The upside of going downtown

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Most US cities – New Orleans being a big exception – are on the rebound. Jobs in the city are more plugged into the "new economy" than those in the suburbs. And city living may become essential to curbs on global warming. Downtown is looking up.

But enough older cities such as Detroit aren't experiencing the trends reviving other urban areas, such as baby boomers giving up suburban McMansions for skyscraper condos or global tech firms tapping "knowledge workers" near urban universities. Poverty still remains concentrated in urban cores as US manufacturing declines. Even cities seeing a revival worry it's not sustainable.

That's why Living Cities, a leading nonprofit investor in urban neighborhoods, has come up with a proposal to overcome the lack of a national urban policy: A required "urban impact statement" for every new federal project that might influence cities.

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Like environmental impact statements used for decades to alter potential ecodamaging projects, cities need a similar bird's-eye view of every change in federal policy from highways to daycare to immigration.

Cities are "places of hopefulness," says Living Cities' chief executive officer Reese Fayde, and yet federal policy on cities is fragmented. Government money streams are erratic and uncoordinated. Mayors are entangled in federal red tape.

One bright light for cities is that Congress now includes more than a dozen former mayors. Last year, they formed a caucus, led by Reps. Michael Turner (R), former mayor of Dayton, Ohio, and Michael Capuano (D), former mayor of Somerville, Mass., to improve US action on cities. Among their first moves should be to require a White House-led conference on urban policy every five years.

As an ongoing Brookings Institution project on cities makes clear, a global economy puts a premium on ideas and innovation, and "idea workers" thrive in cities with their diverse businesses, cultural variety, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, waterfronts, and unique architecture.The future of the US economy depends on realizing each city's potential.

But cities need more control over the federal role in transportation and housing. Congested roads and a lack of affordable housing have held back many urban areas. Cities also need to bring more choice in education (with more charter schools), and in housing (with vouchers for low-income housing). And as post-Katrina New Orleans has discovered, urban renewal is better done when there is widespread grass-roots input.

Two major contributors to improved cities have been federal welfare reform and new ideas on crime prevention, such as those used during the 1990s by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. More mayors also see that their cities' future lies in fostering entrepreneurship and small business. And with rapid climate change, cities need to play up that they use energy and environmental resources more efficiently than outlying areas. The "green building" movement (notable by its plant-growing rooftops), for instance, is now thriving in urban areas .

Urban success cannot be taken for granted, and many worn-out cities need help. Washington must step up its urban role, and do it smartly.

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