Urban PlanetUrban Planet

Remembering Neal Peirce, the Pioneer of Urban Journalism

A memorial Feb. 29 remembered the father of urban journalism.

Seattle, Washington skyline

Neal Peirce, who Urban Planet correspondent Gregory Scruggs memorialized in a tribute at World Urban Forum this year, was early to argue that cities mattered. (Photo by júbilo haku / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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In 1989, an out-of-town journalist descended upon Seattle and spent a week untangling the civic issue of the day: runaway suburban sprawl destroying the pristine mountains-meet-the-sea natural environment that gives the Emerald City one of the most stunning natural environments of any major city.

In the resulting weeklong series in the Seattle Times, “A Way to Wed Conservation to Development,” he diagnosed the problem, which plenty of others had already done, but also devoted attention to solutions. How could the region overcome fragmented local governance between big dog Seattle and a constellation of suspicious suburbs? What would it take to finally get a rail-based mass transit system off the ground and tame car-based commuting culture? How could the state curb the development of new subdivisions at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains and stop encroaching along the shores of Puget Sound?

That journalist was Neal Peirce, who arguably invented the field of urban journalism, where the city was the story, not just the setting.

Neal passed away on Dec. 27 at age 87 and was celebrated at World Urban Forum and on Feb. 29 at a memorial in Washington, D.C., where he made his home for six decades. He began his career covering national politics at Congressional Quarterly and later National Journal, which he co-founded in 1969. But he came to realize that the true story of American politics was not on Capitol Hill. It was in the statehouses and city halls where the messy work of public policy had a more immediate impact on people’s lives.

From 1975 to 2013, Neal wrote a column about these local issues — from grassroots housing activists to inspiring small-city mayors — that was syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group. He wrapped up his column in order to take his vision global: In 2013, he founded Citiscope, a non-profit media outlet covering urban innovation around the world, where I worked as a senior correspondent. Next City collaborated with Citiscope in 2016 on coverage of the United Nations’ Habitat III summit on the future of cities to produce award-winning stories. In 2017, the Thomson Reuters Foundation acquired Citiscope.

Neal’s flagship writing about cities were the deep dives like his week in Seattle, packaged under the name “Peirce Reports” from 1986 to 2011. Working with local journalists and researchers, he produced 26 reports for U.S. metro areas large and small — from Phoenix, Arizona to Owensboro, Kentucky.

30 years after Neal’s Puget Sound investigation, I took a seat in the Seattle Public Library’s Central Branch, a Rem Koolhaas-designed masterpiece that he would have extolled as a paragon of civic infrastructure. A librarian brought me the Peirce Report from October 1989, unavailable digitally but still carefully preserved in the library’s special municipal collection — more proof of the library’s vital role as a repository of local history. As I read through the series, I marveled at how perspicacious Neal had been about my adopted hometown. He distilled the central issues that remain civic talking points three decades later. Some of his writing could be reprinted today and readers would be none the wiser.

It was then that I understood why Henry G. Cisneros, the former HUD secretary, called Neal “the best writer on urban affairs in the country.”

Neal put six Peirce Reports together under one roof in his 1993 book Citistates: How Urban America Can Prosper in a Competitive World. The early ’90s were still long before the urban revival with whose consequences we are living today. Back then, Neal was writing for a white, suburban audience — the children of the white-flight generation — and attempting to make a strong case why the health and vibrancy of the central city mattered. How, for example, travelers from the Baltimore area don’t say they are from Owings Mills, they say they are from Baltimore. He argued that residents of a metro area want to have pride in their civic identity, but they must first be willing to invest in it.

At a time when made cities remained down on their heels, Neal’s argument seemed to be a certain noblesse oblige. Suburbanites cut off their nose to spite their face if they withdraw economically, politically, and socially from the central city. Neal had a faith in elite institutions that might seem démodé today. A 2012 piece, “Eight reasons why metro regions are taking center stage,” unabashedly describes how the column’s ideas were hatched at Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s Pocantico estate along the Hudson River. Neal’s 2008 book, Century of the City: No Time to Lose, is essentially a chronicle of a high-powered summit convened by the Rockefeller Foundation at their Bellagio retreat center on Lake Como in Italy.

Neal himself was a direct descendent of the Mayflower voyagers, raised in a wealthy family in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton — but he felt that with their wealth and success, business leaders should voluntarily engage with the social service organizations and charities working on behalf of a given region’s lesser half.

Above all, he believed in the interconnectedness of metro areas and attempted to coin a sexier term to describe them: “citistates.” He hearkened back to the era of European city-state dominance, from the Venices and Florences to the Hanseatic League, in a belief that cities were going to be the economic, cultural, and political driving force of the 21st century. To that end, Neal was the intellectual forefather of books like Benjamin Barber’s If Mayors Ruled the World and Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class, as well as to city-focused media outlets like Next City and CityLab.

While Neal was right about that trend in many respects — witness the collective rise of international city networks like C40 on climate change and 100 Resilient Cities — he was as blind as the rest of us to the populist backlash from Trump to Brexit to Bolsonaro that has crippled the cosmopolitan project of urban life. In short, national politics can still hold the rise of the city in check.

Having had the pleasure to work with Neal for just three short years, I was amazed at his depth of knowledge and work ethic well into his 80s, but above all at the breadth of his network. Neal proved to me that journalism is a connecting force. What might feel like a throwaway interview today could be the kernel of a relationship that will come back to reward you in ways one can never imagine.

Our special correspondent Gregory Scruggs will be in Abu Dhabi to cover World Urban Forum 10, taking place February 8 through 13, 2020. To stay on top of the essential conversations and innovative solutions presented at WUF 10, sign up for Urban Planet, our global sustainability newsletter.

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Gregory Scruggs is a Seattle-based independent journalist who writes about solutions for cities. He has covered major international forums on urbanization, climate change, and sustainable development where he has interviewed dozens of mayors and high-ranking officials in order to tell powerful stories about humanity’s urban future. He has reported at street level from more than two dozen countries on solutions to hot-button issues facing cities, from housing to transportation to civic engagement to social equity. In 2017, he won a United Nations Correspondents Association award for his coverage of global urbanization and the UN’s Habitat III summit on the future of cities. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.

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