The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Black Urbanists, Part 1: Academia

Mary Pattillo, right, professor of sociology and African American Studies at Northwestern University, moderates a lecture with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates at Northwestern’s campus, February 2, 2017.  Source:

Welcome to my kickoff of a series highlighting black urbanists working to create a better urban environment.

First, some background.  Earlier this month Planetizen published its updated, crowdsourced list of the 100 most influential urbanists of all time.  For the most part, I agree with the list of influential urbanists.  Jane Jacobs rightfully occupies the top spot (although I probably identify slightly more with Lewis Mumford, at #6).

There were notable differences in their 2017 list compared to the first one developed in 2009, among them the addition of numerous women and people of color. Nine women were listed in 2009; seventeen were listed in 2017.  After having no blacks noted in 2009, six were noted in 2017.

This is something I’ve taken up as worthy of concern for some time.  My journey can be summarized by the paragraph below, quoted from a piece I wrote a couple weeks ago:

“I’ve written quite a bit about the lack of a recognizable “black urbanism” or the recognition of black urbanists.  I’ve gone from asking, “where are the black urbanists?” , to developing theories as to why the contributions of blacks looking to improve cities seems to have been historically undervalued.  I thought of the organization of the fields of urbanism and wondered if that had something to do with the lack of recognition.  I pondered the growth and evolution of black political power and surmised that it also had a role in the view of blacks in cities.  And then two years ago I put together a list of prominent people who I thought would qualify as black urbanists, in history and through to today.

I think it’s worth asking again, and answering again, why this is important.”

That blog post resulted in a Twitter request from me for people to offer names of African Americans doing great work on behalf of cities.  My initial goal was to develop a top ten list of black urbanists that would, like the Planetizen list, be generated by voters.

The response was overwhelming, particularly for someone who squeezes in just a handful of hours each week to write this blog.  In total received 79 overall nominations.  Out of those, I was able to complete some basic research on 64 (sorry, I wasn’t able to find info on Google for some).  Of the 64, I was able to group them in one of seven categories: academia (8), community activism (13), local government management (10), media (8), nonprofit (15), politics (7), and private practice (3).  Obviously, there’s category overlap; some academics gain greater prominence through the media because their research gets published, or community activists take their activism to the next level by starting a nonprofit.  I took my best shot at the categories.

Then, I got a tweet from a follower who suggested against holding a vote and instead highlight all nominees.

Point taken, and here we go.  I’m starting today with the nominated academics.

Julian Agyeman.  Agyeman is a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University in Medford, MA, outside Boston.  He is the originator of the concept of “just sustainabilities”, linking improved quality of life with environmental sustainability and justice.  Agyeman was a co-founder of the Black Environment Network in 1988, the first environmental justice-based organization of its kind in Great Britain.  He is the author of several books, with his most recent being Food Trucks, Cultural Identity, and Social Justice: From Loncheras to Lobsta Love, released last month.

Robert Bullard.  Bullard is currently the Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University in Houston.  Previously he was the Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at TSU, and the founding director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University.  Bullard is the author of eighteen books on sustainability, environmental racism and justice, and climate change impact on communities of color.  His work has earned him the title “father of environmental justice”.

Sheila Foster.  Foster is a professor of law and public policy at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.  Like Agyeman and Bullard, Foster has devoted her career to exploring the intersection of civil rights and environmental law, and has been a leader in investigating the relationship between climate change and inequality at the neighborhood level.  Among other published works, she is a co-author (with Luke W. Cole) of From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement.

Toni Griffin.  A practicing architect and planner who shifted into academia, Griffin is currently a professor in practice of urban planning at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA.  Her focus has been on the importance of design in matters of social justice and equity.  She was the project director for the Detroit Future City framework plan released in 2013 that has been the guiding element in Detroit’s comeback since.  She previously held planning leadership positions in Washington, DC and Newark, NJ, and was a partner at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill architectural firm in Chicago.

Michael Lens.  Lens, a professor of urban planning and public policy and associate faculty director of the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies at UCLA, investigates the impact of housing policy and housing choice on life outcomes, like economic mobility, education and safety.  Among other projects, he’s researched the role of public investments in the gentrification process, and the spatial concentration of evictions.

Mary Pattillo.  A pioneer in research of the black middle class, Pattillo is a professor of sociology and African American Studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, near Chicago.  Her work documents the simultaneous resiliency and fragility of the black middle class in American cities, and the role of the black middle class in the composition of American metro areas.  She is perhaps best known as the author of Black Picket Fences and Black on the Block, which explore issues of politics, race and class in cities.

June Manning Thomas.  Thomas is a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.  She has researched extensively in the areas of diversity in the planning profession, planning history, and social equity in neighborhood revitalization.  She is also the author, co-author or editor of several books, including Mapping Detroit, which uses maps to demonstrate Detroit’s transformation from frontier town to industrial metropolis to today’s high-vacancy (but recovering) city, and The City After Abandonment, a collection of essays that explores plausible futures for declining post-industrial cities in the Northeast and Midwest.

William Julius Wilson.  Wilson is a professor of sociology at Harvard University.  He vaulted into the public consciousness with the release of two books, The Truly Disadvantaged in 1987, and When Work Disappears in 1996.  Both books, and indeed all his work, explore issues of concentrated poverty in urban areas and the resulting intractable inequality, and considers public policy actions for positive change.  His work has even been cited as a significant influence in the HBO’s television series The Wire.

I don’t want to give anyone the impression that this is the definitive list of black urbanist academics; I know there are thousands more at institutions across the country who work in the same space.  If and when I get their names, I would like to include them and their work as well. 

More importantly, however, I think readers should take note at some of the emerging differences in thought and approach that black urbanist academics are taking when compared to other urbanists.  I’ve begun to note some of the differences, and you’ll see more of them as I move into the other categories in this series. 

Next up in the series — community activists.

5 Responses to “Black Urbanists, Part 1: Academia”

  1. Barb Chamberlain

    Nonprofits– Angela Glover Blackwell at PolicyLink should be on that list: One outstanding example of her thinking: Harrell, AARP Policy, academia:Marccus D. Hendricks: Roberts: not sure which of your categories she'd fit into): Kristen Jeffers, http://theblackurbanist.comIt would be great to see a list of people working in government at all levels, not just local. Mitchell Silver, NYC Parks Commissioner, found most of these people thanks to Twitter.


  2. Yake

    Norman W. Garrick, at the University of Connecticut. He's a leader on sustainable street redesign. He's particularly influential because he is a civil engineer by background and is in a civil eng department, meaning that the engineering establishment can't claim that he lacks the technical chops to advocate changing how streets are designed.



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