Pioneers of Advocacy Planning

The Planners Network 2004 Conference recognized the important role played by five people who for four decades have made outstanding contributions to progressive planning. They began their careers as advocate planners in the spirit of Paul Davidoff, who first made that term popular. LINDA DAVIDOFF, who passed away December 31, 2003, played a central role in the theory and practice of advocacy planning. CHESTER HARTMAN, PETER MARCUSE, RON SHIFFMAN and WALTER THABIT continue to make significant contributions to planning for economic, racial and environmental justice.

LINDA DAVIDOFF (1941-2003)
Among her many achievements, Linda launched a national effort that led to passage of the National Voter Registration Act in 1993 (“Motor Voter”). She worked as an advocate for a woman’s right to choose abortion and headed several non-profit organizations, including the Parks Council, New York League of Conservation Voters, and Citizen Action of New York.

Linda was most recently executive director of the Citizens Union and Citizens Union Foundation in New York City. In her three years there she invigorated this liberal civic group and was the first publisher of Gotham Gazette, an award-winning on-line resource on public policy and issues in New York City.

Linda’s 1997 article in Panorama, the student-produced journal at the University of Pennsylvania Department of City Planning, Urban Development and Public Policy (where she received her Masters in planning) provides clues to her philosophy. “The dialogue about public life and urban communities in the United States today is in a primitive state. Americans express indifference and hostility to their institutions of governance; affluent Americans are fleeing urban communities to live in insulated, walled and gated private communities… At this depressing time in the life of the public dialogue in America, we need to focus on how to find ways to place our lever and find our fulcrum so we can move a leaden, smug, self-satisfied society to give a little—exposing the fault lines but also exposing pathways that lead to a richer community life.”

One of Linda’s great qualities was a perennial optimism when staring in the face of great odds. She worked hard to get progressive people elected, and was Ruth Messinger’s first campaign manager in her unsuccessful 1997 campaign for mayor of New York. She had also managed Elizabeth Holtzman’s losing 1980 bid for the Senate.

One important victory of Linda’s was negotiating an alternative plan to Donald Trump’s proposed development on the West Side of Manhattan. As director of the Parks Council, Linda played a leading role in winning a 22-acre waterfront park, reduction by half in the amount of building space for Trump, some affordable housing, and removal and re-routing of an elevated highway. While she frankly acknowledged her work among elite civic groups, she never lost her commitment to principles of equity. The conclusion to her Panorama article says a lot about Linda.

“The planning profession has both the mark of greatness—the Chicago plan, Broadacre City, the good side of Robert Moses, Jane Jacobs—and the mark of Cain—the bad side of Robert Moses, the decline of great cities, and the erosion of civic spirit. The profession constantly risks being classed as a corps of minor civil servants who labor in obscurity while developers and the elected officials who depend on the developers’ campaign contributions make all the important decisions. Faced with these challenges, planners must find a place from which they can exert the power for good that the public imagination and the valuable skills and insights of our profession make possible, keeping always a sense of humor and irony about the unlikely combinations which sometimes bring their plans to fruition.”

[Excerpted from the Winter 2004 issue of Progressive Planning Magazine]

Chester Hartman started Planners Network in 1975 as a mimeographed newsletter to some 300 people and chaired the organization until 1996. He is now an ex-officio member of the PN Steering Committee and heads PN’s Advisory Board. He was founding President/Executive Director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council (PRRAC) in Washington DC and recently became PRRAC’s Director of Research.

Chester’s many contributions to progressive planning are evident in his book, Between Eminence and Notoriety: Four Decades of Radical Urban Planning (Rutgers University Center for Urban Policy Research, 2002)whichincludes his most important writings. He has worked tirelessly with grassroots activists and progressive planners to bring about meaningful social change. His advocacy cost him reappointment after a drawn-out fight with Harvard University. Yet his essays and books on displacement, housing, and planning education continue to inspire and inform students, academics, practitioners, and political activists. Chester has consistently fought poverty and racism and fought for progressive politics within the planning profession.

In the foreward to this book, Jane Jacobs writes:

Throughout the mad spree of vandalism, deceptions, and waste known as urban renewal and slum clearance, Chester Hartman’s was a voice of sanity, caution, and compassion. There were many other such voices, raising and falling in response to the orchestration of events in this place or that. Chester’s voice was unusual in three respects. First, after getting into the fray early on, he then stayed with it unremittingly. Even after urban renewal and slum clearance petered out, he continued dealing with the social wreckage the programs left in their wake and with problems of providing housing for the poor and the disregarded that remained unsolved—as he continues doing to this day. Second, at a time when very few “credentialed” voices were to be heard in protest…Chester was among the few who added that clout to opinions he voiced. And third, he was optimistic enough to suppose that schools of planning could reform themselves; his efforts to help institute advocacy planning in served to communities helped give teeth to the idea of public participation in planning, now widely accepted in theory but still hard in practice for many professionals and politicians to chew on and swallow.

Chester is a former Board member/Secretary of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. He has served as a Fellow of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam and of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. He holds a Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from Harvard and served on the faculty there as well as at Yale, the University of North Carolina, Cornell, the University of California-Berkeley, and Columbia University. He is currently adjunct Professor of Sociology at George Washington University.

Peter is perhaps the person most recognized throughout the world as a leading proponent of progressive planning in the United States. His contributions to both the theory and practice of planning are recognized broadly: he was recently named a Fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners.

Peter has been a prolific writer on a wide range of topics including globalization, housing, redlining, racial segregation, divided cities, gentrification, New York City planning history, legal and social aspects of property rights, privatization, and professional ethics. But Peter doesn’t just write to get published. He covers topics of critical concern to practitioners and activists. We can always count on Peter to be an active voice in national debates on housing policy, rent control and professional ethics, where he has consistently stood on the side of social justice. He drafted a statement adopted by the local Planners Network chapter charging the New York City Planning Department with violations of professional ethics for their failure to protect community gardens. He also helped develop a platform supporting community-based planning in the city. Peter has written timely articles for Progressive Planning Magazine and many other popular publications, in addition to the impressive list of contributions to scholarly journals. One of the early members of the Planners Network, he has helped steer planning in a direction that promotes equity and social justice.

Peter is about to retire from Columbia University where he has been a Professor of Urban Planning in the Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation for a period spanning over three decades. He also taught in both West and East Germany, Australia, the Union of South Africa, Canada, Austria, and Brazil.

While most people who know him recognize his imposing intellectual achievements, many do not know of Peter’s extensive professional experience in local planning. He chaired the Housing Committee of a Community Board in New York City and also served as President of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission. He has also been active in local planning affairs in Connecticut, where he lives.

Peter recently edited The Changing Spatial Order in Cities (Sage, 1997) with Ronald van Kempen.

For the last four decades neighborhood activists in New York City’s five boroughs have called on Ron for advice and technical support. Ron was present at the creation of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development (PICCED), one of the first and longest-lasting university-based centers providing planning assistance to low-income neighborhoods. Ron directed PICCED for most of its history and recently retired from that position. He is a full-time professor in Pratt Institute’s graduate planning program.

Ron became active in community development while a student of architecture and planning, and worked with communities torn apart by poverty, displacement and urban renewal. He was involved in the earliest community-based efforts in housing and economic development that led to the formation of the Bedford Stuyvesant Community Development Corporation, the first CDC in the country.

He served on the New York City Planning Commission for six years from 1990-1996. His friends in neighborhoods throughout the city, and his fellow commissioners, depended on Ron to raise all the difficult questions about equity and participation in planning that were often left off the official agenda.

Throughout his career, Ron has emphasized inclusion, transparency, democracy, sustainability, and social, economic, and environmental justice. He has consistently introduced new ideas in housing and environmental quality to local planners and community activists, using leading examples from other parts of the world. With Susan Motley he wrote Comprehensive and Integrative Planning for Community Development, available at

Ron is now an advocate for community planning and equity in the rebuilding of lower Manhattan. He is chair of the board of the New York Industrial Retention Network, co-chair of the Civic Alliance’s Committee on Social, Economic and Environmental Justice, and has been working with the Municipal Art Society (MAS) and Imagine New York, a “visioning process” to engage a broad set of people in the memorial and rebuilding process. He is co-chair of New York 2050, a broad initiative to envision the future of New York City. He recently became a Fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners.

Walter Thabit is known in New York City as the planner responsible for the Cooper Square Alternative Plan, the first community plan in the city. Walter is known nationally as a founder and long-time chair of Planners for Equal Opportunity, the national organization of planners and activists that preceded Planners Network.

Walter has a wealth of practical experience in housing, renewal, community planning, city planning, and antipoverty projects. He also worked on plans in Morningside Heights, East Midtown, and Park Slope in New York City, and in Philadelphia, Newark, Poughkeepsie, Hoboken and other U.S. cities. He taught at New School University, Hunter College, and Long Island University.

After the riots of the mid-60s, Walter began working with the community of East New York to assist in developing a plan for low- and moderate-income housing. Through this process, he began to experience and understand the forces that had caused the initial decline of East New York and those factors that worked against its successful revitalization. In his book, How East New York Became a Ghetto, he describes how the area shifted from a working-class immigrant neighborhood to a largely Black and Puerto Rican one and how the deterioration of this area was caused by a series of racially biased policies.

In the review of his book that appeared in the Spring 2004 issue of Progressive Planning Magazine, Lewis Lubka says:

How East New York Became a Ghetto is a powerful indictment of society’s failure to deal with its inadequacies, and Thabit unabashedly takes the side of the poor and minorities victimized by the pervasive and virulent racism that he calls American apartheid. There is no false “objectivity” here, the façade behind which many establishment planners conveniently cop-out.

One of Walter’s lesser-known but important works, “The Folly of Civil Defense Planning,” appeared in the Journal of the American Institute of Planners at a time when professional planners were tripping over themselves to do civil defense plans that falsely promised to save cities from a nuclear holocaust.

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