to fundamentally change the pattern of urban development to reflect the way people live – a 21st century vision based on new realities, both in America and around the world.

    By mid-century, 70% of the world’s population, approximately 6.4 billion people, will live in cities and metros. There will also be 27 megacities with populations greater than 10 million, and that doesn’t just include Tokyo, New York, London, and Paris; it also includes Sao Paulo, Mumbai, Seoul, Buenos Aires, and Lagos.

    President Obama understands the importance of rising to these challenges today, because tomorrow will be too late. He understands that urban and metropolitan areas are the engines of our national and global economy, and will be the foundation of a more sustainable future. That’s why on February 19, 2009, the President took a bold step toward realizing a new vision by signing an Executive Order that created the White House Office of Urban Affairs.
    Our new urban agenda will focus on making regions and urban areas more economically competitive, environmentally sustainable, and expand opportunity for everyone. And our new approach will no longer look at urban problems in isolation. Instead, it will coordinate federal investments to address the reality at the local level, encouraging local leaders to develop comprehensive strategies to build strong regional economies, responsible and sustainable infrastructure, and opportunity-rich communities that bridge the social and economic divide.

    I am thrilled to join the senior United States delegation to UN-HABITAT’s Fifth World Urban Forum because for President Obama, the Forum is about innovation, sharing ideas, listening to best practices, and building consensus on how, as global partners, we can most sustainably and inclusively plan our future.

    Adolfo Carrión, Jr. is the Director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs and Deputy Assistant to the President

  • Announcing the White House Urban Affairs Website

    I’m happy to announce that today we launch the White House Urban Affairs website. This effort is an important addition to our ongoing conversation on the Future of America’s Cities and Metropolitan Areas. We have already met with many urban stakeholders, elected officials, and academics; and we’ve been around the country visiting places that are on the cutting edge of urban innovation. But today we are establishing a more direct relationship with you - the American people. You are the ones that are innovating every single day – you are the innovators. You tackle government bureaucracy with creativity and leadership; you overcome a slow economy with public-private partnerships; and you turn distressed neighborhoods around with determination, hope and, above all, hard work.

    The President knows that government doesn’t have all the answers. He knows that the best solutions come from you in places like Auburn Gresham in Chicago, South Lake Union in Seattle, and the small city of Flagstaff, Arizona - just to name a few. We know there are many more out there and we want you to share them with us.

    This website is guided by the principles articulated in the President’s Executive Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government:

    • Transparency promotes accountability;
    • Participation strengthens decisions; and,
    • Collaboration enables other to help.

    Here’s how the website works: on our Initiatives page, you get a glimpse of the work we are doing to align Federal urban policy, like our Urban Tour and our Inter-Agency working group on urban policy. At our Innovation and Ideas page, you’ll have a chance to submit your ideas and best practices. And of course, you can find my staff and I blogging on the work that we’re doing, and you can learn more about our office in the About Us section.

    In the coming weeks and months we will continue to update and improve our site so that we are able to have a productive and efficient conversation on the Future of America’s Cities and Metros.

    Adolfo Carrión, Jr is the Director of the Office of Urban Affairs and Deputy Assistant to the President

  • A Community on the Cutting Edge of Science

    Two weeks ago, the National Conversation on the Future of America’s Cities and Metropolitan Areas took us to Seattle, Washington to see the city’s marriage of economic development and livability. Joined by Deputy Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ron Sims, Assistant Secretary of Economic Development for the U.S. Department of Commerce John Fernandez, and NIH Director for the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences Dr. Robert Croyle, we toured the South Lake Union neighborhood.

    SBRI’s Bioquest education program

    Left to right: Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, Assistant Secretary John Fernandez, Adolfo Carrion, and Ron Sims meet with kids that are taking advantage of SBRI’s Bioquest education program. October 14, 2009. (by Alaina Beverly)

    In the past five years, over 2.7 million square feet of space has been constructed at South Lake Union for the biotech and life science industry, placing Seattle at the forefront of medical innovation. This neighborhood, combined with mixed-use and affordable-housing development and public transportation solutions, showed us how regional economic development initiatives can include and foster smart growth.

    Our day began with an overview of the South Lake Union neighborhood at the Vulcan, Inc. Discovery Center. There we learned of Mayor Greg Nickels’ successful efforts since 2002 to recruit biotech and life science organizations. Why? Good jobs. These businesses provide high-wage jobs and like to locate close to one another to foster collaboration. In short, biotech businesses make good “regional innovation clusters.” In Seattle’s case, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington (UW) were early biotech anchors that helped to attract other biotech businesses. 

    I especially enjoyed our stop at the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute (SBRI), a leader in infectious disease research. There we received presentations on the work of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, UW Medicine and the Washington Global Health Alliance. All of these “heavyweight” research and global health institutions are housed in a 60-block radius, sharing ideas, students, facilities and often clientele.

    The reason the visit to SBRI was special is because we got to talk to high school students who are taking advantage of SBRI’s Bioquest education program. The aim of Bioquest is to inspire the next generation of scientists by allowing teenagers to get hands-on experience in a lab and meet working scientists and researchers. Dr. Robert Croyle found it particularly rewarding to see kids benefiting from the over $86,000 in Recovery Funding that was awarded to SBRI to expand the Bioquest program, offering college credit to high school seniors.

    Bart Harvey Senior Residential Development

    Left to right: Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, Adolfo Carrion, and Deputy Secretary Ron Sims outside the Bart Harvey Senior Residential Development. October 14, 2009. (by Alaina Beverly)

    But South Lake Union is not just about science, collaboration and commercialization. It is about community. During our walking tour of the neighborhood, we visited the Bart Harvey residence for low-income seniors. The six-story building has an enviable array of amenities—a library room with a computer lab, community meeting space, offices for case management and support services, and a green roof that provides a  panoramic view of the Seattle skyline – my favorite though, a rooftop herb garden.  We spoke to one resident who expressed her love for her new home. She said, “I am comfortable here. We have everything at our fingertips. Maybe it’s just me, but I love to go up to the garden on the roof and watch the planes touch down.” 

    Sharon Lee, Executive Director of the Low Income Housing Institute explained, “We need to make sure low-income people can live in middle-class neighborhoods not only in distressed communities.We have changed the look of low-income housing. Not only is it well designed, it’s green.”

    We topped off the day with an important policy discussion about the qualities that define a successful regional innovation cluster, the role of the federal government in supporting that type of development, and lessons learned from the South Lake Union experience. Ada Healy, Vice President of Real Estate for Vulcan, Inc., the key local private sector partner noted, “This group came together because of extraordinary leadership, coordination, and cooperation from the Mayor’s Office, the Gates Foundation, the non-profit community, government, and business. There was an atmosphere of trust and a commitment to not just create offices where people work from 9-to-5, but real communities.”  

    Assistant Secretary John Fernandez explained that the Economic Development Administration is looking to “create a bridge” to encourage innovations that reach beyond the center and positively affect the whole region.”

    Our trip to Seattle showed us that smart, coordinated planning can attract a cluster of businesses to a neighborhood and spur regional economic development, and train the next generation of scientists, provide housing for seniors, and create a more livable community. Thanks, Seattle!!

    Adolfo Carrión, Jr. is Director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs and Deputy Assistant to the President

  • A Small Town Doing Big Things for the Global Economy

    We believe that through regional collaboration we can bridge the urban-rural divide. We can invest in urban centers in a way that will benefit suburbs, exurbs, and rural communities, and vice versa. It does not have to, and can no longer be, a zero-sum game. Our fates are inextricably linked. As the Urban Tour (aka, the National Conversation on the Future of Cities and Metros) has continually demonstrated, smart regional plans succeed when there are strong public-private partnerships and everyone is brought to the table.
    Our latest visit to Flagstaff, Arizona builds on this theme and also proves that good ideas and smart planning come in all sizes and models.  "Economic gardening" – as Mayor Sara Presler calls it – creates an environment for local businesses to grow and flourish even in a town with less than 70,000 people that’s perched at 7,000 feet above sea level.
    (Photo credit: Alaina Beverly, Associate Director, Office of Urban Affairs)
    Flagstaff has woven together public and private resources to incubate emerging technology businesses in Northern Arizona, from wind, to biotech, life sciences to solar power industries. Mayor Presler says it best, "we may be a small town in America, but we are doing big things for the global economy."
    Our day in Flagstaff began with a tour and in-depth discussion with policy leaders, researchers, and business experts at Northern Arizona Center for Emerging Technologies (NACET). NACET is a business incubator that was funded in part by a $2.5 million Department of Commerce/Economic Development Administration grant that was matched (and surpassed) by the City of Flagstaff. The funding helped to leverage over $30 million in private funds. Within just 10 months, NACET incubated 11 companies and created 80 high-wage jobs with an average salary of $92,000 a year.
    NACET is also home to Southwest Windpower, a company that is central to the Flagstaff success story. We, along with Megan McCluer of the Department of Energy, toured Southwest Windpower’s facilities and learned about wind energy technology.  Southwest Windpower is a pioneer in the development of small wind technology. The company has produced over 160,000 wind generators which have been installed in 80 countries around the world, and has developed a new generation of low cost wind turbine that connects homes to electricity grids. This is particularly important to the region because Flagstaff is seated in a Congressional District in which one-third of the Navajo Nation has no electricity or water. 
    We held a community forum later that day at Northern Arizona University, in a LEED Silver certified building, where 259 Flagstaff residents were eager to engage the Administration about the future of their community. We discussed best practices and ways in which the federal government can be a better partner in promoting innovative solutions. Megan McCluer emphasized that "[the federal government] needs to be broader in our thinking in deploying clean energy."
    The regional collaboration taking place in Flagstaff is a model for the country.  It was a long flight but a meaningful moment for a small city that represents much of what this Administration is trying to achieve: a stronger  economy, environmental stewardship, and a concept fundamental to the American story – E Pluribus Unum: "Out of many, one."
    Adolfo Carrión, Jr. is the Director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs and Deputy Assistant to the President

  • Green Impact Zone

    We have just arrived in Kansas City where, tomorrow, we will continue our discussion of smart growth and smart planning for America’s metropolitan areas. Special Assistant to the President on Urban Policy Derek Douglas, Special Advisor for Green Jobs Van Jones, and I will be joined by HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and Transportation Deputy Secretary John Porcari. Together, we will meet with local elected officials, stakeholders, and community members to discuss the development of the Green Impact Zone, an initiative which is using federal and local resources to invest in components of sustainable living and to create jobs in one of the city’s most challenged communities. This program, supported partially by American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding, has already become a model for green investment.
    With the leadership of Congressman Emanuel Cleaver in partnership with the Mid-America Regional Council and community members, the Green Impact Zone is a comprehensive place-based plan to invest public and private funding to transform a neighborhood plagued by high rates of poverty and violence, unemployment and abandoned property. The Green Impact Zone will improve housing conditions through the rehabilitation and weatherization of the entire 150 block area neighborhood, develop a green workforce through the training of residents from the urban core in green technology, and invest in sustainable transportation through a green bus rapid transit system. Moreover, investors of the Green Impact Zone believe that the effort will break down cost barriers that make "going green" a luxury. The Green Impact Zone provides lessons for investments in sustainability, workforce development, neighborhood stabilization, transportation, energy efficiency, and inclusion.
    We are excited about tomorrow’s discussion and learning first-hand from the American people’s ingenuity that continues to bubble-up around the country, whether it’s providing access to fresh food to underserved communities or transforming challenged neighborhoods into beacons for green living and green jobs.
    For questions or ideas for the Urban Tour, please feel free to send a message to
    Adolfo Carrión, Jr. is the Director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs and Deputy Assistant to the President


  • A "Fresh" Conversation on the Future of America's Cities and Metro Areas

    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
    (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
    (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.
    For questions or ideas for the Urban Tour, please feel free to send a message to
    Adolfo Carrión, Jr. is the Director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs and Deputy Assistant to the President