Most Influential Urban Thinkers? Hmm...Let Us Think

Oct. 17, 2017 URBAN PLANNING

Who would make your list?

Small replica of New York City

Who would make your list?

Last week Planetizen released its list of the 100 most influential urban thinkers, generated through reader nominations and then votes, and it included luminaries like Geoffrey Canada, the man behind Harlem Children's Zone, the conservationist Rachel Carson and Henri Lefebvre, the sociologist-philosopher on all the best urban planning syllabuses. Jane Jacobs, according to Planetizen, was by far the most popular vote-getter.

But the list had some acknowledged limitations.

"On the subject of evolution, this list includes 17 women, which is a large increase from the 2009 list's nine," the site wrote. "Overall, the list is far less male, and less white, than the previous version, but urbanism has been long dominated by one group. As we hope this list makes obvious, urbanists are becoming more aware of the essential contributions of women and people of color throughout history and in the present, but we have a long way to go to achieve equal standing for all people in the built and natural environments."

So in an effort to get more voices in the conversation, urban planner Pete Saunders wrote a post expanding on his 2015 effort to recognize black urbanist thinkers. Canada was also on that list, as well as photographer and writer Gordon Parks and community organizer Dorothy Mae Richardson.

In his most recent examination of the issue, Saunders, writes that even amid so called back-to-the-city movements, black communities and black urbanists are still often excluded. "New movements, from the New Urbanists and Smart Growth advocates who saw their start in the '90s to today's YIMBYs, touted the importance and livability of cities," writes Saunders. "Sadly, however, those movements often either glossed over, minimized or outright ignored the efforts of many who toiled in cities prior to their epiphany that cities are indeed good places. Black urbanists have never been fully admitted into this growing group."

It isn't just a matter of missed perspectives at the hands of institutional racism, but that, in the specific case or urbanism, the voices being excluded are often, as Saunders writes, "perhaps the nation's most urbanized demographic."

So he's posed the question again to his readers, who would you include? He'll post the list on his blog, The Corner Side Yard.

It's an issue many have raised over the years, including Lisa Bates, of Portland State University, who said back in 2015, "We’re in a discipline that I don’t believe loves black people and black communities."

And responding to Saunders' 2012 post asking where are the black urbanists are, Jamaal Green wrote, "...we need to recognize past structural barriers to entry to Black voices and contemporary structural issues that potentially limit the ability of Blacks to be heard. But that does not explain the total indifference to prominent Black commentators on urban life and urbanism in other fields, including planning."

On Planetizen's list, the only Houston mention came for Joel Kotkin and his Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. And while the premise - the most influential OF ALL TIME - is a tall order, we can think of some big-thinking, urbanist Houstonians who also deserve recognition. Like Metro board member Christof Spieler, or Chrishelle Palay, the Houston co-director for the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service. There's Rick Lowe, of Project Row Houses, Juan Parras of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services and Mary Anne Piacentini of the Katy Prairie Conservancy, all of which push Houstonians to think critically about how we engage with our city. And many more.

We wanted to open it up and ask our readers who they would add to a list of the top influential urbanist thinkers in Houston. Give us your suggestions of engaged people who make a positive difference in how we experience our city, even if it's beyond the traditional urban planning realm, and we'll compile the top 15 for our first annual list.

Leah Binkovitz
Mailing Address

6100 Main St. MS-208
Houston, TX 77005-1892


Physical Address

Rice University
Kraft Hall
6100 Main Street, Suite 305
Houston, TX 77005-1892

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