Progressive Planning Profile: Jacqueline Leavitt

Note: With this profile of Jacqueline Leavitt, Progressive Planning Magazine starts what will be an ongoing series examining the work of progressive planners.

Jacqueline Leavitt, a long-term Planners Network member, is professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Since 1999, she has also been director of the UCLA Community Scholars Program, co-sponsored by her department and the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education. She is a planner who has integrated her commitment to social justice and gender issues into her teaching, research and work with community-based organizations. She writes, teaches and lectures nationally and internationally on housing, gender, labor and community development.

Leavitt received her political science degree from Pennsylvania State University (1961) and both her master’s degree (1965) and Ph.D. (1980) in urban planning from Columbia University. Even though s Leavitt he was interested in architecture, she chose to study planning because of its greater focus on people and its interdisciplinary nature. Within the context of the 1960s anti-war, civil rights and women’s movement, Leavitt worked with residents of West Harlem on housing issues while on staff at the Architects Renewal Committee in Harlem (ARCH). Immediately after completing her master’s degree, the National Committee for Full Employment (NCFE), including past PN members Robert Heifetz and Walter Thabit, offered her a position as a resident planner with the Newark Community Union Project (NCUP) in Newark, New Jersey. NCUP was a part of the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP), which sought to build a base movement of the poor. Leavitt juggled this with a full-time job with Candeub Fleissig & Associates, a private firm, until she joined Walter Thabit to work on updating the Cooper Square Advocacy Plan and advancing the Model Cities initiative in East New York. While working with Walter, she became a co-organizer of The Urban Underground, a group of progressive planners who testified at public hearings and questioned planning priorities of the city, among other activities, and was part of the Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS).

In the early 1970s, having moved to Los Angeles, Leavitt worked at UCLA with Don Hagman from the School of Law on land use and annexation issues and on a land and water resource study that Dean Harvey Perloff of the School of Architecture and Urban Planning (GSAUP) secured money for. It was then that she met Peter Marcuse. On her return to New York in the mid-1970s while working for the Housing and Development Administration (now HPD) of NYC, first full-time and then as a consultant to the Community Management Program, she joined the Ph.D. program at Columbia University, then chaired by Marcuse. Leavitt started teaching at Columbia University while in graduate school and also taught at the summer Progressive School at Cornell University. Leavitt moved to the UCLA in 1986.

That same year, Leavitt received the APA Diana Donald Award for her “substantial contributions to the planning profession through her teachings and writings and that these actions helped further the advancement of women in the planning field.” Leavitt had been a pioneer in research about gender and community development and one of the founders of the APA Planning and Women Division in 1978. Her dissertation,Planning and Women, Women in Planning (1980)funded by a HUD grant, provided a critique of “the relationship between the planning profession’s impact on women planners and women planners’ impact on the profession and its products.” She has continued to write extensively, not only about gender issues in planning practice and education, but also about the key roles low-income women’s groups play in the development of their communities. From Abandonment to Hope: Community-Households in Harlem (1990), the book Leavitt co-authored with Susan Saegert, describes the leadership roles of women tenants and activists in empowering and improving their communities within the context of landlord abandonment and subsequent city programs. In a review article for Signs in 2003, “Where’s the Gender in Community Development?,” Leavitt criticized the continuing invisibility of women in community development literature.

In addition to her work on gender, Leavitt was also recognized for her work that looks at the intersection of housing policy and design. She received a first place design award with Troy West in 1984 for the “New American House” national competition, sponsored by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and the National Endowment for the Arts, and a second place design award in 1992 with Judith Sheine and Carol Goldstein for “The New Urban Housing” national competition sponsored by the Community Design Center of Pittsburgh. In her later work, Leavitt provided a critique of the HOPE VI housing policy for its site planning and architecture as it impacted residents at Pico Aliso and other public housing projects in Los Angeles.

In the mid-1990s, Leavitt started doing more comparative and international work. In 1995, after publication of her second book, The Hidden History of Housing Cooperatives, with Allan Heskin, she received a Fulbright fellowship to study the rollback of the state in housing in New Zealand. And since 1999, Leavitt has been working closely with the Huairou Commission, an international network of grassroots women’s organizations. She co-documented and analyzed the evolving structure of the commission and its peer learning and partnership-building strategies around the Grassroots Women’s International Academy. At the World Urban Forum in Vancouver in 2006, Leavitt presented a report that analyzes community-based land tenure systems and housing development by women’s groups in Africa.

Through the Community Scholars Program at UCLA, Leavitt expanded her interdisciplinary research to cover labor issues and coalition-building in community development. As described in her article with Kara Heffernan on the origins and history of the Community Scholars Program published in From the Studio to The Streets(2005), each year the program recruited a number of community and labor activists to work with an interdisciplinary group of students on projects related to coalition-building and organizing, hence extending university resources into the community and enabling students to link with community- and labor-based practitioners. The project on the homecare workers campaign in 2000-2001 received the 2002 APA Local and State Chapter Award. After that project, Leavitt continued to work and write on the homecare workers and their housing conditions and with Teresa Lingafelter, published a piece in the 2005 collection Jobs and Economic Development in Minority Communities: Realities, Challenges and Innovation (Paul Ong and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, eds.) thatexplored community benefits agreements in Los Angeles and how labor unions could promote housing as a campaign issue. In 2007, Leavitt co-taught a class with Gilda Haas on the topic “Right to the City” and attended the founding meeting of the Right to the City Alliance. As Leavitt explains,

I entered urban planning believing in its ability to support social movements through both rigorous research and ethical practice. In a country where rights are being usurped, and where the government has an ability to demolish public housing as in New Orleans when the need for housing is so great, I still hold to beliefs for social and economic justice and have tried to develop ways to bring those themes into my classrooms, not as an afterthought but an integral and basic goal.

Through the Community Scholars Program, Leavitt has been able to develop and maintain strong relationships with a network of community and labor groups. She is co-author of the first study on the taxi industry from the perspective of taxi workers in the City of Los Angeles. She works with Union de Vecinos, an organization that began with residents at Pico Aliso housing protesting demolition of public housing and has expanded into the surrounding Boyle Heights community. She has worked with the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) and the Community Institute for Policy, Heuristics, Education and Research (CIPHER). Her most recent writing on housing in Los Angeles is in the State of the City 2007, published by the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs.

Over the years, Leavitt has also been sketching and doing water colors, documenting the people and the places she has encountered. She has taken seriously urban planning’s interdisciplinary roots and has combined this with activism in a career that reflects how it is possible to integrate politics and scholarly work in the academy.

Leavitt’s dissertation, Planning and Women, Women in Planning, is available online at

You May Also Like