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February 23, 2010
by Rick Bell FAIA Executive Director AIA New York
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Adolfo Carrión, head of the White House Office of Urban Affairs.

Emily Nemens

“I want to bring you greetings on behalf of the President,” were the first words of Adolfo Carrión, former Bronx Borough President and now head of the White House Office of Urban Affairs. He described President Barack Obama as “someone who understands urban, someone who understand smart growth.” Carrión noted that when Candidate Obama came to the U.S. Council of Mayors, he said he understood that the relation of our urban areas to Washington is broken. Shortly after the inauguration the Administration created the White House Office of Urban Affairs to enable intergovernmental collaboration, “a heavy lift” according to Carrión, designed to “wrap its arms around this challenge.”

Referencing the stimulus funding website, http://www.budget.gov/, a half-dozen times for emphasis, Carrión elaborated upon three primary and felicitous goals of the Obama Administration:
· Create smarter and more competitive regional economies
· Enhance environmental sustainability and responsible growth
· Design opportunities that speak to the places where people live, noting that this placed-based concept is at the heart of your work as architects.

The former New Yorker called for a national conversation on the future of cities and metropolitan areas, dubbed “metros” for short. His office helped create an inter-agency group on urban policy involving 17 disparate agencies. This has led to a co-joined and coherent strategy of smart growth and smart investment. He noted that “regional innovation clusters strengthen regional economies and make them more competitive,” and that smart growth “aligns land use with transportation investment.” Continuing on the theme of transportation-oriented development, he stated, “We have an imbalanced transportation spending framework and are starting a working group on transportation to manage the conversation on funding.” He criticized the antecedent formula as unsustainable, with 85 cents on each U.S. transportation dollar going for highways and only 15 cents devoted to mass transit.

“We need to change, but we need help getting there,” Carrión declared, noting that there is much opposition to public-transit reprioritization: “those [highway] interests are very strong, and they’re not kidding. There are people who have created industries around this funding imbalance.” The Administration’s Sustainable Communities Initiative combines initiatives at DOT, HUD, and DEP to facilitate transit-oriented development. “Investments in the basket of opportunity come from the notion that we are a country of neighborhoods. Not all places around the country nurture opportunity — they’re not walkable,” he noted, adding, “We need to invest in infrastructure to build a foundation for smart growth.”

The penultimate portion of Carrión’s remarks was direct, eloquent, and straightforward: “We are urban. We are more concentrated in large urban areas. The trajectory is global. More than half the world’s population lives in cities now. We need to build place, and the place needs to work. Our partners in that exercise are in this room and are [also] the people you represent around this country. How we improve the human condition in the place where people live their lives is what architects struggle with, what architects have fun with. We ought to do this in partnership.”

Carrión exhorted the 300 or more architects in the room to ask members of Congress to champion urbanism and smart growth, creating neighborhoods of opportunity. Quoting Frank Lloyd Wright, he recalled the adage that “physicians can bury their mistakes, but architects can only advise their clients to plant vines.” He concluded by saying: “We share the burden that you carry. If we didn’t do so in the past, we are doing so now under this President. We are building the platform for the future of the American Republic.”

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