This election season was tumultuous and divisive. For me, as president of an organization working to improve Americans’ lives by building better communities, it has brought a mixture of uncertainty, alarm, and hope.
First, the uncertainty. With regard to economic development, tax policy, housing, infrastructure, and other federal programs that affect communities, the policies of President-elect Trump are not clear. In the coming weeks he will presumably appoint people to lead key departments such as Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Treasury, and that may give more indication of his agenda for these issues.
President-elect Trump has signaled his intention to make infrastructure a priority but the details are not yet known and the details matter enormously. The last major infrastructure investment surge came as part of the Obama Administration’s stimulus package in 2009, and that emphasized getting money out the door quickly to “shovel-ready” projects that were intended to inject money into the economy and avert a great depression. We are not in such urgent economic straits now and replicating that model—dumping money into formula programs—would be a mistake. While many stimulus projects were badly needed, others were conceived decades earlier and were outmoded. In many cases, states built loads of new infrastructure while existing systems crumbled. We must do better.
The next wave of infrastructure money needs to fund investment, not just spending. Paying people to dig a hole and fill it up again creates jobs but doesn’t add value to the economy. New infrastructure investment must add value to the economy, ideally by awarding money on a competitive basis rather than by formula, being flexible, measuring how projects serve broader goals, preserving the investments we’ve already made, and leveraging local and private investment. Federal agencies have already started to move in this direction. The Trump Administration could give this shift huge momentum. Many have said that paying for this investment will require some form of tax reform. If that is the case, Congress and the Administration will have a real opportunity to improve housing opportunities as well. Our recent recommendations for the incoming administration includes more details about what this could look like.
Notwithstanding federal policy uncertainty, the election also gave reason for optimism. The division among voters nationally received enormous attention, but local election results were the latest demonstration of an electorate largely united on the need to improve our cities, towns, and neighborhoods and the path to get there. Measures to fund biking, walking, and transit passed around the country in both Democrat and Republican counties and towns. In fact, seventy-one percent of transit measures passed, continuing the trend that’s been true since 2000. Voters also passed affordable housing measures like Measure A1 in Alameda County, CA, and new bonds for affordable housing in Rhode Island. With all the market and citizen demand for walkable development, Complete Streets, and the community revitalization that has happened in the past 20 years, it’s hard to remember that in the mid-90s the conventional wisdom had cities dying a slow death amid an endless march of development into the countryside. Local governments, citizens working in neighborhoods, and people choosing walkable, lively neighborhoods made these victories happen. This election cycle demonstrated remarkable agreement that we’re moving in the right direction. The new administration can ensure that federal policies and infrastructure investments help cities and citizens continue to build on the remarkable progress that’s been made.
But communities are more than roads, transit, and buildings. They are also the place where our culture and democracy manifest. The United States has always been a melting pot, a grand experiment where people of different backgrounds have come together and not only survived but prospered. People around the world consider this country a place where anyone can make a good life for themselves and their families through education and hard work. This ideal is realized and actualized in communities and neighborhoods where people live. And true to America’s heritage, our current demographics, and our aspirations, Smart Growth America seeks to improve the lives of all Americans by helping to create communities where everyone can thrive no matter their race, religion, gender, income level, or ability. The rhetoric in this election has been deeply divisive, has contributed to fear and stereotyping, and has emboldened expressions of racism and bigotry. The fear and hate engendered are completely at odds with building better communities, at odds with what the vast majority of Americans want, and at odds with the character that has made this country great and an example for the world.
In his post-election speech Donald Trump said he wants to be a president to all Americans. And we need him to be, because there is truth in the old saying, “United we stand, divided we fall.” However, coming together isn’t simply the result of the completion of the election. It will take leadership in word and deed from the new administration to show that all Americans will be valued for the contributions they can make to the country. It means working even harder to create the country we aspire to be. Our neighborhoods, towns, and cities are part of that aspiration. I am proud to be part of that mission, and hope to have your support as we move forward.