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Changing Skyline: Campaigns ignoring city issues

Candidates talk of playgrounds and bike trails. But what of the crumbling infrastructure? Time for a bold vision.

There are three times as many urbanites in America as country folk, yet you wouldn't know it listening to the three main presidential candidates, or perusing their Web sites. Instead, you might come away thinking the United States is a collection of Norman Rockwell small towns surrounded by picture-book farms.

For Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, the plight of rural farm families ranks among the urgent crises facing America. Republican John McCain frets about veterans, the unborn, outer space. But you won't hear much about aging cities on Earth fighting to keep their downtowns alive and their overcrowded commuter buses on the road. Cities just don't figure in the political imagination anymore.

You would think the Pennsylvania primary, coming up on April 22, would concentrate attention on urban concerns. The state is among the most citified in the nation, with 16 official metropolitan areas - from Allentown to Williamsport, a city that proudly describes itself as "pleasantly uncrowded." Despite James Carville's famous quip about the state's resemblance to Alabama, 84 percent of Pennsylvanians live in those designated metro areas.

Philadelphia's Mayor Nutter pointed out the obvious lapse last week, when he called on the Democratic contenders to hold a public discussion on urban issues. Nutter, a Clinton supporter, offered his own memorable quip: "If you live at 56th and Master, you're not as focused on what al-Qaeda is doing. What you're focused on is what 'Al Gangster' is doing."

Obviously, plenty of hot-button issues in this campaign, like affordable health insurance and the unfolding foreclosure catastrophe, matter as much to urbanites as anyone else. But if there was ever a moment to roll out a bold vision for making cities healthier and more competitive, this is it.

In the next few years, we're likely to hear a lot more about weaning ourselves off imported energy, dealing with greenhouse gases, and retaining economic parity with fast-rising Asian nations. Coming to grips with that triple threat means buffing up our energy-efficient creativity incubators, otherwise known as cities.

So, though the candidates' proposals for ridding America of incandescent bulbs and gas-guzzling vehicles are nice little ideas, the fast lane to energy independence requires significant federal infusions for mass transit, basic infrastructure, and making cities more livable for families. Consider the money an investment in national security.

Supposedly, the reason that candidates are loath to mention the C-word is that the Suburban Nation of grill-obsessed dads and van-driving moms dominates the electorate. Since it's assumed that cities will vote Democratic no matter how badly they're treated, there's no percentage for either party to talk up things like pocket parks, waterfront development, or - can you imagine? - wasteful sprawl. Besides, the discussion will only alienate voters who still associate an urban platform with cities in flames.

That assumes "inner cities" are the same basket cases they were 40 years ago. Partly thanks to the Sex and the City effect, cities have been reglamorized. Over the last 15 years, crime went down and condos went up, notes Governing magazine's Alan Ehrenhalt. Because so many Americans now spend their pre- and post-parenting years in cities, as carefree twentysomethings and again as empty-nesters, we're all urbanites.

Suburbs themselves are more like cities. They're sprouting high-rises and lively commercial nodes. They also struggle now with what were once dubbed urban ills: crime, drugs and poverty.

That's one reason that Bruce Katz, who specializes in metropolitan policy at the Brookings Institute, argues that "what we should really be talking about is metropolitan policy."

So, what do metro areas want? First and foremost, he says, more mass transit. Not just additions to existing systems, such as the long-discussed light-rail line from Philadelphia to King of Prussia - although they're certainly important.

Katz says the United States also needs new suburb-to-suburb transit systems. One of the best things that Washington could do for Pennsylvania, he argues in a policy paper released this week, is to build a high-speed rail line connecting the fast-growing Scranton metro area to New York City.

The Bush administration took America's habitual underinvestment in the public sphere to new levels, preferring tax cuts and individual wealth. So while Amtrak shriveled and funding for affordable housing disappeared, the super-rich collected private jets and Aspen retreats. But just like any big corporation that expects to survive, America needs to upgrade its technology to compete in a Euro-charged world. Let's declare an infrastructure race.

"We're probably two decades behind the Europeans, not just in the level of our infrastructure investment, but in how chaotically we do it," Katz says. "The Europeans build high-speed rail. We build bridges to nowhere."

But it's not only about piling on more steel and concrete. Brookings' new study advocates investment in "quality places" along with transit and infrastructure. For Philadelphia, that obviously supports a push to turn PennPraxis' Delaware riverfront plan into reality.

The same day Katz released his new metropolitan agenda, I received a similar report from the Project for Public Spaces, a New York-based group. Its paper included some surprising ideas from the candidates. Clinton vowed to create a federal fund to build playgrounds. Obama promised bike trails across America. McCain tried to one-up them by calling for a National Trust for Public Spaces.

Too bad it was just an April Fool's Day joke.