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Q and A with Neal Peirce

by Mark Peres

June 7,2008

Neal Peirce is a foremost writer, among American journalists, on metropolitan regions – their political and economic dynamics, their emerging national and global roles. With Curtis Johnson, he has co-authored the Peirce Reports (now called Citistates Reports) on compelling issues of metropolitan futures for leading media in more than 20 regions across the nation. In 1975, Peirce began – and continues today – the United States’ first national column focused on state and local government themes. Peirce was one of the founders of National Journal, and was active in the ’60s as political editor of Congressional Quarterly. He was a member of the National Civic League’s executive committee from the early 1970s to 1995 and was one of the founders and co-chair of the National Academy of Public Administration’s Alliance for Redesigning Government. He has appeared on Meet the Press, the Today Show, National Public Radio and local media across the country. He is a principal author of a major report on global urban challenges, “Century of the City,” based on the Rockefeller Foundation’s 2007 Global Urban Summit in Bellagio, Italy; the book is scheduled for publication in autumn summer 2008.

What is the Citistates Group?

The Citistates Group is composed of journalists, speakers and civic leaders who look at how modern metropolitan regions function, and examine and recommend how to make good decisions across municipal lines. We have been invited by about 25 regions to take an in-depth look at their communities, chiefly through the eyes of their own citizens. We talk to government officials, labor, citizen groups, and business people – and individuals from all income strata and neighborhoods to avoid the view of any one class. Our constant goal: to identify the salient challenges and opportunities of the region. We then work with the leading media in the region to publish a series of articles that illuminate those challenges and opportunities. We are completing our look at Charlotte – we have conducted close to 200 interviews over the last few months – and our report will be published this fall in The Charlotte Observer and in other newspapers in ring cities throughout the greater Charlotte region.

Who is sponsoring your work in Charlotte? What role do they play in your report?

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is the chief underwriter, which we appreciate greatly. But the articles we prepare are an independent journalistic product. Our report will be edited by Mary Newsom, a leading editorial writer of The Charlotte Observer, who also edited our 1995 report.

This is the second time you have reported on Charlotte. Your first report – known as the Peirce Report – was published in 1995. The current 2008 Citistates Report is your first reprise. Why return?

We – including notably my colleague of 20 years’ standing, Curtis Johnson, and Alex Marshall, a journalist collaborator in the 1995 report – were invited back. The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute thought it was a good idea to see how Charlotte has progressed since 1995, and to get fresh views on practice and policy as the region grows. The Urban Institute approached the Knight Foundation for funding. (Monies for the 1995 Report were raised by the Foundation for the Carolinas.). The Urban Institute, also a partner in the 1995 effort, has served as the local coordinator for the current report. It has helped us immensely with identifying sources, scheduling appointments, debating potential story lines and assuring we hear a full panoply of local views.

We were excited to return. In 1995, Charlotte was an exuberant New South city but without the financial and corporate dominance or confidence it has today. The tagline “Charlotte USA” had not yet been invented. It was just “Charlotte, North Carolina.” Uptown was close to a ghost-town at night. Today, the entire region has expanded. Charlotte has a more diversified and stronger economy. There has been an amazing transformation in Uptown. Indeed, with all the cranes, it looks like Shanghai!

The 1995 Report had several major findings. One was that a local leadership revolution was necessary. What’s your take on local leadership today

Charlotte is in the best possible of worlds and in the most difficult of places. The city is now home to global corporations with immense clout. Yet the CEOs often have their eyes on the nation and the world, and while they provide solid support for local endeavors, they don’t play as strong a role as local leaders as their predecessors.

Beyond the corporate level, we’ve heard discussion of more and varied local leaders in various fields. Day to day leadership in the city is much more diverse. However, it did take us a while to find environmental organizations and many groups taking a rebellious position on social issues. Charlotte is a region of occasional political vehemence, but few high-level organized political activists.

Another major finding in 1995 was the need for better schools, workforce training, higher education and intellectual capital. What are you seeing now?

Our focus this time was on growth and less on schools and education. However, one observation is that in the 1990’s, Charlotte had one of the most integrated school systems with the most segregated neighborhoods. Ten years later, Charlotte has one of the most segregated school systems with, ironically, more diverse neighborhoods.

What are the key findings of the 2008 Citistates Report?

We have yet to write the report. However, the focus of the report, as mentioned, is growth. We have witnessed frank discussion on development scenarios, and heard hard truths spoken at local conferences about global warming, sprawl and environmental sustainability, but we are skeptical whether the broad community has internalized these arguments. There is a disconnect in Charlotte between what thought leaders are saying and what the general community is believing. Notwithstanding several notable “New Urbanist” type developments, local governments and developers have generally been slow to put special value on more compact development. Which is hardly a surprise—despite its new national prominence, the Charlotte region is brash, a newcomer to the ranks of major citistates. It is fast moving, fast growing, and over the last 10 years has jumped ahead of a lot of other places. Growth is the major driver and challenge of the region. Only recently, with the public support of the South Corridor light rail line, has there been indication of a new, more closely-built and land-conserving vision.

Why is the consideration of cities your life’s work?

Cities and their surrounding regions are where the people are. The word ‘city’ comes from the word ‘civitas,’ which means civilization. The city is where the talents of civilization and our problems come together. Cities are where the human story is written. What better story than that can there be?

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