Alumni Profile: The Power of Ideas: Alumna Is Passionate About Reform

By Lee Prater Yost

Deputy director and co-founder of the Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy, Amy Liu (BS93) talks about "spatial divides, regional equity and isolated pockets of despair."


Her eyes flashing with passion, Liu demands policy change and uses the institute's trend surveys, policy briefs and op-eds as tools to effect it.

"We spend 50 percent of our time ensuring we have high-quality research and 50 percent making sure the research 'has legs.'" The center solicits data from a network of urban scholars "beyond the beltway" and packages it to influence policy makers and the media.

In 1996 Liu and the chief of staff left the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), where she was a special assistant to Secretary Henry Cisneros, to form the center because they felt that urban policy focused primarily on race and poverty. "No one represented the interests of cities at a national level in any thoughtful, substantive way," she says.

Liu's passion for policy was ignited at Northwestern. A native of downstate Illinois, Liu started out majoring in economics. She planned to "go down the MBA route and become a business executive." But after joining the Northwestern Volunteer Network, service became a driving interest. She transferred to SESP and focused on urban studies. "I followed that path with passion and commitment and feel very blessed" for where it led.

It led first to a practicum with the Metropolitan Planning Council of Chicago. Before the practicum experience, Liu says she was naive about what constituted community service. "Seeing business leaders participate on the boards of organizations—and that is considered 'volunteerism'—made me aware of different ways of serving the public. I was impressed with the amount of commitment [of business leaders]. The civic energy in Chicago is why the city works," she says.

Liu came to Washington because "I had done the grassroots work, seen local politics and now wanted to experience the national scene."

At HUD, though Liu didn't think urban policy was working. "Urban policy had become limited to the issues of race and poverty, but those are not the only issues urban areas confront," she says. "Cities are about everything—jobs, transportation, planning, housing, education, taxes—and the way they interact to shape the health of places and the opportunities for people.

"But urban policy had also failed because it tried to fix urban problems with only central city solutions," says Liu. "Cities now operate in a metropolitan context. Housing markets, labor markets, business-supplier networks are all regional. People move constantly across jurisdictional lines to commute to jobs, run errands, visit friends. Today 80 percent of the nation's population and 85 percent of its jobs are located in metropolitan areas. Strategies affecting cities and suburbs must recognize this new reality."

Finally, urban policy, Liu believes, had been rooted for too long in the trends of the Northeast and Midwest and needed to embrace the challenges facing the rapidly growing West and South, such as immigration, water resources, exurban sprawl, growth management and housing affordability. "We need to broaden and update our urban research and policies to respond to the needs of the different regions across the country," she says.

The center aims to redefine what is happening to cities and suburbs to set the context for reform. "We have this monolithic, 'white soccer mom' view of the suburbs, but they are more diverse than that. Immigrants are moving straight to the suburbs. Today, about one in four suburbanites is a person of color, up from one in five in 1990. More singles than married couples with children live in the suburbs today. We mapped the working poor in the 100 largest metropolitan areas and found that 60 percent lived in the suburbs. When you think of issues like affordable housing, workforce and child-care, they are no longer limited to just cities. Suburbs, especially older ones, are beginning to experience similar challenges. There are real opportunities for city and suburban allegiances to be built.

"At Brookings we recognize we are a think-tank—we're not implementers. But we believe strongly in the power of ideas to create change. The only way ideas are powerful is if they respond to modern realities and if there is an audience ready to act on them. We put enormous energies into both of these ingredients."
By Lee Prater Yost