Landscape architect Kate Orff, freshly minted genius. Mary Altaffer/AP

This year’s class of fellows reflect the importance of city problems and solutions.

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.

Nikole Hannah-Jones: Confronting the Myths of Segregation

Trevor Paglen: Visualizing the Unseeable

Rami Nashashibi: Building Community on the Back of Belief

Damon Rich: Designing for a Better Democracy

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Life

    The ‘Marie Kondo Effect’ Comes at a Weird Time for Thrift Stores

    Netflix’s hit show has everyone tidying up, but that's not the only reason second-hand stores are being flooded with donations.

  2. A man carrying a young boy on his shoulders amid the fall foliage of New York's Central Park.
    Life

    Which U.S. Cities Have the Most Families With Kids?

    Spoiler alert: It’s simply not the case that families with kids have disappeared from urban America.

  3. An animated world map shows dramatic changes in land use from 1700 to 2000.
    Environment

    How 300 Years of Urbanization and Farming Transformed the Planet

    Three centuries ago, humans were intensely using just around 5 percent of the Earth’s land. Now, it’s almost half.

  4. A photo of Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct
    Transportation

    As an Elevated Highway Closes, Seattle Braces for Traffic Hell

    By closing the Alaskan Way Viaduct, Seattle ushers in a period of short-term commuter pain for long-term waterfront redevelopment gain.

  5. A photo of a DART light rail train in Dallas, Texas.
    Transportation

    What Cities Are Getting Wrong About Public Transportation

    Cities could get more people walking, biking, and riding transit, according to a new report, if they just know where to look for improvement.