The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation just announced its 2017 class of MacArthur Fellows—popularly (though unofficially) known as “genius grants.” (The MacArthur Foundation pointedly avoids the g-word.) Work in any field except elected office is eligible. Writers, mathematicians, voting rights activists, poets, archaeologists, healthcare administrators, geophysicists, human rights attorneys, astronomers—that’s just a narrow slice of the wide variety of careers that have produced geniuses since 1981.
But there’s a theme running through this year’s class, each of whom receives a no-strings-attached purse of $625,000. It’s full of people working in fields directly or closely related to urbanism. In fact, they cleaned up: By our count, more than one-third of the genius grantees received honors for work that affects the changing shape of cities today. It’s a sign that the issues deemed worthy of genius-level attention, from climate change to human rights, are increasingly urban ones. (A city-fied MacArthur focus isn’t exactly a new thing, as seen by the dominance of New York on these two cool interactive maps showing where grantees were born and where they lived when the award was given. Keep trying, Wyoming!)
Kate Orff, for example, is the first landscape architect to be named a MacArthur Fellow. A founder of SCAPE and professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, she is working to recenter urban design around climate change. Only a handful of architects have ever received genius nods, among them Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio (who, with James Corner Field Operations, designed the High Line) and Jeanne Gang (the designer of Chicago’s famous Aqua Tower).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, immigration and migration surface as important concerns for the 2017 class. Jason De León, an anthropologist, earned recognition for his efforts to bring science to bear on the most inhospitable region of the U.S.–Mexico border, the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. Using forensic and archaeological tools, De León has reconstructed the lives of the anonymous migrants who leave little trace as they cross the treacherous border. Cristina Jiménez Moreta has worked through United We Dream, an organization she cofounded in 2008, to secure the rights of immigrants given authorization under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy—whose fate is now up in the air.
Damon Rich, the founder for the Center for Urban Pedagogy, is the only straightforward urban planner among the 2017 crop. He may be the only MacArthur-grade genius urban planner, period, preceded by one rural planner and several housing advocates and community activists. Other urbanism-adjacent professionals who got the genius nod include Rami Nashabi, a community leader who focuses on poverty in distressed neighborhoods, in particular Chicago’s Muslim communities; Trevor Paglen, a Berlin-based artist who uses geography to document the interactions between the government and the governed; and Dawoud Bey, a Chicago-based photographer who examines changing urban communities through portraiture. Nikole Hannah-Jones, a writer for The New York Times Magazine, has won acclaim for chronicling urban segregation, especially the vicious cycle of segregation and education.
The genius prize isn’t an urbanist award per se: Other 2017 MacArthur Fellows include an immunologist, a playwright, and a really good banjo player. But as more people come to live in larger and denser cities and face all-new problems as a result, the people coming up with solutions—or even fresh ways of phrasing old problems—look pretty smart indeed.
Over the next days, CityLab will catch up with several of these so-called geniuses for a series of brief conversations about their work.