On Election Day 2008, after casting his vote and predicting a Barack Obama win, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley pointed out that the candidate would be the first president with an urban background since Boston's John F. Kennedy in 1960. Within a week of Obama's victory, architects, planners, and designers across the nation were learning of one city-focused campaign pledge that had eluded much comment during the campaign: The Obama/Biden administration will establish an Office of Urban Policy at the White House.
While not specifically noted in the campaign's 83-page "Blueprint for Change," the proposed new executive office was mentioned by then-Sen. Obama in a June 2008 Miami address to the U.S. Conference of Mayors and further explained on the Obama/Biden website (barackobama.com).
Mark Robbins, dean of the School of Architecture at Syracuse University, lauds the decision. As director of design for the National Endowment for the Arts from 1999 to 2002, Robbins recalls, he would sit in meetings with representatives from Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency where design was regularly marginalized and treated as decor—to be added after the substantial planning, program, and policy decisions were made.
"In an ideal world," says Robbins, "those agencies would all deal with physical planning as part of their mission." Robbins hopes that the new Office of Urban Policy will bridge the gaps between policy, design, and infrastructure issues.
Not so fast, says John Norquist, president of the Congress for New Urbanism and the 1988–2004 mayor of Milwaukee. The Democrat, who dealt with four presidential administrations and was once described as a "fiscally conservative socialist," derides the Obama/Biden proposal as yet another "czar" position. "You're given this overall authority, but you're not in charge of anything," he says. Rather, Norquist suggests, the new administration should be populated with leaders who understand and value cities.
"The president-elect is from one of the most successful cities, [chief of staff] Rahm Emanuel knows cities, you don't need a czar," says Norquist. Apparently, Norquist was not under consideration for the post, although his doubts about the position's efficacy aren't great enough for him to definitively rule out any interest. "I could probably adjust my attitude if asked to do the job," he says.