Harry K. Schwartz

was an assistant secretary

of Housing and Urban Development under

President Jimmy Carter

Why is it that the secretary of Housing and Urban Development always seems to be seated farthest from the president at the cabinet table?

Although the secretary of Veterans Affairs may get even less respect, the HUD post has been marginalized almost from the day of its creation.

Indeed, when Ronald Reagan famously failed to recognize his HUD secretary at a White House luncheon ("Hello, Mr. Mayor," he said), the general reaction was more amusement than shock.

And now, with the early designation of Gen. Eric Shinseki to head Veterans Affairs, that department seems to have been bumped up several notches.

It's not so much about where one person sits as where a department stands in the president's hierarchy of concerns. For too long, HUD has been at the bottom, invisible except for the occasional high-level indictment.

As the president-elect and Congress develop next year's multibillion-dollar economic-recovery package, that must change.

The easy thing would be to pour concrete into highways and bridges, and there will be plenty of pressure on Barack Obama to do that. But he also has stressed investing in energy conservation and ecologically friendly projects. And that's where the cities come in.

It has been decades since this nation had an urban policy, but we truly need one now.

Cities are inherently energy-efficient. It's a lot cheaper to heat and cool a row house or a high-rise than a suburban subdivision. Mass transit works better when homes, jobs, schools, stores and entertainment are close together. Utilities such as water, sewer, electricity, gas and Internet access can be delivered more efficiently to densely settled communities.

Here in Philadelphia, we have ample evidence of a "back-to-the-city" movement. People are beginning to rediscover the sense of community that cities have traditionally provided, and which the suburbs often failed to provide.

All of that is at risk in the present crisis. At a time when we need federal help to make the cities more livable, mayors are closing libraries and fire stations, laying off police, and cutting park budgets.

If the bulk of our infrastructure program winds up committed to the car (no matter how fuel-efficient) and the highways and bridges that serve it, we will have lost a historic opportunity to change for the better - and for the long term - the way Americans live.

Our next president will inherit a department whose middle name is "Urban." Let's hope he gives it a voice, a policy reflecting 21st-century realities, and the resources to accomplish its mission.

E-mail Harry K. Schwartz at harrykschwartz@comcast.net.