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Archive: Neal Peirce

Links to prior Peirce columns are also available at Washington Post Writers Group and National Academy of Public Administration websites.

Launching ‘Citiscope’ to Serve World Cities

Neal Peirce / Oct 15 2013

For Release Sunday, October 13, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceFor years, I’ve been writing about the mutuality of cities in America and across the world. I’ve been intrigued – not just by the sweep of challenges cities face, but by the exciting promise of sharing experience, learning from each other.

Now it’s time for me to do something about it. With this writing, I’m stopping the weekly column, syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group, that I launched 38 years – some 1,900 weekly dispatches – ago. Last week’s column summarized and bid adieu to that undertaking. To all the readers who sent heartwarming messages of farewell, my deepest thanks.

But I’m going on to an exciting new chapter. With colleagues Farley Peters and Curtis Johnson and others, I’m launching a new global news service – we’re calling it Citiscope Global News – dedicated to reporting on innovations already underway, proving their mettle in cities around the world.

Why this mission? We learned about the need the hard way. The Rockefeller Foundation asked us to attend, then write the report on a month long “Global Urban Summit” it held in 2007 with attendees from across the world. Repeatedly, participants mentioned interesting new experiments in their communities. But when we checked for press reports on those efforts, we found sparse pickings. Most news media coverage of cities remained focused on political maneuvering, crime, conflict and corruption. So as we finished our book reflecting on the summit – we titled it Century of the City – we started thinking of ways to help fill the gap.
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1,900 Columns Later: Time for a Pause

Neal Peirce / Oct 03 2013

For Release Sunday, October 6, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceThirty-eight years ago I began a newspaper column focused on the states and cities of America.

The first of the weekly articles appeared in February 1975. Next week, close to 1,900 columns later, I’ll write the last.

A new project awaits me (more about that below). But it’s also time for a change. The journalistic world of 1975 was markedly different from today’s. Newspapers were in their heyday, featuring scores of columns on every topic from national politics to advice for the lovelorn.

But no national column had ever focused on America’s 50 states and their cities, analyzing the issues, the politics, the conditions they faced.

I decided the timing was right. I had just traveled to all 50 states, interviewing in each the governors, mayors, industrialists, labor leaders, citizen activists and more in preparation for a book series that concluded with The Book of America: Inside Fifty States Today. Everywhere I had asked: What makes this state or city distinctive? What’s the politics like, the tone and temper of public life, the economy, culture, living conditions?

But even if I was convinced the time was ripe for a column focused on state-local issues, the syndicates were skeptical. So I stepped out on the plank and took a gamble. I wrote to the editors I had met across the country, promising a column a week and asking for a check for any they printed. My kids grumbled but agreed to collate, staple, fold, stuff envelopes, attach address stickers and stamps.
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Should Cities Fear or Welcome an Era of Driverless Cars?

Neal Peirce / Sep 27 2013

For Release Sunday, September 29, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceWhat will the coming revolution of “autonomous driving” – self-driving vehicles – mean for our cities and metropolitan regions?

The answer is a lot. Eventually.

For decades, cars and trucks have had some degree of automation, with cruise control. Since 2003, manufacturers have been phasing in automated parking for advanced models. Backup and lane change warning systems are installed in some auto models. And at this moment there are many experiments to open an era of totally driverless cars – including lasers, cameras, radar and like technologies, spearheaded by such firms as Toyota, Google, BMW, Volvo and General Motors.

But don’t look for zero-driver vehicles on roadways soon. State laws have uniformly required that motor vehicles have drivers, and that drivers must be able to control their vehicles. Some laws even prohibit vehicles from steering, braking or accelerating by themselves. Still, Nevada, Florida and California have recently allowed driverless vehicles, at least for testing purposes.

But a nationwide switchover to full and legal use of driverless vehicles could take many years – and a lot more proof of their safety. “We believe the individual should always have the ability to disengage and take over the system of a vehicle,” James Pisz, Toyota’s North American corporate business strategy manager, told a recent “Meeting of the Minds” policy conference in Toronto.
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Marveling at Toronto + Piloting the Future

Neal Peirce / Sep 20 2013

For Release Sunday, September 22, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceTORONTO – The heart of Canada’s largest city throbs with activity.

Along the Lake Ontario shoreline and inland, some 170 construction cranes, North America’s biggest assemblage, are busily expanding an already vast collection of skyscrapers. Many of the buildings glisten with the most tasteful multi-hued glass exteriors I’ve seen around the world.

The streets of the city center are buzzing too – with youthful crowds of multiple ethnic heritages (and dress), hurrying to work, shopping, partying by night.

There is concern that Canada’s economic bubble, with unsecured personal debt levels reminiscent of USA 2008, may burst. And Torontonians are worried about their physical future, after scorching summers and a wild July storm that dumped 4 inches of rain, engulfing roads, stranding trains and leaving close to 1 million people without power.

Still, there’s optimism and resilience – making Toronto the logical choice for the yearly “Meeting of the Minds” gathering, sponsored by the Urban Age Institute and spearheaded by imagineer Gordon Feller. This year’s event drew several hundred corporate and nonprofit strategists Sept. 9-11.

The venue, appropriately, was Toronto’s Evergreen Brick Works, an abandoned brick factory transformed into a showcase for environmental restoration, cutting-edge green technologies and urban sustainability.

Plus, place matters. Thinking sanely about urban futures seems easier in Canada’s less heated and virulent (compared to the U.S.A.) political atmosphere.
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Cities Can’t Ignore Big Chains’ Poverty Wages

Neal Peirce / Sep 13 2013

For Release Sunday, September 15, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceAmerica’s cities, its towns and counties and communities, “gotta care.” Significant numbers of citizens are obliged to live with low wages and sometimes miserable working conditions, which critics blame on, among others, Wal-Mart,, Macy’s, KFC, McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King.

It’s small wonder that low-income workers, with a special hand from the Service Workers International Union, have been staging short strikes and rallies across the country to dramatize the situation.

But there’s a key issue. Should city governments be supporting their effort? The issue has won enhanced political attention from Bill de Blasio’s surge in the New York City mayor’s race. He’s argued that “chains like McDonald’s and Burger King are part of a $200 billion industry,” and that today’s $7.25-an-hour minimum wage is unacceptable. “I will not stand for it,” he insists.

Behind the politics, there’s a solid case for fairer income distribution in our cities and regions. Concentrations of low-wage workers mean a community has reduced spending power. That translates into reduced ability for small businesses to thrive, fewer tax receipts, and overall, a less vibrant economy.

But it’s worse than that. Just to survive, many low-wage workers must string together two or three different jobs. And that easily dashes their hopes for job training and economic upgrading, notes Manuel Pastor, director of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California. One needs a decently paying regular job just to have the time for community college at night or to otherwise better one’s skills.
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Fresno’s Business ‘Lions’ Forge Civic Muscle

Neal Peirce / Aug 29 2013

For Release Sunday, September 1, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceFresno, Calif., is not a town known for wealth, elegance or great urban planning. It’s in an area of California’s Central Valley known for some of America’s most concentrated poverty. It has many low-wage industries, few high-wage ones.

And it does not have a great history of honest public dealing: A massive FBI sting in the ’90s revealed how developers were buying up farmland, paying off council members to have it rezoned for housing, then constructing cheap units at an enormous profit. Sixteen area developers and Fresno City Council members were convicted in the case.

But there’s also a startlingly different story – the Fresno Business Council, formed in 1993 not for narrow causes such as holding down corporate tax rates, but rather to seek solutions such as offsetting a juvenile crime wave and correcting dropping economic and social indicators.

It’s not uncommon around the country for senior business leaders to step into the civic sector and push for reforms in the face of crises. In the words of Deborah Nankivell, a Minnesota transplant who’s been the Fresno Business Council’s CEO for two decades:

“Who will ensure that government, schools and neighborhoods are high-functioning if those who often have the most developed skills and the greatest influence stay out of the public and political realms? The responsibilities of citizenship demand that all contribute at their highest level of impact.”

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Smart City Thinking

Neal Peirce / Aug 23 2013

For Release Sunday, August 25, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceHow do cities reduce and control – before they get out of hand – the challenges they know they’ll be facing?

Prevention and invention are the magic words. Increasingly, imaginative cities are finding keys, with a fascinating cross-section identified in recent studies by two New York City institutions: the Center for an Urban Future and the New York University’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service.

They report that Camden, N.J., for example, has devised an inventive “hot-spotting” program to reduce the huge expenses and inefficiency of “super-utilizers” – patients afflicted by substance abuse or mental and chronic illnesses who make repeated visits that overcrowd hospital emergency rooms and drive up costs.

The Camden Coalition of Health Care Providers seeks out patients it initially encounters anywhere from emergency room gurneys to street corners to homeless shelters. Using outreach teams of social workers, medical assistants and nurse practitioners, it works to locate temporary shelter, government assistance and a permanent medical home for each of the super-utilizers. As their hospital visits drop dramatically, the prior pattern – with 13 percent of Camden’s emergency room patients consuming 80 percent of the costs – may well be on its way to resolution.

In Chicago public schools, foreign-born and low-income parents are being offered posts as teaching assistants in elementary classrooms – a route to workforce experience while they receive English language training and a modest stipend. Building new community connections, the immigrants and other challenged parents also become acquainted with – and can better support – their children’s school curriculum.
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Blowing the Whistle on the Drug War — At Last

Neal Peirce / Aug 13 2013

For Release Tuesday, August 13, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal Peirce I thought I’d never live to see the day. But now it’s happened. An attorney general of the United States has finally said he is ready to blow the whistle on America’s ill-fated, racially tinged and cruelly applied “war on drugs.”

Eric Holder signaled the shift in a speech Monday to the American Bar Association. He admitted that the drug war, which his department has spearheaded, has wrought grim “unintended consequences,” including devastating “communities of color” — part of “a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration that traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities.”

That’s precisely the point critics have long made. I’ve decried the drug war and soaring imprisonments in dozens of my columns, from 1987 to the present. I’ve found it incomprehensible that presidents, both Republican and Democratic, could continue to ignore the moral, practical imperative of reforming a penal system that results in the United States, with just 5 percent of world population, incarcerating almost 25 percent of all prisoners.

There’d been hope that President Obama, acutely aware of the system’s failing since his community organizing days, would move for reform soon after taking office. He didn’t. Holder didn’t either, countenancing continued prosecutorial crackdowns, even on low-level marijuana offenders.

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Goats Grazing the Graveyard: A Washington ‘First’

Neal Peirce / Aug 09 2013

For Release Sunday, August 12, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceWASHINGTON – It’s likely the first land clearing project of its kind that’s occurred in the Nation’s Capital – a city currently afflicted by extreme partisan rhetoric and high congressional roadblocks.

But forget politics for a moment and consider activity underway at the famed Congressional Cemetery. It’s a model of efficient, round-the-clock work – animal-driven – in the national interest.

As you read these lines, a herd of some 100 goats is actively munching away, consuming an extraordinarily thick tangle of vines, poison ivy and other invasive plant species that have infested a 2-acre perimeter area of the famed burial ground.

Eco Goats
Ecologically sensitive goats, ready for a hard day’s work weed-eating in Washington. Photo Credit: Eco-Goats.

The goats began applying their voracious appetites at the cemetery on Wednesday (Aug. 7). They’re expected to finish their work by Aug. 12 or soon after. In the meantime the public has been invited to visit the site and see the animals at work. And visitors are flooding in.

Just to watch goats? Aren’t these creatures considered symbols of stubbornness? Maybe so. But raise and handle them well, then herd them into an area with succulent leaves inviting their attention, and they’re docile, hard-working and uncomplaining, says Brian Knox, founder and leader of the Maryland-based firm “Eco-Goats” that supplied the goats for the Congressional Cemetery project.
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Detroit Bankruptcy: Silver Linings?

Neal Peirce / Aug 02 2013

For Release Sunday, August 5, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceYears ago I sat across a dinner table with Coleman Young, Detroit’s legendary and divisive mayor from 1974 to 1994. Young related a story of wielding a stick to subdue – in self-defense, he claimed – a corporate “goon” he thought was about to assault him in a United Auto Workers showdown with the Ford Motor Co. in the 1930s.

Detroit has always been a tough town.

With post-World War II white flight leaving an overwhelmingly African-American city, its relations with its suburbs ranged from indifference to deeply race-tinged hostility. A city of 1.8 million people in 1950 is down to 700,000 – a staggering 61 percent decline in population.

Today vast sections of Detroit’s 138 square miles are marred by vacant lots, burned-out hulks of buildings and abandoned storefronts. Rates of violent crime are alarmingly high; residents respond with metal bars and barricades on their homes. Police response time is a painful 58 minutes (the U.S. average: 11 minutes). Educational levels are low, and the schools lag alarmingly. Major retailers have long since decamped for the suburbs.

And recently the world has heard the alarming news: Detroit has become the biggest American city ever declared officially bankrupt. It’s $18 billion short of the resources it needs to pay its massively underfunded pension and bond payment obligations – the equivalent of $25,000 per resident.

There’s no doubt: the odds against early solvency are immense. Consider pensions alone: Detroit has only 3,200 active workers paying into a system that benefits 9,300 retirees. Although the average pension benefits are fairly modest by national public employee standards, bankruptcy proceedings may well pit retired workers against municipal bondholders for payment. Such is the price, some have commented, of decades of massive suburban flight.
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