15 people who changed how we plan, design, think about, and live in cities.
Rather than ranking “top urbanists,” this edition of CityLab University seeks to fill out perspectives on important shapers of the modern city. Whether you’re an urban-studies nerd or a newcomer to the subject, this is your primer on the names that are mentioned time and again in writing on cities, and the names that aren’t, but should be.
Some of them (for example, the pioneering architect Le Corbusier and the writer/activist Jane Jacobs) have become shorthand for concepts bigger than themselves—often to the detriment of their intellectual complexity and more granular contributions. Other figures, such as public-housing advocate Catherine Bauer Wurster, have simply never received the recognition they deserve, in some cases due to their race or gender.
For the benefit of historical perspective, we restricted the list to people who are no longer alive. The brief biographies (presented in chronological order by birth year) begin to tell a larger story: from the earliest attempts to bring order to the overcrowded, unsanitary cities of the Industrial Revolution, to the rise and fall of Modernist planning, to the ongoing rediscovery of human-centered urban design and grassroots organizing for change. They also express the breadth of urbanism, which is at once a field of academic study, an arena for artistic expression and social change, and a species-wide development project.
This primer is by no means definitive: We hope to expand it in future editions. If you have suggestions for more figures to profile, or other topics for CityLab University, please share them in the form at the bottom of the article.
Georges-Eugène, Baron Haussmann, 1809-1891
It’s hard to overstate the urban legacy of Baron Haussmann, prefect of the Seine during the reign of France’s Emperor Napoleon III. Between 1853 and 1870, Haussmann used his authoritarian mandate to transform the medieval Paris into the paragon of a modern city.
He ran broad new boulevards through maze-like old neighborhoods to slow the spread of disease and improve transportation (and, some historians have said, make it easier for troops to put down the armed rebellions that erupted in the French capital). The buildings that replaced the medieval quarters—with five or six stories and mansard roofs—have since become symbols of Paris and his remaking of it. Haussmann placed grand, secular monuments strategically along the sight lines of the new boulevards, and created parks and squares. New sewer and gas lines improved sanitation and, virtually overnight, transformed Paris into the City of Light.
Needless to say, these changes came with significant costs. According to his own estimates, Haussmann’s renovation of Paris displaced 350,000 people, even as it employed one-fifth of Parisian workers. Historic fabric was destroyed, and the new look of the city was derided by some contemporaries as “triumphant vulgarity.” But “Haussmannization” was widely adopted across Europe at the end of the 19th century, shaping the forms of countless cities. Today, Haussmann-style streets and buildings are frequently cited as examples of walkable, livable urbanism, even if the prefect’s tactics were questionable.
Frederick Law Olmsted, 1822-1903
As the designer of iconic public parks and some of America’s earliest suburbs, Olmsted became known as the founding father of landscape architecture. In fact, the polymathic Olmsted helped coin the term.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut, Olmsted farmed and worked in journalism before shifting to landscape design. The experienced architect Calvert Vaux invited him to jointly enter the competition to design Manhattan’s Central Park, and they won, with a plan that combined elements of the English ramble with more formal, geometric French landscaping. Olmsted was committed to providing high-quality, truly public spaces for the enjoyment of all—a principle not widely held at the time.
After spending two years during the Civil War as head of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a relief agency, Olmsted reunited with his collaborator Vaux. From the mid-1860s, Olmsted & Vaux would design Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Chicago’s Riverside parks, and the park system for Buffalo, New York. The designers dissolved their partnership in 1872, and Olmsted went on to work on Boston’s Emerald Necklace, Montreal’s Mount Royal Park, and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, along with numerous other parks, parkways, and university campuses. (After his death, Olmsted’s sons John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. continued in the family business, designing many public spaces, including Atlanta’s Piedmont Park.)
Olmsted’s residential developments were also influential, emphasizing curving streets that flowed with the local topography. In early suburbs like Riverside, Illinois, and Cadwalader Heights in Trenton, New Jersey, Olmsted pioneered street layouts and design elements, such as street setbacks and gaps between houses, that were widely copied in future zoning laws, helping to establish the visual character of American suburbs.
Daniel Burnham, 1846-1912
Daniel Burnham was an architect, urban designer, and director of works for the 1893 World’s Fair. In his Chicago architecture practice, Burnham and partner John Wellborn Root designed some of the then-tallest buildings in America, precursors to the skyscraper like the Moorish-Venetian Rookery Building, completed in 1888.
At the World’s Fair, Burnham masterminded the lavish “White City,” visited by some 12 million people. This set the stage for the City Beautiful movement, which sought to unify architecture, street, and landscape design into a comprehensive aesthetic vision, using neoclassical architecture to promote moral and social order among the urban citizenry. The most visible legacy of the City Beautiful are the grand civic centers Burnham went on to design in numerous American cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, and Philadelphia.
The scope of Burnham’s vision was vast, encompassing the city as a whole. “Make no little plans,” he is famously quoted as saying, “they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.”
He created sweeping street redesigns for many American cities in the early 1900s—essentially Haussmannization projects, with long diagonal boulevards connecting networks of monumental squares and roundabouts. Most were not implemented. The partially implemented 1909 Plan of Chicago was the first comprehensive plan for a growing city in the United States. It called for lakefront improvements and a new highway system, among other changes. Burnham’s advocacy was key to Chicago’s lakefront being set aside as public parkland.
Ebenezer Howard, 1850-1928
Following the long English pastoral tradition and a personal stint as a homesteader in Nebraska, the self-educated stenographer Ebenezer Howard was attuned to the “keen and pure delights” of the countryside. But he was also a Londoner, and a realist. He understood the economic forces that were driving urbanization at the end of the 19th century, and the miserable conditions that poverty and overcrowding had created for many of his fellow city-dwellers.
With his concept of the Garden City, Howard thus attempted to marry the benefits of city and country living. In his much-read book Garden Cities of To-Morrow (1902), Howard presented careful diagrams of these new 6,000-acre towns, which would be built on open land and linked by railroads. The inner ring of the city would contain a central park and civic institutions, followed by houses and commercial avenues, and finally industrial and agricultural uses at the fringes.
Amazingly, Howard brought his dream to fruition in the form of two towns near London: Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City. But even more significantly, Howard’s vision of building new towns from scratch, segregating land uses, and balancing urban activity with rural fresh air and nature proved tremendously influential during the 20th century’s waves of suburbanization. The Garden City was an inspiration to Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, who, in their respective utopian blueprints, saw the automobile as a means to create decentralized cities with separated land uses at a large scale. According to critics such as Jane Jacobs, Howard’s theories helped inculcate an anti-urban bias in American city planning.
Jane Addams, 1860-1935
Addams, along with Ellen Gates Starr, founded Chicago’s Hull House, a woman-run “settlement house” designed to improve the lives of immigrants and the poor in Chicago’s Near West Side. A cross between a community college, rec center, and clinic, Hull House offered shelter for victims of domestic violence and language classes for recently arrived immigrants. It also included Chicago’s first public playground, in accordance with Addams’s belief that children’s play made for happier, healthier adults.
Addams was a charter member of the American Sociological Association and closely collaborated with the Chicago School of Sociology. She and her staff collected detailed sociological data about their neighborhood, which they used to advocate for women’s rights and reforms on immigration and child labor.
Today she is considered a founder of the field of social work. In her 1907 essay “Utilization of Women in City Government,” Addams wrote that the mandate of a modern city government primarily encompasses “civic housekeeping,” including issues like sanitation, social welfare, education, and combating vice. Because these urban problems correspond to traditional women’s roles, a more humanitarian city must include women leaders, she argued.
In her later years, she became a prominent pacifist, founding the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, for which she won the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first American woman to do so.
W.E.B. Du Bois, 1868-1963
Du Bois was a writer, sociologist, civil rights advocate, the first African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard, and a founder of the NAACP. Although The Souls of Black Folk (1903) is better known, his earlier book The Philadelphia Negro was the first sociological study of a black community in the United States. To understand Philadelphia’s segregated Seventh Ward—“a city within a city”—Du Bois analyzed its street life, housing stock, and community institutions, and conducted detailed surveys of residents.
The problems Du Bois observed in the Seventh Ward (and which, he noted, neighboring white communities willfully ignored) would persist for the next century and beyond. He famously stated that “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,” and helped the public see that divide more clearly, not just through words. At the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, Du Bois exhibited 60 remarkably modern hand-drawn charts and maps—what we would call infographics—on black life in Georgia. Later, he became a socialist and pan-Africanist. He died at the age of 95 in Ghana, where he was working on an encyclopedia of the African diaspora.
Le Corbusier, 1887-1965
The early days of Modernist architecture and planning were heady times, and no one embodied them more than Le Corbusier (born in Switzerland as Charles-Édouard Jeanneret). His Five Points of Architecture helped spur a revolution in design, enabled by the new material of reinforced concrete. Two of the “points” in his manifesto were an open floor plan—because concrete supporting columns made internal load-bearing walls unnecessary—and a “free” facade, or exterior walls that were not load-bearing, either, so could be designed as the architect wished. The new approach is exemplified by the Villa Savoye, a ribbon-windowed house set on slender piloti, or concrete piers. Le Corbusier played a major role in the emergence of the International Style, which became very popular for high-rise office buildings at midcentury.
As early as 1922, Le Corbusier agitated for the wholesale demolition of old cities and their replacement by rational superblocks of high-rise offices and apartment buildings. Although his Plan Voisin to reconstruct Paris was never implemented, the “towers in the park” model proved influential from the Soviet bloc to American public housing projects such as Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis. Corbusier’s plan for Chandigarh, India—the only one of his urban plans ever executed on a significant scale—is notable for its monumental civic buildings and broad boulevards.
Le Corbusier’s ideas for cities have received plenty of criticism. But the architectural genius of works like the Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France, is in no doubt. His raw-concrete Unité d’Habitation in Marseille inspired the Brutalist movement in architecture and utopian social-housing projects around the world.
Robert Moses, 1888-1981
Like Baron Haussmann, Moses presided over the transformation of a great city without ever holding elected office, embodying a top-down, authoritarian approach to urban planning. From the 1920s to the late 1960s, he held a diverse array of roles, often simultaneously, including parks commissioner for New York City and Long Island, New York City planning commissioner, and head of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.
In addition to expanding and improving numerous parks in the New York City area, he used his powers to build an extensive parkway system, which eventually came to be seen as among the nation’s first freeways. Moses took particular pride in replacing the “Valley of Ashes,” referenced in The Great Gatsby, with Flushing Meadows, home of the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs. The Housing Act of 1949 gave Moses broad authority to engage in “slum clearance” for large-scale public housing projects as well as civic projects like Lincoln Center and the UN headquarters. In all, Moses was responsible for the construction of 13 bridges, 416 miles of parkways, and 150,000 housing units in greater New York City.
But Moses also displaced 250,000 people during highway construction alone, according to his biographer Robert Caro. Moses’s Cross-Bronx expressway, in particular, was a notorious example of urban-renewal-era freeway building. The direct displacement and neighborhood fragmentation of that megaproject, which lasted from 1948 to 1972, played a major role in the economic decline of the Bronx.
Moses was known as a bigot, and many of his most disruptive projects targeted low-income, minority areas. His philosophy of urban planning was no more sensitive: “When you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat axe,” goes on of his maxims. Especially next to Jane Jacobs, against whom he is often pitted, Moses can look like a cartoonish villain. But his impact on the cityscape of New York was enormous, and many of his projects remain heavily used and beloved to this day.
In an age of endless community engagement and discretionary review, some contemporary planners are wont to view his broad powers with envy. “Paradoxically, what is most needed to achieve Jane Jacobs’s vision is to deploy a Robert Moses strategy—redesigning our streets quickly and decisively for an increasingly urban age, this time committed to accommodating population growth and offering residents more options for getting around without a car,” planners Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow recently wrote in CityLab.
Lewis Mumford, 1895-1990
The author of more than 30 books, Lewis Mumford was a public intellectual of remarkable breadth, with a critical view that spanned history, philosophy, city planning, technology, and literature. As his New York Times obituary noted, “there was scarcely any aspect of modern society that he left unexamined.” His best-known book may be 1961’s The City in History, which received the National Book Award.
Raised in New York City, Mumford had an unconventional education, attending night school at City College without graduating, due to illness, and then taking courses at Columbia and the New School. He wrote the “Sky Line” column on architecture for The New Yorker for three decades.
Mumford was not just a prolific and influential writer on urban matters. In 1923 he co-founded the Regional Planning Association of America, a well-connected group that promoted Ebenezer Howard’s planning principles. He lived those ideals, too, moving into Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, an innovative development of modestly priced apartments and townhouses, arranged around common green courts to emphasize urban nature and resident co-operation.
Mumford’s star has dimmed since his death, and some know him today for the condescending title of his New Yorker review of The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies.” While he always seemed to look down on the life of the streets rather than be part of it, he was prescient about the risks of technology divorced from ethics in planning. His belief in planning for the public good may be due for a reappraisal in the age of climate change.
As Richard Sennett—a disciple of Jacobs—notes in his recent book Building and Dwelling, solutions on the local scale that Jacobs advocated don’t get major infrastructure built or solve citywide problems. Mumford’s commitment to the Garden City was not naive utopianism: Sennett writes that Mumford, as a socialist, “thought that people, in order to fight, need to see what an alternative vision of the city might look like.”
Catherine Bauer Wurster, 1905-1964
Catherine Bauer was a leader of the “housers”—advocates for high-quality public housing in the U.S., a cause that gathered steam during the Great Depression. After studying at Vassar and Cornell, Bauer deeply researched the European worker housing designed by Le Corbusier and other early Modernists. Her 1934 book Modern Housing was an indictment of America’s failure to build comfortable, dignified housing for ordinary people amid a national housing shortage. Following the insights from her book, Bauer largely wrote the U.S. Housing Act of 1937, which created America’s public-housing program. She also served on the leadership of numerous planning and housing organizations and agencies.
At a time when there were few opportunities for women in architecture and planning, Bauer Wurster (she married architect William Wurster in 1940) worked her way to the pinnacle of those fields, becoming the first woman appointed to the faculty of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. In the 1950s, Jane Jacobs, then an editor at Architectural Forum, criticized Bauer Wurster’s ongoing faith in top-down social-housing projects, while Bauer Wurster argued that these kinds of interventions were necessary to fight segregation—a topic Jacobs hardly ever confronted head-on.
Bauer Wurster’s accomplishments are not widely recognized today. But in a moment of increased interest in housing policy in America—and a renewed push for public housing—she could be more relevant than ever.
Grace Lee Boggs, 1915-2015
Lee Boggs, a Chinese-American philosopher and political activist who spent decades striving for a second, more just American revolution, began her career as a brilliant young academic, moonlighting as a tenants-rights activist on Chicago’s South Side. From the early 1940s, she became enmeshed in radical black politics, with her belief in “the power that the black community has within itself to change this country when it begins to move.”
In 1953, she married the African American leftist James Boggs in Detroit, and the two became a legendary activist duo there, hosting Malcolm X when he visited. By the late 1970s, Lee Boggs had distanced herself from the Black Power and New Left movements and focused her energies on neighborhood activism. She and her husband founded Detroit Summer, an intergenerational community arts and activism organization. She planted community gardens, organized workers, and fought crime in a city undergoing decline.
In her later years, she became more involved in environmental and anti-war activism, but remained a popular figure in Detroit, with a regular column in the (now-shuttered) black newspaper the Michigan Citizen. The author of several books, Lee Boggs was the subject of the 2014 documentary American Revolutionary.
Jane Jacobs, 1916-2006
A journalist and author rather than an academic, Jacobs was a master communicator who perhaps did more to popularize critical thinking about cities than any other individual. Her 1961 bestseller The Death and Life of Great American Cities sent shockwaves through the planning and architecture establishment by dismissing the grand plans of “the Radiant Garden City Beautiful” and pointing the way toward more human-centered urban design and bottom-up decision-making.
Death and Life was a love letter to many of the things planners and other bureaucrats had been trying to eradicate with urban renewal: crowded neighborhoods, chaotic streets, jarring mixtures of people and land uses. Jacobs’s most high-profile enemy was Robert Moses, whose career she helped end with her fierce opposition to the demolition of Penn Station (at which she failed) and the Lower Manhattan Expressway (at which she was successful).
Instead of freeways and superblocks, Jacobs advocated for short blocks and varied buildings, with small businesses at ground level and apartments above, much like the urban fabric of Manhattan’s West Village, where she lived. Jacobs was able to speak about cities in emotional terms, referencing people as often as she did structures and spaces. The street was a “ballet” in which everyone had their role—the butcher who kept your spare keys, the stay-at-home mom keeping an eye on the children playing in the street.
Jacobs’s writing and advocacy were so compelling that they helped spur an anti-freeway, anti-urban-renewal revolt across the country, which largely ended sweeping Modernist planning and vastly expanded community control over land-use decisions (a mixed blessing).
While on most counts she has been lauded as a visionary, more recent assessments find points of criticism. Jacobs’s view of her New York neighborhood was, indeed, idyllic, largely glossing over problems like housing affordability and segregation. She failed to grasp how community control over land use could exacerbate those problems. Contemporary urbanists such as Sharon Zukin have drawn a connection between Jacobs’s sensibility and that of the post-urban-crisis gentrifier.
But her legacy is still being plumbed for wisdom. Jacobs—who moved to Toronto in 1968 and remained in that city until her death—anticipated the rise of right-wing populism due to growing economic inequality and the erosion of civic institutions in her final book, Dark Age Ahead.
William H. Whyte, 1917-1999
Whyte is best known for The Organization Man, his bestselling indictment of the culture of conformity in 1950s suburbia and corporate America. His emphasis on creativity and self-expression would be an inspiration for future urbanists and social critics, including Jane Jacobs, with whom he worked at Fortune, and contemporary writers like Richard Florida and David Brooks.
Later in his career, “Holly” Whyte, as he was known, traded sweeping pop sociology for fine-grained urban-design analysis. His Street Life Project sought to understand why some New York City parks and plazas were well used, and others studiously avoided. Aided by time-lapse photography, Whyte charted how pedestrians moved through space; where they would sit to eat lunch; where they would stop and converse; and where they would move hurriedly on their way.
He found that the most-used plazas in New York were more likely to have people in pairs or groups, and that stepped seating arrangements make a plaza more attractive by allowing loiterers to observe “the theater of the street,” among many other observations. Assisted by female graduate students, he was also one of the first researchers to study the different ways men and women engage with urban space.
A conservationist as well as a lover of cities, Whyte applied his small-scale observations to advocate for greater investment in downtowns as opposed to sprawl. One of his maxims, “a good space beckons people in,” sounds obvious now, but only became so thanks to meticulous studies like his own.
Ian McHarg, 1920-2001
McHarg was a pioneering landscape architect from Scotland who advocated designs that work with, rather than against, a place’s ecology. In this respect, he helped move the field of landscape architecture into the realm of environmental planning.
Published in the early days of the environmental movement, McHarg’s 1969 book Design With Nature influenced policies for managing coastlines, watersheds, and forests, and advocated for environmental review of major development projects. His use of separate map overlays to evaluate different ecological concerns—including climate, hydrology, and soil conditions—laid the intellectual groundwork for Geographic Information Systems (GIS), today’s most widely used digital-mapping technology.
The planning and design firm that McHarg co-founded, now known as WRT, designed some of America’s most notable large-scale urban plans in the second half of the 20th century, including Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the 1966 Lower Manhattan Master Plan, and the U.S. Capitol Master Plan in the 1980s, as well as The Woodlands, a planned suburb outside of Houston that straddles many creeks and lakes.
McHarg’s greatest legacy might lie in the many minds he helped mold, whether through his early 1960s TV talk show “The House We Live In,” or via his popular courses at the University of Pennsylvania, whose landscape-architecture school he founded and led.
Whitney Young, 1921-1971
Known by fellow activists as the “inside man” of the Civil Rights Movement, Kentucky-born Whitney Young spent his decade-long tenure (1961-1971) as president of the National Urban League building bridges between the black community and the highest echelons of corporate and governmental power. Young dramatically expanded the size and scope of the NUL, taking it from primarily a health and welfare organization to a political force on issues like school segregation, housing discrimination, and voting rights. This new activist direction became clear when Young threw the weight of the traditionally conservative group behind the 1963 March on Washington, ignoring the pleas of board members and President Kennedy.
Young was a charismatic and funny public speaker, who convinced numerous white corporate executives to increase their share of black and minority employees, often employing people directly from the NUL’s job-training programs. President Johnson viewed Young as one of his closest advisors on civil-rights issues, and followed, both directly and indirectly, many of his suggestions. Young spearheaded a policy proposal known as the Domestic Marshall Plan, which was one of the first documents to articulate how affirmative action could function in America, as well as many of the anti-poverty policies that eventually made their way into Johnson’s Great Society initiatives.
Had he not died in a tragic swimming accident in 1971, Young likely would have maneuvered to enter government service, whether as an elected official or as head of a federal agency, where he would have had more power to implement his innovative policy ideas.
Image credits: Haussmann: Bibliothèque nationale de France; Olmsted: Library of Congress; Burnham: Wikipedia; Howard: National Portrait Gallery, London; Addams: Library of Congress; Du Bois: Library of Congress; Corbusier: AP; Moses: AP; Mumford: Bill Chaplis/AP; Bauer Wurster: Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley; Boggs: the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership; Jacobs: Library of Congress; Whyte: AP; McHarg: Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania; Young: Library of Congress
CityLab would like to thank the following scholars for their help in drawing up this list: Billy Fleming, Dan Immergluck, and Willow Lung-Amam.
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