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Remembering Neal Peirce

William Fulton on
Jan 7, 2020

If you’re interested in cities, then you probably spend a lot of time online reading content that discusses urban issues and the role of cities in fostering both prosperity and quality of life on sites such as CityLabNextCity, Emily Badger’s contributions to The Upshot on The New York Times’ website, and countless other outlets, including CP&DR. But you may not have heard of Neal Peirce, the guy who started this conversation. Peirce, a longtime writer about cities and urban affairs, died in Washington on Dec. 27, at the age of 87.

Neal wrote the first — and so far, only — nationally syndicated newspaper column about cities and states. He wrote numerous books about them and took the lead in producing 25 reports in the 1980s and ‘90s on America’s metropolitan regions and how they could work better. He traveled around the country for decades, talking to mayors, governors and economic development experts about the latest trends in a very pragmatic what-works kind of way. His efforts set the stage not only for CityLab and NextCity but for nonprofit web-based journalism in general. He was also a mentor to me. With CP&DR, I wanted to do for California what he was doing for the country.  

The conversation started with Neal Peirce

More or less single-handedly, he started the discussion about urbanism in the United States. This conversation would not be going on — at least not in the as robust a way — if Neal hadn’t started it.

How he did it is a remarkable story.

In the ‘60s, Neal had been a straight-up political reporter — he wrote a book in 1968 calling for the end of the Electoral College — but after the urban riots of the late ‘60s he did an amazing about-face that no normal inside-the-Beltway journalist would even dream of: He turned his attention to cities and states. He began traveling the country and writing about what was going on at the local and state level in a way that no one else was doing — primarily through his syndicated column with the Washington Post Writers Group.

Meeting my mentor

As a young man, I was trained to be an inside-the-Beltway journalist — somebody like Michael Isikoff digging up scandals about people like Monica Lewinsky. But I wanted to do an about-face too. I was always a policy wonk and an urbanist, so I never really wanted to be anybody except Neal Peirce. 

I first encountered Neal in the winter of 1980, as he stepped out of the elevator at 1730 M Street Northwest in Washington D.C., and into the newsroom of National Journal, a D.C. insider’s magazine that he had helped found and where I was working as an intern. He had flaming red hair and he was wearing his trademark oversized glasses and a typical optimistic smile. He was also wearing a bicycle helmet and pushing his bike out of the elevator.

Urban bicycling is so common these days that it’s hard to describe how quirky this seemed at the time. Nobody rode bikes in those days, least of all across a large, crowded city to get to work. Yet this guy standing in front of me in a bicycle helmet was probably the most important person of the last half-century in moving forward a conversation in the United States about urbanism and how cities can help make people’s lives better.

When I first met him, Neal and his associate Jerry Hagstrom were writing their landmark book, The Book of America: Inside Fifty States Today, an update of John Gunther’s classic Inside USA — essentially a Cook’s Tour of states and communities across the country. I was so in awe of what Neal was doing that I barely dared to speak to him.

Peirce never stopped exploring

A few years later, after I had moved to California and studied urban planning at UCLA, I set up shop as a freelance writer covering cities, local government and urban development. In other words, I tried to compete with Neal. It wasn’t hard in those days to get one-off op-eds published in major newspapers on urban topics, but it proved impossible to make a deal with a news syndicate that would distribute a regular column. I was told that there was only one Neal Peirce (which was right) and that there “wasn’t another generation” in writing about cities (which, in the age of the internet, couldn’t have turned out to be more wrong). So, I settled into a career of writing about cities for specialized publications such as Governing (which just recently shut down).

But by this time Neal was on to his next big thing — the so-called Peirce Reports. Teaming up with longtime collaborator Curtis Johnson and others, Neal roamed the country, writing about metropolitan regions and the steps they might take to become stronger, more prosperous and more equitable. The Peirce Reports are often credited with stimulating regional action on economic development, transit and other policy issues in cities ranging from Dallas to Charlotte to Seattle. (I worked with him on one of the last reports, for Charleston, S.C., in 2007.)

Over time, Neal wrote about 25 such reports. In the process, he foreshadowed today’s model of nonprofit journalism. He would make connections with local political leaders he knew, who would help persuade a local foundation to pay for Peirce’s team to do a big report, which would then be published in the local newspaper.

There’s a need for metro-area leaders to work together

Neal became so convinced that metropolitan regions were the most powerful players in the future of cities and states that in the 1990s he wrote a book about the topic called Citistates, in which he argued that America would be competitive in the 21st Century only if all the leaders in the country’s metropolitan regions worked together for shared prosperity. As a result of all this activity, in the mid-‘90s, Neal and Curt created the Citistates Group, which served as a business hub, speakers’ bureau and watering hole for the crowd of people Neal had gathered around him over the years. Many of them were regional economic development experts he had run across in his travels. These were the folks who understood that whether you lived in a city or a suburb or a rural area, it was the regional economy that made things go.

I became a part of this group and — especially as an elected official in a mid-sized city in California — benefited greatly from the expertise on urban and regional issues that gathered around Neal. We met each year for a kind of free-flowing seminar on cities — sometimes near Neal’s summer home in New Hampshire and sometimes in various cities around the country, ranging from Seattle to Pittsburgh and even Ventura, where I was on the city council. You could always count on the Citistates gathering for a stimulating discussion on where cities were going — and somebody in the group was usually ahead of all the trends. (I first heard the word “wiki” at a Citistates gathering in the early 2000s.)

Creating an online site for city news

Remarkably, as Neal got older, he did not slow down but instead got more interested in cities around the world, outside of the United States. He continued to write his column until the age of 81. At 76, he published a forward-looking book sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation laying out the challenges cities face in the 21st Century. At 82, he founded Citiscope, a nonprofit web-based news site reporting on cities around the world. (Citiscope was later absorbed by the Thompson Reuters Foundation.) As recently as three or four years ago, I would still run into Neal randomly at airports around the country as he was researching some interesting new urban topic.

Almost every day, when I read something online about the role of cities, local governments, urban development and a sense of place, I think of Neal. He was the godfather of that whole conversation. But what must have been heartbreaking to him was the fact that the regional conversation — the one he cared about the most — has withered away, largely a victim of our partisan times.

First to cover the ‘laboratories of democracy’

Neal’s heyday in the 1980s was an unusual time for cities and states. Under the Reagan Administration, the federal government was shedding many traditional roles. A remarkable group of moderate governors on both sides of the aisle picked up the baton: Tom Kean in New Jersey, Bruce Babbitt in Arizona, Dick Thornburgh in Pennsylvania, even Bill Clinton in Arkansas. They saw the states as “laboratories of democracy,” in the words of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, and experimented with new policies.

Often, they worked together with moderate mayors — Henry Cisneros in San Antonio, Charles Royer in Seattle, Bill Hudnut (Neal’s college classmate) in Indianapolis — to promote the idea that cities and states could work together to nurture prosperity at the regional level. As Keith Schneider — another longtime collaborator of Neal’s — wrote in his New York Times obituary of Neal: “He paid particular attention to the alliances among elected leaders, nonprofit groups, neighborhood organizations and business executives. Such groups, he reported, formed a hive of ideas that generated unorthodox strategies to enhance local quality of life.”

Nobody but Neal was writing about this stuff back in the '80s.

The dangers of the red and blue divide

Since then, however, the red/blue divide in America has hardened along geographical lines, with cities and inner suburbs on one side of the divide and outer suburbs and rural areas on the other. Regional economic development entities still work for the benefit of an entire metropolitan region, but politicians usually don’t.

I thought of Neal and his regionalism agenda a year ago at the Texas Public Policy Foundation conference in Austin, when Dennis Bonnen, the newly elected Texas House Speaker, laid out his vision for governing the state. He didn’t specifically say he was going to make life difficult for local governments — that came later — but he did go out of his way to say he was from a small town (Angleton) and big-city political pressure from Houston wasn’t going to influence him.

As a former mayor of Ventura, I very much understand the appeal of living in a small city on the edge of a large metropolis — and politically distancing yourself from the big city nearby. What Bonnen was doing, of course, was speaking code to his audience about the geographical red/blue divide.

But as Neal would be the first to point out, Angleton is very much part of the Houston metropolitan region. It’s the county seat of Brazoria County, which is served by both Houston’s regional planning agency and its regional chamber of commerce. Angleton would not have the economic prosperity it has today were it not for its proximity to Houston, and Houston would not be such a formidable economic engine without communities like Angleton and many others that surround it.

Locked in the mindset of a red-blue state-local war, politicians like Bonnen usually miss the strength of the cross-sector regional alliances that Neal always saw — and therefore miss the power of the entire metropolitan region in strengthening both prosperity and quality of life for the people who live throughout the region. Yet it seems to me that these alliances are more important than ever. They can help bring people together who live in the same metropolitan area but might otherwise see nothing in common. They can also help foster economic growth and an improved quality of life that helps everyone.

An unstoppable and infectious optimism

Despite these partisan setbacks late in life, Neal never lost his optimism. This optimism spills over into today’s conversations about cities because — despite concerns about gentrification and equity — most people engaged in the urban realm today have a similar optimistic approach. You can see it in Richard Florida’s infectious good nature about cities. Even the perpetually grumpy Joel Kotkin has never given up hope that cities can be vehicles for upward mobility.

Most of this optimism comes, in one way or another, from Neal’s sunny approach to his work and his faith in cities and regions about their role in helping people improve their quality of life. It’s an optimism we should all carry forward in his memory as we work every day to make cities — and regions — better places to live and work.

Reprinted with permission from Urban Edge, the blog of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.