Prepared Remarks for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan at the World Habitat Day Opening Ceremony

National Building Museum
Washington, D.C.
Monday, October 5th, 2009

Thank you Dr. Rodin. On behalf of President Obama, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, the entire Administration and all Americans, let me say that it is an honor to host this year's World Habitat Day.

I want to thank Mayor Fenty for hosting World Habitat Day 2009 - for this opportunity for the world to see the promise of America in our nation's capital.

Let me also thank the working group who made this day possible - the Rockefeller Foundation, especially Dr. Rodin, Habitat for Humanity, the National Building Museum, and our friends at the Brookings Institution. Collectively, you remind us that leadership starts with listening and learning.

I want to thank my Administration colleagues Melody Barnes and Valerie Jarrett, who have dedicated themselves to this event and this cause.

Lastly, I want to thank the diplomatic community for coming together to make World Habitat Day a success - particularly the United Nations and Dr. Anna Tibaijuka.

Whether it is her work to establish the African Ministerial Conference on Housing and Urban Development or putting urban poverty high on the agenda of multilateral institutions across the world, she is a pioneer.

Thank you, Dr. Tibaijuka.

And let me mention Peter Oberlander, a founding father of UN-HABITAT - who we are posthumously awarding with a World Habitat Day 2009 Scroll of Honour. Today we honor his memory and the lifetime he spent promoting socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities around the world.

We are thankful for this opportunity to demonstrate our national commitment to make socially and environmentally sustainable communities rooted in safe, decent, and affordable shelter a reality for families across the globe.

Indeed, I'm proud not only to reinforce our long-standing relationship with UN-HABITAT, but to carry on a strong HUD tradition of leadership and involvement in World Habitat Day.

My good friend and predecessor, Henry Cisneros, led the U.S. delegation to the Second World Habitat Conference in Istanbul in 1996. And recently, we partnered with the U.N. to organize two regional housing finance workshops in Africa.

This year's World Habitat Day offers an opportunity to build on those efforts: to bring attention to some of the most promising sustainability ideas being explored across the globe.

In so doing, we can create a platform for international partnership.

We can embrace a greener, more prosperous future.

And we can make the places every family calls home safer, more inclusive, and more sustainable.

A Unique Moment

This year's theme—“Planning for Our Urban Future”—comes at a moment of both remarkable change and worrying uncertainty - when the source of economic security for millions of families around the globe has been eroded:

Home - the foundation upon which we build our lives, raise our children and plan for our futures.

At the same time, we face the largest wave of urban growth in human history. For the first time ever, more than half of our global population lives in metropolitan areas. By 2030 almost 5 billion people will live in urban areas.

With each of these developments come enormous challenges - to deliver health care services and safe drinking water.

To provide reliable, energy-efficient transportation.

And to build a solid foundation for economic growth that lifts up all of our peoples.

In the United States, where our largest 100 metro areas account for 65 percent of our population, and 75 percent of our economic output, this trend is long underway. Our population is expected to grow by another 50 percent in the first half of this century - this at the same time we have wastewater systems over a century old, schools in dire need of repair, an inefficient transportation system, and a housing policy with too little emphasis on affordable rental options.

While few have made the connection between the sustainability of our metropolitan areas and our recent economic crisis, if you look closely you'll see that the neighborhoods facing the brunt of the crisis—with the highest foreclosure rates and the deepest job losses—are often the least sustainable - with the least access to transportation, the most troubled schools, and the least economic opportunity.

So, the challenge of this moment is clear: to build communities in the most holistic way possible - sustainably, so that we can meet the needs of today without compromising the futures of our children and grandchildren.

A Commitment to Sustainability

My country's commitment to sustainable growth is embodied by President Obama - who worked on the Southside of Chicago as a community organizer and walked the dirt paths of the Kibera Slum of Kenya as a Senator.

And he has pursued a robust sustainability agenda as our President.

Rejecting that false choice between investing in clean energy and economic growth, he's instead championing a 21st century energy policy that will address the threat of climate change, reduce our dangerous dependence on foreign oil at the same time it creates millions of new jobs.

And with 20 percent of our carbon emissions coming from residential buildings, we know that tackling climate change literally does start at home.

So does opportunity. And with low-income families spending 60 percent of their household budgets on housing and transportation, we also know that ensuring our homes are located near affordable transportation, good schools and good jobs is equally as important.

That's why, from creating a White House Office of Urban Affairs to asking me to renew HUD's commitment to urban policy, strong, sustainable, inclusive growth in America's communities is central to President Obama's vision for our country and one of the guiding principles of the Recovery Act.

Dedicating some $16 billion to green building and retrofits, the Recovery Act is promoting energy efficiency in our homes and buildings, turning foreclosed homes into affordable housing, making our transportation system more efficient, and developing a workforce ready to embrace a greener, more prosperous future.

To build on these investments and seize this unique moment in our history, HUD has also proposed a Sustainable Communities Initiative.

HUD will partner for the first time with the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency and make $140 million in our budget available to localities to better coordinate governmental efforts to integrate transportation, housing, and land use planning.

For the first time, we will speak with one voice when it comes to supporting housing, environmental and transportation innovations at the local level.

It's not just America. We're seeing these critical linkages around the world - in places like Rizhao, China where they have deployed green infrastructure to improve their quality of life and grow their economy.

In Malmö, Sweden where they've created green neighborhoods out of tenements and old shipyards - transforming an industrial recession into an opportunity to reshape the built environment and connect residents with more sustainable transportation choices and energy sources. Instead of expanding into the green space beyond their metropolitan areas, they're recycling already-developed land and infrastructure.

Another opportunity for us to learn from our friends in the international community is the groundbreaking work done by Habitat for Humanity in partnership with governments around the world to rebuild from natural disasters.

Just last week, President Obama announced the creation of an Interagency Recovery Task Force which I will lead with our Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano.

One of our tasks will be to ensure that disaster response focuses on not just rebuilding what was there before, but rebuilding stronger and more sustainably. And nowhere will that be more important than helping these communities adapt to prepare for the disaster-related impacts of climate change.

But sustainability isn't just about building communities that are environmentally sustainable.
It's also about making them socially and economically sustainable - creating real opportunity and breaking up the intense concentration of poverty in our inner cities.

That's why we're engaging our partners on the ground in our cities to extend neighborhood transformation efforts beyond just public housing.

With our Choice Neighborhoods proposal, we're challenging communities to link those interventions more closely with school reform and early childhood innovations.

The same principle motivates each of these efforts:

When you choose a home, you don't just choose a home. You also choose the schools your child attends, you choose transportation to work.

You choose a community. And in a country that has been a beacon of opportunity to immigrants around the world for centuries, it is this very principle that has made home a critical rung on the ladder to opportunity.

The Road to Rio

The transformation we are witnessing in our cities and in our populations is certain to be one of the most pressing challenges facing the global community in the 21st century.

Some may wonder whether we can rise to meet it.

I believe we can - because I believe my own eyes.

Some of you might know that before becoming HUD Secretary, I served as New York City's Housing Commissioner. And before that, I was a baseball fan - a big fan of the New York Yankees. And I still am.

More than three decades ago, I sat in Yankee Stadium during Game Two of a World Series game against the Los Angeles Dodgers when Howard Cosell broadcast his famous words to millions of viewers across the nation: “Ladies and gentleman, the Bronx is burning.”

Indeed, the South Bronx of the 1970s was nothing less than an urban catastrophe. Arson consumed thousands of buildings. Neighborhoods lost 75 percent of their populations in just 10 years.

Across New York, a sense of chaos bubbled close to the surface. Across the nation, many speculated we were witnessing the death throes of the American city.

And across the world, the South Bronx became a symbol of urban decline. In Buenos Aires, the city's most infamous public housing development was nicknamed “Fort Apache” - itself a nickname for the most notorious police precinct in the South Bronx.

Today it's hard to imagine that the now vibrant neighborhoods of the South Bronx were part of the warzone that Cosell described to the American people that October night more than three decades ago.

Today, far from being focused on the potential death of the American city, New York is deeply engaged in issues like figuring out how to cut carbon emissions by 30 percent even as the city gains another million people by 2030.

It's not just New York. Denver is breaking down traditional city/suburb tensions by linking downtown to surrounding communities with a new multi-modal transit system and affordable housing along the way. Like so many others, they are demonstrating that cities and suburbs not only share problems, but can collaborate on solutions.

Americans don't pretend to have all the answers. Certainly we have a long way to go to meet that high bar we've set for ourselves - and that this year's Scroll of Honour winners have set for global engagement.

But when we work in partnership rooted in our most common values, our chances for success are that much greater.

That is the spirit that will be guiding the World Urban Forum and HUD's delegation to Rio—which I look forward to leading—next March. There, all of our partnerships will be examined, and our best ideas put to the test.

Working in common purpose, I have no doubt that we can and we will take advantage of this historic opportunity to shape a more sustainable, inclusive, and prosperous future for generations to come.

That is our challenge today. Let us rise to meet it. Thank you.


Content Archived: February 23, 2017