Clinton vs Trump: what will the next president do for cities, housing and infrastructure?

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump leave the stage following the first presidential debate. Image: Getty.

Nearly two thirds of Americans (62 per cent) live in cities, while an impressive 52 per cent of total GDP is generated in the country’s 20 top metropolitan areas. Those cities continue to face considerable challenges, in areas as diverse as transport, housing, poverty, public investment and economic growth.

And yet, urban policy has largely been ignored during the 2016 election campaign. “We have heard precious little on this front from Mrs Clinton,” says Richard Florida, an urban studies theorist and head of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management. The only comments on urban policy worth noting, he adds, came from unsuccessful Democratic candidate Martin O'Malley in the early part of the Democratic campaign.

When asked about Donald Trump’s urban policies, Lynn Richards, the president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), says that she doesn’t take them seriously: “He’s like a child with a crayon.” Richards is not alone in thinking that way. Many of the DC-based policy wonks think that the Republican candidate’s proposals lack specifics

The possibility of Trump winning the keys to the White House on 8 November is steadily diminishing. But the Republicans are still likely to win the House of Representatives, even if the Democrats take the Senate.

So let's take a closer look into some key urban issues – transport, infrastructure and housing – and how the views of the two big American parties compare.

Transport and infrastructure

On issues related to mass transit, biking, and the environment, the two parties hold radically different views. Democrats advocate a substantial boost for investments in transport, with the focus on moving away from car use, while Republicans promote a limited federal role and a return to car-based transport.

Deteriorating infrastructure is a huge issue. Some 32 per cent of US roads are now rated “poor” or worse for bumpiness, an increase of 16 per cent since 2005. In addition, the next government will be required to address the numerous ageing railways, bridges and sewers needing improvement and replacement. With an enormous spending deficit, the Democratic Party has suggested a five-year plan to create a $275bn National Infrastructure Bank to fund such projects.

An infrastructure bank would be “hugely powerful for city building and place making,” explains CNU’s Lynn Richards. She adds that she hopes that the error of single-objective spending is over. “We should be spending our infrastructure dollars in ways that meet multiple community outcomes.”

In order to fund the bank, the Democrats plan to raise the gasoline tax. The Republicans, by contrast, are set against increasing a tax that has remained stable for 23 years.

And despite Donald Trump’s loose talk about the importance of infrastructure, the Republican platform would shift how the Highway Trust Fund would be spent. The multi-billion-dollar source of federal support for mass transit, biking programmes, sidewalks and other would be channelled back into building roads, leaving such initiatives to local governments.

The final outcome will depend what kind of win ensues. “If Clinton is elected but the Democrats do not get control of the House and Senate, then it will be like Obama' last years; nothing much gets done except by presidential directives,” explains University of Maryland Professor John Rennie Short. If that happens, rather than grand policies from the federal government, we can expect the encouragement of local initiatives such as the DOT Livability Initiative. “Increasing gas taxes for the Highway Fund would be off the table as would the National Infrastructure Bank,” Rennie Short says.

A Trump win would almost certainly mean that Republicans win Congress too, he adds. “Expect no tax increases, no local initiatives, more toll roads and probably some privatisation schemes touted.”

Looking to the future, an important issue to be addressed within the next presidential cycle will be adopting the technology and installing the infrastructure required to guide autonomous vehicles, such as the ones developed by Tesla and Google. “Who owns that technology is going to own the road essentially,” explains Lynn Richards.


America has an affordable housing crisis: there is not a single US state where a minimum wage employee working full-time can reasonably afford a one-bedroom apartment at a fair market rent.  Meanwhile, the supply of rental housing is not expanding fast enough to accommodate household growth, which creates pressure on rents.

Buying is becoming harder, too. Older millennials are having a hard time getting into homeownership because mortgages are still hard to get, while seniors are living longer, and more independently, than they used to. According to their differing views on the role of government, each party has proposed different ways of dealing with the crisis.

In February, Hillary Clinton proposed a $125bn Economic Revitalisation Initiative that includes some major housing reforms. It makes a number of proposals to make sustainable homeownership more accessible: offering more families down payment assistance, expanding beyond traditional credit scores and building more affordable rental housing.

To help current homeowners keep their homes, and fight the effects of homelessness, Clinton also proposes substantially increased funding for the National Housing Trust Fund, with the aim of creating new homes and jobs in the process. She also plans to boost the Neighborhood Stabilisation Programme, whereby municipalities can purchase foreclosed homes, get them renovated and then subsidise their sale to new home buyers with low incomes.

It's worth noting, too, that Clinton's vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine has spent years advocating for fair housing reform.

Trump, on the other hand, a real-estate developer himself, has yet to offer a position on housing finance reform. The Republicans believe that regulations and rules are holding back the free market from finding a solution.

The party has heavily criticised the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, that requires cities which receive federal money to examine their housing patterns and look for racial bias. Their reasoning is that is it tampers with local decision-making in community planning.

Under the banner of “responsible home ownership” the Republican party platform champions the virtues of a property-owning democracy that safeguards individual liberties, strengthens communities and builds wealth, while blaming Democratic housing policies for any problems. It only briefly mentions renting, within the context of “eliminating restrictions to promote greater supply of rental opportunities”.

What the US needs is a multi-faceted strategy to allow people to achieve economic mobility whatever their housing situation. Rolf Pendall, co-director of the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, believes policies need to focus on rental affordability for young tenants, access to credit for mortgages for first home buyers, and strategies to improve homes for older age owners.

“These trends play out differently in different metro areas,” he says. “However, with hot markets much more bottled up at the younger end and cooler ones needing more to help seniors transition comfortably.”

Bipartisan and local

There are bipartisan approaches to addressing metropolitan issues, which would allow either candidate an excellent starting point for a realistic reset of US urban and housing rules. Professor Short believes that the most interesting policy developments in the US are not emanating from a stalled Congress, but “from progressive towns and cities experimenting with new schemes instead”.

Richard Florida concludes that a strong urban policy – linked to economic growth and addressing the challenges like inequality, segregation and affordability – is the key to get American economy moving again. “Cities are the key sources of innovation and economic growth. Urban policy needs to leverage this and address the challenges it brings.” 

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The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.

Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.