|Detroit planning director Maurice Cox presenting at the Ideas City Detroit conference in April 2016. Source: architectmagazine.com|
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Today I’m recognizing black urbanists nominated for their work in local government. This group is a collection of people who are urbanists in the classic and most conventional sense, and are unlikely to have their urbanism bonafides viewed skeptically by the broader urbanism community, like perhaps many of the community activists that were recognized in my previous post. They are notable for having turned their individual passions for cities into their profession. Their specializations differ, from design to neighborhood revitalization, transportation to economic development, and parks and recreation to storytelling. Each has found local government to be the place to make an imprint, and given my own professional history, it’s the group I’m most aligned with.
Here they are:
Keith Benjamin. Benjamin, just 30, became the director of Charleston, SC’s Department of Transportation this past spring. Prior to this role Benjamin worked for the U.S. Department of Transportation in the Obama Administration under Secretary Anthony Foxx, and for the National Partnership for Safe Routes to School. A recent interview with Streetsblog highlights Benjamin’s views on transportation equity and the centrality of the role of transportation in community building.
Kelley Britt. Britt is a senior planner for the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA), the federally designated metropolitan planning organization for the greater Cleveland metropolitan area. She’s also been a board member with the City of Cleveland’s Zoning Board of Appeals since summer 2016. Her specialty has been working on transit planning and transit-oriented development activities throughout the Cleveland area.
Maurice Cox. A practicing architect, former associate dean of an architecture school, and former mayor (of Charlottesville, VA), Cox brings a strong and varied background to his role as the planning director for the City of Detroit. Since landing in the position in 2015, he’s been among those leading the revitalization efforts of the Motor City, with surprising results. Cox took what was once a moribund and overlooked agency in city government and infused it with new talent and direction, with an emphasis on maintaining a planning team that was representative of the city itself. Chief among Cox’s goals today is to facilitate neighborhood revitalization in Detroit, building on its recent downtown and Midtown boom.
Kimberly Driggins. As the director of strategic planning in Detroit’s Department of Planning and Development under Maurice Cox, Driggins is representative of the quality of talent brought into Detroit. Prior to starting in Detroit in 2016, Driggins held various positions with the District of Columbia before pursuing a Loeb Fellowship with the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Her work so far in Detroit in part has been to develop and implement Detroit’s long-range vision and the land use policies that support the vision, and to integrate arts and culture activities into the framework of the city’s ongoing rebirth.
Aaron Foley. Normally a background as a reporter, writer and editor working independently and for a variety of outlets would put someone with Foley’s background in the media category of black urbanists. However, Foley’s move to chief storyteller for the City of Detroit in March 2017 dramatically changes the perspective. Foley was appointed by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan to be the city’s first — and perhaps nation’s only — chief storyteller, documenting the history of Detroit’s neighborhoods and stories of its residents. His position highlights the importance of narrative in Detroit’s rebirth; after decades of a continuous narrative of decline, the city is taking an active role in redefining the city to the nation and the world. Foley is leading the way.
Majestic Lane. Lane is a social and civic entrepreneur who is currently the deputy chief of neighborhood empowerment in the office of Mayor Bill Peduto for the City of Pittsburgh. His work focuses on inclusive development in Pittsburgh — ensuring that Pittsburgh prioritizes improving people as much as improving place. Through prior positions, such as external relations director with the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group and director of community engagement with A+ Schools, Lane has developed an extensive community network in Pittsburgh and serves as a conduit between grassroots leadership and city government.
Justin Garrett Moore. As an adjunct professor at Columbia’s Graduate Design Studio since 2007, I could’ve included Moore in the academia category; through his work as a founder of Urban Patch, dedicated to using community gardens and green infrastructure as a key component to urban revitalization, I could’ve included Moore in the activist or nonprofit categories. However, as the executive director of New York City’s Public Design Commission and former senior urban designer with the City of New York, I’ve chosen to include Moore with other planning professionals. In this role Moore runs the agency charged with conducting design review for parks and public buildings in New York’s public realm, and bringing a level of excellence in design to projects that improve the quality of life of New York’s residents.
Mitchell Silver. Silver has been the commissioner of New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation since 2014. Silver oversees the management and operations of more than 30,000 acres of open space in New York, including parks, beaches, marinas, recreation centers, wilderness areas, and other assets. He returned to his hometown after serving as a town manager in New Jersey, deputy planning director in Washington, DC, and planning director for the City of Raleigh, NC. He served as national president of the American Planning Association from 2011-2013, and managed to be one of the handful of persons of color to make Planetizen’s 100 Most Influential Urbanists list at #64..
John Watson. The economic development director for the Village of South Holland, IL, a southern suburb of Chicago, since 2009, Watson successfully turned a 20-year career in sales into dynamic economic growth for a hub of Chicago’s Southland. He’s been a force behind efforts to build a town and municipal center in South Holland, and has been working diligently to expand the economic development base of the community. (Full disclosure: although I did not nominate him, he is a close colleague with whom I’ve collaborated for nearly two years.)
Transportation, design, community and neighborhood revitalization, parks and economic development — blacks are certainly playing prominent roles in positions at the core of what most identify as urbanism.
Next up — those addressing urbanism via media.