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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.

Another innovation opportunity: efficient housing. Across North America, as populations of the elderly rise, the approach once called “mother-in-law apartments” or “granny flats” offers a promising opportunity to keep aging parents close to their families in cities and smart suburbs.

The compact apartments mark a 180-degree turn from zoning codes of the post-World War suburban era that favored single-family homes and often made it literally illegal to recreate the intimate, mixed-use neighborhoods of earlier times.

Often, proposals to add extra units on home lots have often been opposed by neighbors who complain they’ll bring renters or undesirable people into communities. But increasingly, change is in the air. Seattle first piloted an “accessory dwelling unit” (ADU) policy in 1994 and now allows one- and two-family homes to build a separate, self-contained residential struspear, providing it’s no larger than 800 square feet and covers no more than 40 percent of the rear yard.

Vancouver has pushed even more aggressively, relaxing its building code to allow detached accessory dwelling units of up to 500 square feet, and has legalized basement conversions.

The Center for an Urban Future suggests that Brooklyn, Queens and the other New York City boroughs outside of crowded Manhattan have vast inventories of single-home lots and would be excellent terrain for ADUs. The units could help accommodate the city’s projected 600,000 additional residents by 2030. For New York’s expanded numbers of the elderly, the compact new housing units could provide a welcome substitute for nursing homes – letting elders transition to a “backyard cottage” beside their own or family member’s home where they can safely age in place.

The lesson is clear: Opportunities abound to think ahead and plan for more livable, humane and successful cities.

New York City, to its credit, has been at the forefront of advanced thinking under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s leadership. He created, within his own office, a Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO), which has hatched more than 50 anti-poverty programs and initiatives. One major goal has been to give the working poor a variety of programs and supports to help them move up the economic ladder. Another is to create opportunities for youth who are out of school and unemployed.

A prime example of CEO programming: a set of initiatives to help thousands of low-income New Yorkers avoid debt and unscrupulous payday lenders by accessing simple and safe banking products, to lower their debts and even start to build savings.

Other CEO-launched programs have helped low-income people advance in their jobs, find jobs after imprisonment and graduate from community college while working or raising a family. The effectiveness of each program has been tested by random trials before the programs are transferred out of the mayor’s office to regular line departments.

The bottom line: New York City still has serious poverty levels – an issue in the current mayoral campaign. But critics among those running to succeed Bloomberg will find it a challenge to devise more ingenious sets of preventive and curative measures. And my bet is that the city’s systemized effort to discover, launch and then test new initiatives will start spreading across the United States – and potentially worldwide.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

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  1. Linda Guthrie
    Posted August 23, 2013 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    The elder population in Newburyport, MA grew 36.2% in the last decade and now represents 24% of the population. Seniors numbers are expected to continue climbing until 2050. In this small, historic seaport city, jam-packed with Classical and Federal architecture, the only remaining development opportunities are relegated to infill. City planners are busy organizing funds to lead a zoning overhaul to better manage the impact of infill, including allowing rental of accessory dwelling units (carriage houses, barns and the like) specifically to help senior property owners stay in their homes by earning rental income and to address the severe rental housing shortage. The city has lost 17% of it’s rental housing in the last decade as large historic buildings and homes are converted from multiple units to single family homes by developers. A new ordinance is testing the waters with various give-back-in-kind scenarios when valuable rental space reverts to a single residence. The scenarios include a donation to the Affordable Housing Trust, a contribution toward maintaining the city’s green space, and/or a contribution to historic preservation. It’s not working yet. Developer’s contributions poorly correlate to the value of lost affordable rental space vs what the developer gains. Modest and low income earners are priced out of the rental market now, and that includes many seniors. A new YWCA study stunned the community with the numbers of homeless in Newburyport. The city is working to find public/private housing collaborations, including selling portions of the open waterfront, a green space enjoyed by all, and working with a commercial developer on a 40B low income housing project on unused Mass Bay Transit Authority land near the commuter rail to Boston in their quest to create more rental housing. Yet, economic development opportunities are not being addressed by the mayor’s office. Local Economic Development Councils have received less and less government funding and are poorly equipped to assist communities economic challenges. And our mayor is too busy selling residents on developing the downtown waterfront, saying her idea is an open waterfront plan. I don’t see City Hall’s present administration as being particularly innovative over these issues, except for the Energy Office, that works overtime to give legs to the next five years of the city’s ‘Net Zero Energy by 2030′ goal. On that score the regional planning commission is helping to bring surrounding communities into collaboration with Newburport for better access to and smarter leverage of funds for clean energy solutions. We need some innovative thinking to solve Newburyport’s challenges as they relate to seniors, modest and low income earners, the homeless and economic development. Your article provided me with insight to the kind of thinking at work where these and more pressing issues are at play on a larger, more complex stage. Thank you.

  2. David Cohen
    Posted August 24, 2013 at 1:55 am | Permalink

    What I love about Neal Peirce’s column is the unexpected: innovation in Camden, NJ– a seeming basket case. Innovation in Chicago with an embattled Mayor fighting
    the Teachers union and closing many schools. These examples not only show the promise of innovation but that imaginative change will come from unexpected places. That gives me much to hope for and learn from.

    David Cohen
    Washington, DC
    August 24, 2013

  3. Darrell Marcy
    Posted August 26, 2013 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    Neal’s little insert about Chicago schools is interesting. It puts into practice an idea I’ve been wondering about lately. First of all I think learning has as much as or more to do with the student, not the teacher. What the classrooms need is adults to supervise and motivate the students, not fewer and fewer higher and higher priced teachers, and certainly not a larger and larger testing regime that eats up more and more money and does nothing for anyone’s learning and is only there to pad the profits of corporations that create the tests.