Urban agenda: Detroit's fall must lead to a federal policy on cities

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Detroit's precipitous slide into bankruptcy has become a national spectacle -- and a cautionary tale about the perils of mismanagement and corruption.

What the Motor City's steady 60-year decline has not done is trigger a relevant debate on a new federal urban agenda -- a set of policies that would benefit all cities, including Pittsburgh.

The U.S. government has lacked a serious, sustained urban policy for 40 years -- when a Republican president, Richard Nixon, enacted federal revenue sharing and a Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, declared war on poverty.

In the decades since, both parties and their leaders have largely ignored urban America, except as a wedge to divide and frighten voters. Today's hyper-partisan politics aggravate the problem: Suburban Republican politicians see no gain in helping Democratic-controlled cities.

Yet the suburban growth that followed World War II wasn't an accident; it was driven by federal policies. New highways zipped commuters to and from central-city jobs. Insured, low-interest federal loans encouraged returning veterans to buy houses in the developing suburbs. From the 1950s through the 1980s, the population of central cities dropped by nearly 20 percent, but their surrounding metro areas grew by more than 70 percent.

The woes of America's cities should concern everyone. More than 80 percent of U.S. residents live in metropolitan areas, up from 63 percent in 1960. As think tanks such as the Brookings Institution have shown, modern economies are regional, cutting across municipal and even state lines. Cities control most of the transportation networks, educational and cultural institutions, and physical assets such as water and sewer lines that determine a region's success and quality of life.

No one should expect a Marshall Plan for cities, but the federal government must become a stronger partner. States, too, must develop urban policy agendas to grow. Unfortunately, too many states have cut aid to local governments while pursuing a myopic development strategy that focuses largely on tax cuts.

Money for transit systems, regional economic development, public safety, housing, education, health care and job training are investments in solving not just the problems of cities, but also those of the nation.

With their problems and promise, cities hold the answers to the nation's great economic and social conundrums. A new urban agenda can be a prescription for national prosperity.

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