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Archive: Column of the Week

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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The Good News About Detroit

Bill Dodge / Sep 27 2013

For Release Friday, September 27, 2013

Bill DodgeIt’s time for an article that focuses on the good news about the City of Detroit and its surrounding communities in the greater Detroit region.

Thanks to the dedicated efforts of regional citizens – individuals from all sectors who think regionally and act cooperatively – a growing array of recent initiatives are addressing some of the Detroit region’s most pressing challenges.

The relatively new Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority is refurbishing Cobo Hall, the convention center, and using a regional hotel tax to keep it competitive in the future. Similarly, voters in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties passed two 10-year property tax levies, one in 2008 to keep the Detroit Zoo open and one last year to keep the world-renowned Detroit Institute of the Arts open.

A Regional Transit Authority has been created to coordinate and expand the region’s bus and transit services. It has the power to merge services and put a regional tax on the ballot to stabilize support for those critical services. Discussions are underway to lease the city’s Belle Isle Park to the state of Michigan to make critical improvements in this beloved facility.

None of those efforts has been easy, and all have seen setbacks along the way. However, they have saved regional assets that were helping stretch the City of Detroit’s financial capacity to the breaking point.
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Will Cities Be Smart Enough to Master the Wired World?

Mary Newsom / Sep 20 2013

For Release Friday, September 20, 2013

Mary NewsomTORONTO – Maybe the game-changer is 3-D printing. Or maybe it’s robotic cars and “autonomous driving,” an innovation that may well mean we’ll never again have to learn to parallel park. Maybe it’s “the Internet of everything” – the idea that sooner or later almost everything will be connected via the Internet.

It’s obvious big changes are coming to cities worldwide and to daily life. During last week’s “Meeting of the Minds” conference in Toronto, much of the talk was about “a smarter and more connected urban future.”

We heard of reinventions, “smart cities” and Big Data. Rogier van der Heide, chief design officer for Philips Lighting, mentioned “a thin layer of technology all over the city.” We heard from people who invented a way you can lay claim, online at least, to an area of your city and create social and information networks for anyone you admit into your network, all of whom presumably carry mobile devices that tell them the information you want them to have.

Already, some 13 billion devices worldwide are connected, said Wim Elfrink, chief globalization officer of Cisco Systems, who predicted that will soar to 50 billion by 2020. Yes, the Internet of Everything, indeed.

We heard about IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge, making grants to 100 cities around the globe, “enabling cities to make transformational changes which have resulted in many new insights.” Turns out my own city (Mecklenburg County, N.C.) was one of the first to receive a Smart City Challenge, in 2010. Who knew?
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Toward a Nature-Rich Urban Future: Five Ways Houston (or insert your city here) Could Lead the Way

Richard Louv / Sep 07 2013

For Release Saturday, September 7, 2013

Richard LouvHouston is well situated to become a leading city – perhaps the leading city — to envision its future through the prism of the natural world. Given the city’s reputation (no zoning, all business), that may sound counterintuitive. And as one Houstonian said to me recently, “If you were to say that around here, people would say you’re not from around here.” So why do I single out Houston?

Before speaking there a few months ago, I had learned that Houston’s leaders were considering rebranding the city. Usually a city rebranding will focus on economic competition. But what if Houston (or insert your city’s name here) were to reimagine its future by looking through the prism of nature?

What would its health care and education systems, shopping areas and residential developments be like? What about its economic health, its ability to market itself to the most creative people and businesses around the world? What would the future look like?

Here are five ways Houston – or your city – could create a nature-rich urban future.

1. Incubate future entrepreneurs through the nurture of nature. Houston is known as a city of business, of independent thinkers. New research suggests that more time spent in natural environments can reduce the symptoms of attention-deficit disorder, encourage creativity, improve learning and nurture executive function. Executive function is the ability developed in early childhood — and primarily through imaginative independent play — to be your own boss. Yet many U.S. school districts have cut recess and discouraged independent play.
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How the Seasoned ’60s Can Assist Today’s Talented ’10s

Bill Dodge / Aug 29 2013

For Release Thursday, August 29, 2013

Bill DodgeAs one who came of age in the early 1960s, I have compared my generational peers to each new group of emerging adults over a half century. Given the propensity to believe one’s own experience is special, I’ve often been unduly critical of the younger generations.

But the decades have now provided me a bit of perspective, to counter my lack of humility. It is the times that shape those coming come of age. I don’t have a crystal ball, but the scar tissue from my own coming-of-age experience is beginning to “itch” again. Just maybe the talented ’10s can be the new ’60s. And if that’s the case, my generation might be able to help them as they enter adulthood.

Then, as now, we faced issues that seemed too big to address – institutionalized discrimination against racial minorities, the unseen plight of the poor, an omnipresent threat of nuclear annihilation and a seemingly never-ending War in Vietnam. Then, as now, we had seasoned elders, even modern prophets, who trained and inspired us to address these challenges.

Most important, we had the confidence that we could tackle those issues and make a difference. We didn’t change the world, but we made addressing tough issues into a high priority on local, regional, state, national and even global agendas and so helped end a destructive war.
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Wanted: A Big U.S. Boost for Exports

William Stafford / Aug 23 2013

For Release Friday, August 23, 2013

William StaffordSpeaking last month at Knox College Galesburg, Ill., President Obama began to try to refocus the American public on the economy. His attention to the need for competition in a global economy was welcome. Global trade is more than a national issue; it’s vital, as well, for healthy metro regions to be prepared to compete internationally.

The slow rebound from the recession and the even slower return to low unemployment levels continue to plague the country. Obama attributed the loss of jobs to new technology and, he said, “Global competition sent jobs overseas.” He outlined what’s needed to compete and said, “The countries that are passive in the face of the global economy will lose the competition for good jobs and high living standards.”

But central to the national debate on fixing the economy is the role of government. Where does the country set the rheostat between a totally free market economy and an activist role for the government in ensuring economic success? And this question is even more difficult as we face global competition for jobs with countries like China, which have industrial policies.

The Obama administration realizes that a large trade deficit and the flow of jobs overseas require an assertive policy. But is the public in agreement?

For years the American public has not seen global trade as in our interest – although polls show an uptick this year. (See Pew Research Center poll in 2010 here, and see a Gallup poll from February 2013 here.) One example: Since mid-2007, Presidents George W. Bush and Obama have had no fast- track trade authority, letting them negotiate international agreements needing only an up or down vote in Congress.
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‘Sex and the Region’? Well, Maybe Not…

Mary Newsom / Aug 09 2013

For Release Friday, August 9, 2013

Mary NewsomAny day now, I figure the term “inner city” will go the way of “carbon paper” and “adding machine.”

Already, it has a sort of disco, big-hair-and-shoulder-pads aura – a relic of a time when to many Americans the heart of the city was a place of poverty, crime and social dysfunction.

Compare that image to today. Surveys, marketing studies, anecdotal reports and TV shows all point to a Millennial generation in love with city life. To them, “inner city” – if used at all – would evoke excitement and opportunity.

In the ’60s and ’70s, it was a tsunami of middle-class families moving to the suburbs. Today, what’s moving to the suburbs is poverty, a demographic shift documented in studies like those from authors Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution, and documented in their Confronting Suburban Poverty in America.

Yet both images – whether derelict “inner city” or hipster downtowns – focus on the central core. That illustrates one of the biggest challenges facing U.S. cities today: the need to address the whole urban organism of city plus suburb plus exurb. Call it a commute-shed, retail trading zone or metropolitan statistical area. Whatever you call it, study after study shows that cities and their outlying areas are linked. A weak city with healthy suburbs will fail to thrive. So will a strong center city with weak suburbs.
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Why Your City Might Be the Next Detroit

Peter Katz / Aug 02 2013

For Release Friday, August 2, 2013

Peter KatzThe headline on Time magazine’s cover story on Detroit’s bankruptcy poses a simple, scary question: “Is your city next?”

Most of us can think of reasons why our community is different from Detroit. Unless you’re in an older industrial city, Detroit probably doesn’t look much like where you live: The largest of America’s Rust Belt cities, Detroit’s aging infrastructure is visibly crumbling as nature retakes empty factories and once-proud neighborhoods. Haunting images of such decay accompany much of the recent web coverage about Detroit’s fiscal woes.

Yet the picture on Time’s cover shows something different: It’s the top of General Motors’ fortress-like headquarters, known locally as “RenCen.” The futuristic slice of 1970s architecture would be a great backdrop for “The Jetsons” and their flying cars. Unfortunately, the flying cars never arrived for GM, and the company sank into the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history. So it stood to reason that the city of GM might eventually succumb to the same fate.

It’s ironic that the obsolescence that companies like GM built into their cars now permeates our thinking about place. Just as many drivers regularly trade in their old ride for a new, shinier one, generations of Rust Belt residents have traded in their gritty hometowns to retire in the warm places where they once vacationed. Expectations that the trend would continue prompted massive growth-related outlays in Sunbelt municipalities. But the 2008-09 downturn wrought havoc north and south: slashed retirement accounts and stalled home sales locked many older workers into jobs and housing they couldn’t afford to leave; Sun Belt communities faced huge bills with too few residents to pay them.
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Sharing Discussion, Discoveries at Citistates Convergence

Maria Saporta / Jul 26 2013

For Release Friday, July 26, 2013
Originally Posted at

Maria SaportaThe offer was too good to refuse. Come spend a couple of days by a beautiful lake in cool New Hampshire during the hottest days of summer to talk about the future of cities and regions in North America and the world, with some of the most engaged experts in the country.

The offer came from Neal Peirce, a respected veteran journalist who’s been writing about metro areas for decades.

Every couple of years, Peirce and a core group of “Citistates associates” have been getting together for a Citistates Convergence – a casual yet in-depth exchange of ideas and observations on what is happening in urbanism and regionalism.

A couple dozen of us gathered in mid-July in an idyllic setting – just as Peirce had promised, with the exception of temperature, as New England sweltered in a heat wave, significantly warmer than Atlanta.

Peirce had invited a variety of his associates with the newsletter – a resource of columns about political and economic issues affecting regions and urban trends.

Monday morning, Peirce opened the conversation by stating that metro areas are the economic engines for nations and states, yet there often are several barriers to regionalism. Immediately he was challenged by Alex Marshall, a journalist and author of The Surprising Design of Market Economies.

Neal Peirce, (right) with journalist and author Alex Marshall. Source: Maria Saporta of

Marshall told Peirce he does “not believe that cities and metro areas are where the action is.” Instead, he said, it is the nation states such as Korea and China that are “growing very, very quickly.” And they are doing it as nations. “You can argue that it’s national policies that are having the major impact, and that the nation-state is still extremely important,” Marshall said.
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Life in the Green Lane: Protected Lanes Transform the Biking Experience

Jay Walljasper / Jul 17 2013

For Release Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Jay WalljasperHow to describe your first time in a green lane? There’s nothing quite like it.

For me it happened on a business trip to Copenhagen. I saw bikes everywhere, beginning with the taxi ride from the airport where I spotted business executives toting briefcases on bikes. I saw wannabe fashion models wearing high heels on bikes, kids heading to school on bikes, parents pedaling toddlers to daycare on bikes, old folks chatting to one another on bikes.

How do they do it, I wondered? I was a seasoned bicyclist who rode every day for commuting and recreation, yet still felt tense wheeling down busy streets. These riders looked completely at ease, even in morning rush hour with cars, buses, trucks and motorcycles all around them. I even saw one guy smoking a cigarette on a bike and others absorbed in conversations on their mobile phones.

Then I noticed that the bike lane was separated from motor vehicles by a divider. So that’s how they do it! I couldn’t wait to try it myself.

The next day I ducked out of a meeting, rented a bike at nearby shop and set forth to explore Copenhagen on two wheels. After pedaling just a block, I thought “Wow!” and began giggling. This was an entirely new experience in biking – almost like the exhilaration of riding without training wheels for the first time.

Liberated from fears of being sideswiped by motorists, I could take in the historic architecture and enjoy the city’s teeming street life. There were even special traffic signals for bicyclists, giving us a slight head start through crowded intersections. No wonder half of Copenhagen’s downtown commuters travel by bike.
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