Most Influential Urban Thinkers? Hmm…Let Us Think

Photo: Flickr user Chris Devers.

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 urbanists 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.

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Leah Binkovitz

Leah Binkovitz is Senior Editor with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

5 Comments

  1. Great article. I agree that the field lacks minority representation, especially within the Hispanic/Latino community. A Google search of Black Urban Planners and urbanist will produce a few names, including some listed on this publication. However, if we search for Latino/Hispanic Urban Planners the list is nonexistence. This is an issue that I have encountered during my ongoing studies. Where do I find Latino Urban Planner and Urbanist? Locally, Juan Parra is the only Latino that comes to my mind.

  2. Mary Lou Henry, of Vernon Henry and Associates has been involved in urban planning for 45 years in Houston. She has been instrumental in Chapter 4, parking, ad other ordinances. She has worked urban planning for half the city since the early 60’s after she graduated from Rice in the architecture program. No list of urban planning in Houston would forget to include her. She is a legend in the planning community (and for disclosure, she’s my aunt :-))

  3. Theola Petteway—Emancipation Park and public realm improvements in Third Ward. Not just big thinking, but visionary.
    Phoebe Tudor—historic preservationist/philanthropist who shepherded the campaigns to save the Ideson building downtown, to create the Centennial Gardens in Hermann Park, and has worked doggedly to keep Harris Co. and Houston from making a terrible error and allowing the Astrodome to become another casualty of a lack of civic foresight—the national panel and subsequent plans she’s championed for the Dome and surrounding parks would be game-changing.
    Guy Hagstette—how could you not.
    Anne Olson—25 years ago Bayous were nothing more than drainage ditches, a far cry from valued public greenways. Anne deserves credit for all of us thinking differently about them now.
    Jonathan Brinsden—CityCentre was thinking way out of the (big) box store 10 years ago. It was a big gamble at that time, and has been a leap forward for suburban Houston. A historically sensitive transformation of the former Gulf Oil Building (712 Main) + Great Jones Building (708 Main) as The Jones on Main on an entire city block. These updates caught WeWork’s eye and the Finn Hall food hall will bring more street-level vitality to Main Street. The revival of Levy Park as a great urban green space framed by more urban-scale mixed use is only starting to be recognized, but it was an idea Brinsden believed in and worked diligently with public-sector partners to achieve. After its thorough redo, the next generation of GreenStreet will help cement Brinsden’s role as one of Houston’s leading urbanists. And, as the long-horizon plans for the former KBR property unfold as East River, his contributions to Houston as an urban thinker, not just a developer, will be undeniable.
    George LeVan—Midtown is what it is today largely because of his vision and persistence.
    Charlotte Allen—if it weren’t for her investment and branding savvy (she not only put up the money, but also chose the name “Houston” for a new community her husband was promoting on a patch of high ground next to the Buffalo River) we probably wouldn’t have had a Houston to urbanize.
    Kathy Payton—her work to transform yet honor the Lyons Ave. Corridor in the Fifth Ward deserves much more attention and support. Especially now, after the DeLuxe Theater and Fifth Ward Jam recover from flood damage.

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