06/30/2010 03:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Our Broken Regions - Fixing the Hidden Cause of our Economic Downfall

We can trace back our current economic mess to many roots - unscrupulous bankers, risky speculators, uninformed consumers, lax regulators, distracted politicians.

But there's one factor that gets far too little notice: the broken and ineffective way we constructed many of our communities, isolating low-income people and people of color from opportunity.

The post-WWII "white flight" suburban sprawl took a new twist during the exurban rush of the 1990s and 2000s. Low- and middle-income families, enticed by "cheap" home loans, drove further and further from job centers in search of an affordable home. That created a short-term boom in housing sales while giving millions of Americans formerly locked out of home-ownership a false sense of finally attaining the American Dream.

Then, the bill came due.

Families stuck out in the exurbs suddenly had to drive dozens of miles to get anywhere - school, church, work, the doctor, or the supermarket. This was not only an enormous time-waster, but a costly one, too. In exurban Atlanta, for instance, families spend an average of 61 percent of their income on transportation! The problem is especially bad in high-foreclosure communities, where jobs recede ever-further away as local economies tank. Look at Stockton, California, where the average commute is 46 miles - each way.

Meanwhile, the urban communities of color many of these exurbanites came from were left behind, aging and under-invested. Neither the left-behind urban residents, nor the far-flung exurban residents were any closer to the economic and social opportunities they needed to thrive.

What we saw intensify during the 2000s was a massive and unsustainable mismatch between where we live and where we work. The costs - in economic terms, but also for the environment, our health, and our oil-dependence - were too much to bear. A region cannot be prosperous if it allows its low-income people to be simply shunted off to the uneven fringes or isolated corners.

But our metro regions are now facing an interesting stretch ahead. Already, Americans are voting with their feet, as cities from coast to coast (and in between) bulge with new residents fresh from the exurbs and suburbs. New developments are popping up around public transit lines. Once-forgotten neighborhoods are seeing new shops and restaurants open for the first time in years.

On one hand, it's exciting to see cities again bustling and becoming hubs for regional innovation. But for the poor families who have been struggling in these dis-invested urban areas for decades, this new excitement brings with it great anxiety - the worry that as wealthier residents move in alongside the nicer amenities, longtime residents will inevitably be priced out.

That's why the Obama Administration's new $175 million Sustainable Communities initiative is so exciting. This joint effort by HUD, EPA, and the Department of Transportation is another effort by the White House to reshape the broken and counterproductive way we've built our communities. These federal planning grants will help regional consortia --comprising state and local governments, metropolitan planning organizations, educational institutions, non-profit groups, and philanthropic organizations-- lay out a smarter, more sustainable, and more inclusive future for their region.

Rather than fuel greater sprawl and surrender to the fractured status quo of government oversight, the Sustainable Communities initiative tries to think about a community in all of the ways we really live our lives. We aren't just homeowners or renters. We're not just drivers or public transit users. We're not just consumers or sellers. We're all of those things - and our communities should reflect that.

But the Sustainable Communities initiative goes beyond just trying to fix one neighborhood or one city. It aims to fix and integrate an entire region - because, as HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said at The Atlantic's Future of the City conference last week, "America's ability to compete and create jobs in the 21st Century depends on our metro regions."

As we rethink our regions, we have to plan for success. The Sustainable Communities grants promise to prioritize building communities of opportunity for people of color and high poverty areas. Local leaders and residents must be at the forefront of these planning efforts.

Sustainable regions are only possible if all people have the opportunity to achieve their full potential. Re-imagining our regions as interconnected, interdependent, inclusive places to both live and work is crucial to making a nation that can innovate and thrive. Areas that embrace this "regional equity" focus will be on the fast-track to economic stability and growth.

A new $175 million federal program is a good start. But, of course, it can't do it on its own. Regions across America must learn the lessons of this Sustainable Communities program to break down the isolated silos of their own and unite all aspects of regional living. If we can do that, we can unleash a torrent of ignored and underutilized potential, especially in poor communities and communities of color.

Sustainable communities make successful communities.