The blog of the Urban Institute
June 13, 2011

What Qualifies as "Urban Policy" These Days?

June 13, 2011

Back in the early 1990s, most people who said they were interested in “urban policy” were talking about a pretty narrow cluster of problems – big city fiscal woes, concentrated poverty, crime-ravaged neighborhoods, distressed public housing.  That thinking led them to an equally narrow array of public policy responses – Community Development Block Grants, subsidized housing development, community policing.  Today, “urban policy” covers far more territory – both geographically and topically.

Urban policy isn’t just about central cities anymore.  The city and suburban jurisdictions that make up metro areas are so interconnected that it doesn’t make sense to focus attention exclusively on core cities.  Here in the Washington region, for example, parts of suburban Montgomery and Fairfax Counties are just as densely developed – and just as diverse – as DC neighborhoods.  There are many more jobs outside the District of Columbia than inside, and people stream from city to suburbs and back again for work, commerce, culture, and recreation.  Over the past couple of decades, DC has gone from a declining community that was losing its population, jobs, and tax base to the vibrant heart of a prosperous region.  And the neighborhood poverty and disinvestment that once seemed synonymous with the inner city now plague some suburbs too.

Once you start thinking broadly about what urban means today, what kinds of urban policy matter?   In my view, the range is broad.  We still need the bricks-and-mortar policies that build or rehab affordable housing and community facilities, as well as programs that target services to troubled neighborhoods.  But without good schools, safe streets, decent jobs, accessible health care, nutritious food, fair credit, and a reliable safety-net, metropolitan communities can’t offer the opportunities their residents need to thrive.  So our definition of urban policy needs to stretch.

That’s why the MetroTrends blog – which I hope you’ve found useful – covers such wide-ranging subjects, from child care to racial segregation, homelessness to public pension reforms, foreclosures to municipal budgets, food deserts to income tax refunds.

What challenges face the urban communities where you live, work, and play? And what policies would you like MetroTrends bloggers to tackle?  


As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.


It's a very interesting question that you pose about the expanded nature of the meaning "urban policy." As a native Metro-Detroiter, the question is particularly salient because of what I believe to have been the lack of a coherent regional policy. While urban policy itself may now encompass more than the city core, I wonder how those areas that have not developed a regional strategy (city core and surrounding suburbs) or have had conflictual policies have fared. Certainly the political leadership of Detroit has not always agreed with the policies of the surrounding municipalities and vice versa, but how many times have one offered tax incentives (like abatements) to businesses in neighboring municipalities for political gain (probably not even economic gain since most of the benefit will likely return to the municipalties where the employees will remain living), but certainly to the detrimant of the region (as dollars could have been better spent). While it certainly makes sense to study urban policy more holistically and maybe even at a regional level, I wonder how many core central cities still haven't embraced this view and where it has left them economically?
Eric raises an excellent point. Detroit certainly isn't alone in failing to embrace metropolitan strategies. Those of us who conduct policy research can (and increasingly do) take a regional perspective. But we should also be thinking about how to create more incentives for both city and suburban jurisdictions to do so as well. Where is this happening and what lessons can be drawn?