Neil Peirce

Do Sustainable Cities Have a Future?

This article is reprinted from the American Prospect.

A "green revolution" is burgeoning in America's cities and towns.

And it's a surprise. Six years ago, as we exited an economically exuberant but perilously polluting 20th century, the idea would have seemed chimerical. True, by the 1990s we'd begun to talk about community and global sustainability; President Clinton even appointed a White House council on the topic. But the conversation proved to be a tad ahead of its time. It exhibited little of the intensity with which the green ideal is today being talked up, and in some places, truly implemented.

A set of mix-and-match developments explain the change. Foremost and scariest among them is the mounting scientific evidence of fast-advancing, potentially cataclysmic global climate change. Then there is the growing realization of oil's short-term future in the dangerous world that September 11 dramatized.

Among the results are heightened interest in hybrid cars and renewed focus on wind farms, solar energy, biofuels, and other renewables; a burgeoning "smart-growth" movement in our states and regions; worry on the health front about sedentary lifestyles, obesity, loss of natural connections; green roofs and strong revival of urban parks; and breakthroughs to pinpoint waste and pollution in our great infrastructure systems, enabled by more sophisticated geographic information system (GIS) technology.

If the new, green, urban alchemy has an epicenter, it's Chicago. Once the embodiment of smoky factories and belching locomotives, the erstwhile City of the Big Shoulders has led the new green wave with beds of flowers and blossoming pots hung from new downtown street lamps.

A big share of the Chicago credit goes to Mayor Richard J. Daley and his allies. There's a green roof on City Hall and greenery along roadway medians stretching out into the neighborhoods. Asphalt schoolyards have been converted to grass, vacant lots turned into community gardens, greenways and wildlife habitat nurtured. Major reinvestment is occurring in the city's 570 parks, 31 beaches, and 16 historic lagoons. And there's a dramatic "big splash" -- 3-year-old Millennium Park, $475 million worth of lush greenery, sculpture, fountains, and more on the lakefront that's drawing 4 million visitors a year, many to its stunning outdoor music theater.

Says Chicago Alderman Mary Ann Smith: "We're creating places people want to be, not places people want to flee." In fact, Chicago has registered America's most dramatic "back-to-the-city" movement, with tens of thousands of new downtown residents.

Cities Taking the Lead

But Chicago is no exception. From Philadelphia to Seattle, Boston to San Diego, city officials agree that green urban settings are a critical draw in an era when highly educated, mobile professional workers -- the economic gold of the times -- gravitate to attractive, welcoming, and healthy places.

What's more, claim the apostles of green, property tax yields from homes and apartments near parks are significantly higher. Tree-lined streets alone increase property values some 15 percent.

Quite quickly in this decade, the familiar definition of "green" has advanced from trees and plants and parks to a much more inclusive vision of city and metropolitan planning. Moreover, it now comprises an array of environmental issues, including energy saving and renewable sources, reduced burning of fossil fuels, cleaner air and water, improved wastewater removal systems, and redevelopment of "brownfields" sites.

Energy standards for buildings -- the familiar LEED standards of the U.S. Green Building Council -- are a case in point. They're quickly advancing from handfuls of pioneering buildings to a preferred benchmark in new construction. Despite the 2 percent to 4 percent price premium for fully energy-efficient buildings, a growing number of businesses are opting for a LEED standard. Part of the justification is long-term energy savings; another rationale, increasingly cited, is the dramatically increased productivity reported among employees in quality green structures.

Increasing numbers of city governments are moving to the standard that Salt Lake City set recently -- requiring LEED approval for any of its own buildings, plus any commercial or residential buildings that receive city funding. "High-performance buildings should be the norm," says Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson. "Municipal governments have a huge role to play in bringing about that progress."

On the nonprofit side, pioneers in big-scale green building are Enterprise and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Their five-year goal, announced in 2004, is 8,500 "environmentally sustainable" and affordable new homes, and a move to make sustainability the mainstream in affordable housing. And not just in construction: The new housing they support must be compact and land efficient, close to transit, and in neighborhoods with ample sidewalks and pathways and shops within walking distance.

The idea is that with less auto dependency and easier access to public transportation and jobs, low-income families will have to spend much less on transportation than they now do (on average, 40 cents of every dollar of income at the poverty line). Fewer workers will be forced into long commutes and even more encouraged to walk, with ricochet benefits in saving energy, reducing obesity, and improving overall health.

But what about standard market housing, in typical neighborhoods? Developers nationally are now being asked to "act green" as the U.S. Green Building Council, the nrdc, and the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) create and promote a new LEED-ND ("neighborhood development") standard. "Under this vision," says Chicago architect Doug Farr of the CNU, "both urbanists who pick bad regional sites, and green building practitioners who ignore location and context, will be dancing with dinosaurs."

A Local Response to a Global Challenge

All these developments link closely to the big climate-change issues of the time. Indeed, global warming has moved quickly up the agenda list of many cities and counties despite -- or, arguably, in reaction to -- the Bush administration's studied indifference.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors last June voted to call for sharp reductions in fossil fuel use in all buildings -- both for construction as well as heating and cooling. Their stated goal is to make the nation's building stock "carbon-neutral," using no more fuels made from oil, coal or natural gas, by 2030. The stakes are immense: Buildings account for 48 percent of all U.S. energy consumption (well ahead of transportation at 27 percent and industry at 25 percent).

In Seattle, King County Executive Ron Sims is advocating a 2050 mindset. Assume, says Sims, it's already mid-century and one's looking backward to see which of today's major infrastructure and building decisions -- for big highways or public transit systems, for example -- make sense on the basis of their carbon impact.

Meanwhile, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels issued a "Kyoto Challenge" to the nation's mayors, asking them to pledge they'd meet, in their cities, Kyoto Protocol goals of reducing global warming pollution levels to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. At latest count some 320 mayors -- representing 50 million U.S. residents -- had signed on.

Seattle and King County initiatives run all the way from partnering with General Motors on development of the country's first and largest hybrid diesel bus fleet to increased portions of biodiesel in vehicle fleets, from the nation's largest hydrogen fuel-cell project (using methane gas from a sewage plant) to efforts to reduce the big carbon footprint of the diesel-burning ships, trains, and trucks that use the city's busy port.

There's also official support for a new "Cascade Agenda," a 100-year conservation and preservation plan for 2.6 million acres of the Puget Sound region's most prized waters, mountains, and communities. The focus is first on channeling growth into denser, well-planned cities, second to save rural lands by a massive new market-based transfer of development rights initiative, and third, with expanded greenery, to create a significant "carbon sink," forests that absorb carbon dioxide emissions.

Back on the East Coast, green revolutionaries in Philadelphia's Office of Watersheds are lead exponents and practitioners of new ways to "daylight" streams turned into culverts. They're working to catch and filter severe storm waters so they don't carry oil and corroding junkyard metals from paved surfaces, not to mention untreated sewage, into rivers and streams.

The idea is to adapt city parks, roadways, lawns, and yards with swales and other systems that can absorb and slowly filter water. The vision: to make all of Philadelphia into a kind of great, green sponge that handles its runoff more naturally and assures clean and reliable water for fishing, swimming, and drinking.

Philadelphians have also formed the Schuylkill Action Network (SAN), recognizing they're located downstream from 100 miles of riverside and 2,000 square miles of potentially polluting farms, mines, and factories. Federal and state agencies, plus dozens of upstream communities, belong to san -- a prime example of how virtually every environmental challenge is regional, and needs to be addressed that way.

Today's roster of green initiatives knows practically no limits. It includes massive tree replanting efforts; conversion of hundreds of miles of once-industrial urban waterfronts to parks and greenways and millions of acres of protected farmlands and forests; concerted efforts to build green schools in which children learn better; and campaigns to expand locally based agriculture and farmers' markets and decrease the pollution from trucks carrying foods over thousands of miles.

In Seattle, there's a Hope VI public housing/mixed-income project, High Point, that stands out as an entire green community, with its high old trees identified by community youngsters and then protected, creative plantings, a thriving community garden, sidewalks and streets tied into a "natural" water drainage system, and new energy-efficient condos and townhomes.

Out across the nation, there's fast-growing demand for public transit to save energy and transit-oriented development to curb sprawl. The move for major regional rail systems has now reached far beyond New York and Chicago, Boston and San Francisco to traditionally auto-dependent cities like Dallas, Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Houston, and even Los Angeles.

Terminal Consumption?

Yet however welcome, even startling, the new developments seem, the somber truth is that the great ocean liner U.S.S. Consumption has so far shifted its direction barely a degree. With 4.6 percent of the world's population, the United States continues to burn a quarter of the globe's fossil fuels and to emit 25 percent of its greenhouse gases.

Carbon dioxide emissions continue to climb and power companies claim a need to build 150 new coal-burning plants to slake our electric power thirst. Bigger and bigger houses, SUV road and gas hogs, vehicles for all members of the family, massive freeways and proposals for even greater ones, new gadgets by the dozens, near-lethal sugar and fat content of fast-food fare, the right to bloat our bodies and then count on the medical machine to fix them -- we seem to want, and expect, it all.

And dwarfing campaigns for green values, the public is constantly exposed to the advertising budgets of GM, Ford, Wal-Mart, Pfizer, McDonald's, and the like -- many billions of dollars a year, outweighing, by a factor of hundreds, efforts to educate Americans to a more conserving lifestyle.

Single-occupant auto commuting continues to grow, and carpooling and walking keep declining. Notwithstanding the decade-long push for "smart-growth" policies to protect the natural watersheds, the open fields and forests around our towns and cities, any check of existing zoning around the nation shows immense tracts of land zoned for added development.

"You can't deal with sustainability [and] climate change if we insist on covering our open lands with one-, two-, three-acre house plots," notes Robert Yaro, president of the New York-area Regional Plan Association.

It's possible, if not likely, that carbon caps, monster storms, and global oil emergencies will soon alter the status quo more rapidly than anyone today imagines. Green has to be the future, many of its advocates argue, because in a resource-short and turbulent world, the American consumption lifestyle of the last 60 years will prove itself simply unsustainable.

In the meantime, the very best hope undoubtedly lies in the growing numbers of citizen groups and elected local officials who sense the changing world around them and have led today's remarkably broad search for fresh, new, green approaches.

Along the way, there are steps that could make an immense difference. One is a focus on the other green -- money. We are beginning to see the dramatic, long-term savings that can be realized from green buildings and their reduced operating costs and increased property value.

There's growing market acceptance of new green product lines, combined with the rapid growth of new clean technology funds. Green neighborhood and city planning, green water and power systems are on the rise. As a green economy emerges and proves its staying power, the momentum toward change will surely rise.

Health awareness should help too -- demonstrating to the public the dramatic health benefits of green approaches and lifestyle, overcoming misleading, potentially disease-dealing advertising.

Government codes and regulations are another promising field for reform. Many of today's zoning and land-use regulations, building codes, and rules were written in response to public health and safety issues of a century ago, from tenement buildings without running water to slaughterhouses invading residential neighborhoods.

Today we're stuck with sterile zoning and restrictions on building materials and methods alarmingly out of sync with present-day needs. A concerted effort by state and local governments to untangle obsolete building codes and set straightforward new standards, and to revamp outmoded zoning with modern and more flexible codes, could give a strong boost to the emerging green revolution. For example, zoning of the post-World War II era encourages "pods" of development -- residential, office, and retail. The result is multiple auto trips that mitigate against compact, mixed-use, energy-efficient development.

Then there's the challenge to the professionals -- the architects, planners, designers, engineers, builders, utility representatives, city and county housing officials, and others engaged on the front line of building and reshaping communities. Historically -- and often, still today -- they have worked sequentially, first doing the land planning, then the underground pipes, then roadways and buildings and so on.

In a smart 21st century, that won't do. It costs too much and it misses opportunities for better aesthetics, energy efficiency, and quality of life. The time's at hand to move from silos to systems. It's the right moment to ask the professionals to start thinking more broadly, to work closely with colleagues from the other disciplines from start to end of any project.

Green value sounds and is environmental. But it's so much more. It also stands for connectivity, intelligence, smart systems, and creating a 21st-century world that has a chance of being truly sustainable.

This article is available on The American Prospect website.
© 2007 by The American Prospect, Inc.



An Exit Strategy for the War on Drugs

Is it time to forge an "exit strategy" for our prolonged "war on drugs"?

That question -- normally considered a "no-no" in legal circles, especially among prosecutors and police -- has been raised by the prestigious King County (Wash.) Bar Association since 2000. And the results have been impressive. King County is sending minor street drug users and sellers through drug courts instead of incarcerating them; its average daily jail count is down from 2,800 to 2,000. The Washington Legislature was persuaded to cut back drastically on mandatory drug possession sentences, apportioning funds to adult and juvenile drug courts, and family "dependency" courts. Tens of millions of dollars have been saved.

"This project isn't for fringy ponytailed pot smokers," insists Roger Goodman, director of the bar association's Drug Policy Project. "We did it for the courts. We can't get civil cases heard for three years. And the drug cases are mostly so petty."

The uncomfortable truth is that despite decades of aggressive government crackdowns, U.S. drug use and drug-related crime are as high as ever. Made profitable by prohibition, violent criminal enterprises that purvey drugs are flourishing. Harsh criminal sanctions, even for minor drug possession, have packed jails and prisons. Public coffers have been drained of funds for critical preventive social services. Internationally, we're discovering that the U.S.' heavy-handed campaign of illegal drug eradication in countries such as Colombia is about as successful as we've found our parallel military adventure into Iraq.

Despite the stunning $4.7 billion we've spent since 2000 on planes fumigating Colombia's coca crop, farmers there are producing just as much cocaine as before our aerial assault.

Back home, street prices for cocaine have dropped and purity remains high. Prohibition has failed equally to stamp out markets and quality, or increase street prices for heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana. The drug war kicked off by President Nixon in the 1970s, and copied by state and local governments nationally, costs $40 billion or more a year. It is a massive, embarrassing, destructive failure.

But politicians are normally afraid to question the system for fear of being called illegal drug apologists. So how did the King County Bar get the ball rolling? "It's the messenger, not the message" -- the credibility of the bar association, says Goodman. The King County Bar in fact assembled a nationally unprecedented coalition of supporters, ranging from the Washington State Bar Association to the King County and Washington state medical associations, the Church Council of Greater Seattle and the League of Women Voters of Seattle and Washington.

And the first-stated goals weren't scuttling drug laws. Instead, the bar association announced its platform as (1) reductions in crime and disorder -- "to undercut the violent, illegal markets that spawn disease, crime, corruption, mayhem and death," (2) improving public health by stemming the spread of blood-borne diseases, (3) better protection of children from the harm of drugs, and (4) wiser use of scarce public resources.

Now the bar association and its allies are asking the Washington Legislature to establish a commission of experts to design how the state can switch from punitive approaches to a focus on treatment, shutting down the criminal gangs that now control the drug trade.

As controversial as it sounds, programs for victims (most likely adults) of such dangerously addictive drugs as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine may be easiest to fashion. Rather than leaving them to the streets and black market exploitation, there may -- as some European models suggest -- be ways to register addicts, provide controlled amounts of drugs in medical settings, and try to guide them into treatment.

For marijuana, control by cartels that now provide huge quantities might be broken by state licensing of home production (like brewing) and non-commercial exchanges. Or a state distribution system like state liquor stores, demonstrably effective in denying sales to youth, could be established.

The toughest issues may surround protection of children. Today, it's noted, they get contradictory messages -- "Take a pill to feel better," and "Just say no, except when you're 21 and then you can drink." Youth see commercial advertising pushing a wide variety of mind-altering, pleasure-inducing substances, even while society leaves control of so-called "illicit" drugs to criminal gangs. Plus, kids do like to experiment.

A realistic program could start with respecting young people, providing them honest information, on uses -- and the demonstrable dangers -- of alcohol, tobacco and drugs. Goodman notes that in the 13 states where medical use of marijuana is authorized, teen use is down. "It's not as cool when grandma uses marijuana for cancer pain," he says.

There's surely no risk-free "exit" from today's terribly destructive drug war. But we have to try -- and should thank communities and states with the courage to lead.

Ocean Power Can Be a Global Warming Cure

How shall we ever slake our ever-growing demand for electricity? Even as concerns about global warming escalate, are we doomed to create more of the same old polluting, coal- and oil-dependent power plants? Or can common sense -- and some radically new technologies -- serve us better?

There’s much talk of wind and solar power. But how about the oceans and their massive tidal and current patterns? Driven by the gravitational force of the sun and the moon, tides and currents represent a source that’s as infinite and everlasting as any force on earth.

A major pilot demonstration seems ready to launch in San Francisco Bay, where an immense tidal flow enters and exits every day at a narrow point of the Golden Gate. A gigantic energy-collection device vaguely reminiscent of a Ferris wheel, with a number of fins (or “wings”) to capture the power of the rapidly passing tides, will be lowered from a barge anchored in the narrows. Using maglev technology, it will produce electrical energy that can then be transmitted to shore by cable.

If the San Francisco experiment works, the way could be opened to vast “farms” of underwater energy generators, operating below the ocean surface off Florida’s Atlantic Coast and along such shorelines as New England and the Pacific Northwest. A major early target could be in the Gulf Stream as it flows between Florida and Bermuda, where the 6.1-mile-per-hour current is 23,000 times the magnitude of the river flow at Niagara Falls.

Dan Power, the former Air Force engineering officer who is president of Oceana Energy, a firm recently organized to develop tidal current power systems, says it’s too early to project the percentage of power needs the new technology could deliver. But along America’s heavily populated coasts, tidal currents could, he believes, become “a major future power source.”

First comes the next year focused on the San Francisco experiment, as Oceana works with engineers of the U.S. Navy’s Hydromechanics Directorate, local utilities and governments to model, test and install the pioneering generator at the Golden Gate.

Contrast that with last week’s estimate that over 150 coal-powered power plants, most powered by dirty, last-generation technologies, are now being planned by U.S. energy companies. The estimate, by U.S. PIRG, the national association of state Public Interest Research Groups, is based chiefly on information from the U.S. Energy Department. Already, quantities of the coal-fired plants are being announced, including 11 by TXU Corp. in Texas alone.

What will be the impact of all the new plants? A stunning 10 percent increase in U.S. global warming emissions, U.S. PIRG estimates -- at the very moment the United States, now responsible for over 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, should be reversing course, leading rather than hindering worldwide efforts to avert potentially catastrophic global climate change in this century.

Yet applying the same $137 billion the energy companies plan for coal-fired plants to energy conservation, U.S. PIRG calculates, would reduce our energy demand by 19 percent in 2025 -- obviating the need for all the new plants. Comparable investment in wind farms or solar power could also go far to obviate the need for the new coal plants (only 16 percent of which are projected to use new coal gasification technology).

But now comes ocean tidal power recovery -- a technology that Power claims is so benign it wouldn’t even impact fish life.

In one sense the idea of tapping tidal energy isn't new; even Ben Franklin, on his trans-Atlantic voyages, noticed the current and speculated on converting its power for human purpose. But not until recent advances in magnets as well as plastics that can protect underwater metal devices from corrosion has the technology become feasible.

Enter the 20-year-old Climate Institute, an early truth-teller on the perils of global warming. Several of its leaders -- Dan Power, President John Topping, environmentalist and businessman William Nitze, and former steel company executive Joe Cannon -- decided the institute’s powerful research and advocacy weren’t enough, that there was no substitute for real-world, economically feasible alternatives to fossil fuels. And that ocean tidal power, the hydraulic energy in the globe's waters, constituted a massive untapped potential.

So in 2005, they formed the for-profit Oceana Energy to do the hard work -- gathering new scientific data, pushing the engineering, recruiting capital and enlisting allies -- to harvest the freely flowing hydraulic energy in the globe’s waters.

One is tempted to liken energy competition to a David and Goliath story -- new upstarts, struggling for capital and market acceptance, against the entrenched fossil-fuel industries whose political clout delivers them more than $25 billion in federal subsidies each year.

With the new truths of global warming transforming the human environment and economics, the Davids will eventually triumph. But soon enough?

Solving the Immigration Dilemma

The immigration dilemma and us -- how do we decide?

We seem faced by stark alternatives: One is to despair of effective controls, to grant blanket amnesty for the 11 million or so immigrants who broke the law by entering the U.S. illegally. After all, they wouldn't be here if we weren't taking advantage of their ultra-low-cost labor -- from maids to farm workers, gardeners to dishwashers -- in benefit-bereft jobs most Americans now spurn.

Indeed, if every undocumented worker disappeared from the country tomorrow, big sections of the U.S. agriculture machine, unable to compete in the global commodity market without cheap labor, would collapse. We'd become as dangerously reliant on food imports as we are on oil imports today.

But wait a moment, say others: These folks broke the law to enter America. They're swelling the costs for our schools, they're putting big burdens on health care and criminal justice systems. We want them gone.

The U.S. House under its Republican leadership feels that way: in December it passed a bill requiring deportation for every undocumented worker caught, big fines for employers who give illegal immigrants jobs, and a stunning $2.2 billion to construct double-layer border fences in Arizona and California -- America's 21st century version of the Berlin Wall. Senate action is expected this month.

Can there be a middle ground here?

It's tough. One senses a certain hatefulness, 21st-century xenophobia, in the anti-immigrant camp. Check the individual illegal immigrant and you often find a worker from a pitifully poor rural village, desperate for a better life, sending money back to family. He or she lives in constant fear of arrest and deportation, subject to raw exploitation by employers. Yet this so-called "illegal" may be more hard working and responsible to family than many affluent, take-it-all-for-granted middle-class Americans.

Amazingly, we grant only 5,000 permanent visas for low-skilled workers annually. And no matter how many walls and laws we erect, borders remain tough to seal. Recent crackdowns -- doubling our border patrol forces to 10,000, spending billions in added enforcement -- have backfired seriously by discouraging undocumented workers from returning to their home countries, because re-entering the U.S. can be so dangerous.

President Bush and Sens. John McCain and Edward Kennedy, among others, have proposed guest worker programs as middle ground -- only to see House Republican leaders swear total opposition. Maybe a political shift in Congress will have to come first.

But a Republican businessman from Fresno, Calif., is proposing a truly thoughtful formula we might start debating. He's Peter Weber, himself an immigrant from Lima, Peru, in 1959. Now retired from CEO-level positions in several major corporations, Weber has plunged into civic leadership roles in Fresno -- a city especially heavily impacted by immigration.

Weber's plan includes a guest worker program, but one specifically offering the prospect for long-term U.S. residency, even citizenship, for workers who demonstrate a serious, long-term track record of job-holding and responsibility.

First step -- all undocumented immigrant workers would be given four months to make a choice: sign up for the new guest worker program, leave the U.S., or risk deportation and lifelong ineligibility for U.S. residence. Those electing to sign up would be offered tamper-proof identity cards and told they can stay for up to three years, or six more years with renewals, with a big "if" -- if they can show they have a specific "guest worker contract" with an employer or labor contractor.

Employers, for their part, would have to assure some type of health benefits for all guest workers. Fines would triple for any that then hire illegal immigrants.

Second, there'd be a "step-up" for guest workers -- to permanent U.S. residency. But they'd first have to be a guest worker at least 30 months, demonstrate English proficiency, pass a "residency exam" on the basics of U.S. governance, and have a clean police record. They could also apply for citizenship -- but only after they leave the U.S., and then re-enter the country legally.

Third, the country would continue to protect its borders as vigorously as it can, especially in view of post-9/11 security considerations.

Why this complex "carrot and stick" approach? It's because, says Weber, "we have created 'castes' in our society like never before, breeding discrimination on one side and resentment on the other." Just check France, he suggests, for the consequences when a society fails to integrate a major contingent of foreign workers from another culture.

None of the national guest worker bills now pending, says Weber, make the critical differentiation between residency and citizenship. They're short on positive inducements that benefit both the workers and the nation. America's demand for security and for low-cost labor can't be ignored, he says. But it's also essential our approaches "be based on the fundamental American values of fairness and compassion."

A debate based on realism and values? Should we settle for anything less?

How Katrina Keeps on Hurting

Katrina keeps on hurting. America's most vicious storm in a century left hundreds of thousands homeless, incurring its deepest scars on the lives of the poor.

And now, Katrina is about to hurt again, not this time by the force of nature but by the very odd decisions being made by President Bush and power-wielders in Congress.

The George Bush side of the ongoing hurt is his continued refusal -- notwithstanding many calls, from inside and outside his own party -- to designate a responsible federal official to guide the Gulf recovery effort.

Why? His aides say the president is concerned that such a post might "compete with state and local decision-makers."

How odd. Here's the president who rushed to the scene of hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, bringing in his own power supply to pose before cameras in a darkened city and proclaim to America: "We will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives." It would be, he said, "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen."

Now those expansive promises seem in full retreat. After an initial rush of spending, according to an investigative report in the Los Angeles Times, the administration has been unable to make use of most of the billions of dollars it requested right after Katrina, and is offering only the sketchiest accounting of the money it has spent.

And if the Bush camp has thought through a creative federal-state-local partnership to work on these challenges, it's a deep secret.

The White House still wants to try out the free-market cures the president first mentioned -- a Gulf Opportunity Zone providing tax breaks for small businesses, and an Urban Homesteading Act to help low-income families build homes.

But for devastated communities, there are many, many more critical needs -- starting with assurance of water, power, and security, planning for where redevelopment may and may not occur, restoring basic government services, and bringing in banks and insurers.

"Where once you had an operating society, now there's nothing -- no firetruck, no school, no grocery store," says Rep. Richard Baker, R-La.

Baker says Washington should create a Louisiana Recovery Corp. that could make commitments to rebuild entire communities, providing critical assurances to returning residents. In the Senate, Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., have proposed a Cabinet-level Gulf Coast Recovery and Disaster Preparedness Agency that would channel funds to the region, twinned with a board of state and local officials to design a rebuilding plan.

But so far, indications are the White House wants neither.

Jack Kemp, former housing and urban development secretary under the first President Bush, decries the White House position: "There has to be some federal leadership here. ... Laissez-faire, Darwinian capitalism is not going to work here. Markets do work, but they need the direction of government in situations like this," Kemp told the Times.

Another reason for direct federal leadership, says Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program: the federal government is deeply implicit in the social disaster that Katrina unveiled. For 60 years, federal housing policy actually encouraged concentrating the poor in special enclaves, almost exclusively in flood-prone sections of New Orleans. Federal highway spending promoted middle-class dispersion from the city and development on wetlands susceptible to flooding.

The federal post-Katrina effort, Muro argues, should engage local officials in determining sound land-use decisions, creating new "neighborhoods of choice and connection," requiring local inclusionary zoning as a prerequisite for new federal housing assistance, investing in transit for mobility of all classes, and restoring the delta's long-abused ecosystem.

But the administration shows scant interest in such issues; one has to wonder if it even comprehends them. Result: lack of meaningful federal engagement in recovery. Recovery delayed, misguided. The hurt goes on.

Just as hurtful, check Congress and the ascendant House Republican Study Committee, made up of 100-plus ultra-conservative members. It wants to start paying for the Katrina bill by cutting somewhere between $35 billion and $50 billion from programs of chief benefit to America's poor and near-poor. Among the programs to be slashed: food stamps, Medicaid, student loans, child-care support and the earned-income tax credit.

Also being considered for elimination or deep reductions: energy-efficiency and renewable-energy programs. On top of that, federal housing outlays are already set for significant cuts.

But what about the $70 billion in future tax cuts, mostly for America's very wealthy, that's also included in the budget before Congress? No, we can't touch that, say the congressional powers that be.

In short, the same myopia, the same failure to invest in people and a sound environment that Katrina revealed so painfully, is to be repeated. The hurt goes on, now to be spread to people in need across 50 states.

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