Peter Ekman: From Prophecy to Projection: The New York Metropolitan Region Study and the Rescaling of the Urban Future, 1956-1968

Historic photo of road

Paramus, New Jersey. photo / Regional Plan Association, 1967

Date and location: December 5, 4:30 p.m. in Room 115, West Sibley Hall

Peter Ekman is the Clarence S. Stein Visiting Scholar in the Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University. He holds a Ph.D. in geography from the University of California–Berkeley, where he has lately been a lecturer in human geography. He has also held fellowships from Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, the Huntington Library, the American Geographical Society Library, and the Bancroft Library. This talk builds on a portion of his first book manuscript, a hemispheric intellectual history of postwar planning and urbanism routed through the Harvard–MIT Joint Center for Urban Studies.


Between 1956 and 1959, amid far-flung suburbanization and with the joint backing of several major foundations, an interdisciplinary group of scholars from Harvard collaborated with New York City’s Regional Plan Association (RPA) to produce a widely read and debated 10-volume “projection” of what the physical plant, political economy, and everyday life of that metropolis would look like in 1965, 1975, and 1985. The resulting New York Metropolitan Region Study (NYMRS) was “not a blueprint,” its principals insisted, with “no recommendations to make.” It was, however, to be read as “a necessary prelude to future planning studies of the region” — and greater New York City was, in turn, to be understood as the generalizable archetype for other urban regions in the U.S. and abroad.

This talk will explore the “Vernon Study” — after its director, the economist Raymond Vernon — as a consequential but ultimately peculiar episode in the intellectual histories of planning and social science. Rejecting both the certainties of prophecy and the hazards of mere prediction, the NYMRS sought to establish a new tense for urban research and a new set of methods for making inferences about the emerging metropolitan (mega)region on the basis of empirically registered pasts and presents. The constituent volumes of the study garnered various degrees of influence in isolation; four of them appeared in paperback and helped make the case for putting “quality” works of urban social science in view of the public. Its data, which RPA researchers mined for the next decade, equipped those preparing the Second Regional Plan of New York, issued in 1968. Its interdisciplinary organization also served as a touchstone for an array of one-off forecasting studies and many longer-lived university centers or institutes formed to confront the 1960s’ “urban crisis.” At the same time, the study exposed, even among its most devout modelers and quantifiers, an intense skepticism about the possibility that planners would ever know enough about the future to steer its course. In this way, the study also took part in the prehistory of urban neoconservatism that would command the public sphere by the 1970s. The talk will reconstruct one very specific “future past,” and more broadly it will inquire into the temporality of planning itself — which is before all else a mode of envisioning the future.

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Ed LeClear: Planning in University Communities: Balancing Innovation and Preservation

a downtown street lined with shops

photo / provided

Date and location: November 22, 12:20 p.m. in Abby and Howard Milstein Auditorium, Milstein Hall

Ed LeClear (M.R.P. ’10) is the planning and community development director for the borough of State College, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the borough, LeClear was the community development director for the Cumberland County Housing and Redevelopment Authorities and a community planner with the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. He began his career in downtown revitalization working for the Pennsylvania Downtown Center.

A native of Northeast Ohio, LeClear received his B.A. from Miami University (Ohio), a master of science in urban studies from Cleveland State University and a master of regional planning from Cornell University. LeClear is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners and provides service to the profession as a board member of 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Municipal Planning Education Institute, and the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Planning Association, for which he serves as chair of the legislative committee.


University communities are dynamic places for planners to apply their craft across nearly every specialty in the profession. Whether it is cutting edge climate resiliency work, economic development, multimodal transportation planning, affordable housing, or critical zoning enforcement, working as a planning professional in a college town requires that you do it all. University communities are laboratories for innovation but are also often resistant to change, particularly in terms of land use. This colloquium’s discussion will focus on specific techniques and tools being used in State College (home of the Pennsylvania State University), to balance innovation and preservation, particularly in this era of a booming purpose-built student housing market. Come for an interactive discussion with a CRP alumnus working in local government for more than 15 years (with a few scars to prove it).

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Eric Nost: Climate Services for Whom? The Political Economics of Contextualizing Climate Data in Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan

satellite image of hurricane over the state of Louisianna

Hurricane Katrina making landfall over Louisiana in 2005. photo / NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Date and location: November 20, 4:30 p.m. in Room 115, West Sibley Hall

Eric Nost is a geographer researching how data and technology inform conservation. He draws on and contributes to the fields of political ecology, science and technology studies, and digital geographies. Nost’s most recent project followed the state of Louisiana’s efforts to simulate future wetlands loss along the Gulf Coast. Based on interviews, document surveys, and attendance at public meetings, Nost explored how bureaucrats and ecosystem scientists develop an infrastructure for modeling, build an institution and lean on technologies to learn from their simulations, and apply their findings to planning large-scale coastal restoration. Nost received a Ph.D. in geography (2018) from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Nost is currently an assistant professor at the University of Guelph, where he teaches classes in nature-society geography and (web) mapping, using maps to publicize hidden dimensions of environmental policy. He also participates in the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, tracking how the U.S. federal government portrays climate change and other issues on the web. For the past several years, Nost has collaborated in an effort to collate and visualize U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data on the North American hazardous waste trade.


Adaptation planning includes contextualizing global and regional climate data within specific decision-making processes. As such, planners are increasingly interested in climate services. Climate services involve the expert production of forecasts, scenarios, economic analyses, and other data products to help users meaningfully address local changes and variabilities. For instance, in the state of Louisiana, modelers tailor 50-year storm, precipitation, and sea-level rise predictions to help planners select adaptive ecological restoration projects. Modelers do so by downscaling the data, combining it with other social and biophysical information, and framing results in terms of stakeholder interests.

In this lecture, Nost questions what it means to develop adaptation information that is geared towards specific users and stakeholders. Given the growing recognition that adaptation planning can prove maladaptive, Nost asks, when do climate services actually exacerbate existing vulnerabilities? To answer, he draws on three cases from Louisiana’s coastal Master Plan and highlights political-economic factors informing climate services: influential stakeholders, funding dynamics, the framing of planning decisions, and differential harms and benefits. Nost argues that when climate data is made relevant to existing interests, budgets, and plans, it can reproduce vulnerabilities and foreclose transformative adaptation. However, marginalized stakeholders can also pressure experts to contextualize data in ways that mitigate vulnerabilities. I conclude that climate services research and practice should expand user-centered approaches by asking climate services for whom and by assessing the winners and losers from climate variability, change, and adaptation actions themselves.

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CRP out in full force at the ACSP 2019 conference

People seated at round tables in an event space

photo / Kay Meyer Photography

The Department of City and Regional Planning (CRP) was well-represented at October’s annual conference for the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP) in Greenville, South Carolina. CRP faculty and Ph.D. students engaged in a variety of different events, ranging from paper presentations to participation in panel discussions.

“It was inspiring and gratifying to see the significant participation by Cornell at this year’s ACSP annual meeting,” said department chair Jeffrey Chusid. “Eleven members of our faculty, as well as 11 CRP Ph.D. students, delivered presentations on their research, while a number of them and other Cornellians engaged in panels and other discussions about the future of the planning field. The intellectual life of the department is thriving.”

For Ph.D. students, the experience presenting their research to a broader audience outside the department provided insight into areas of exploration for furthering their work and introducing them to other academics in the field.

“My initial approach to the ACSP conference was broad. I wanted to see a wide variety of sessions throughout the conference tracks,” Ph.D. candidate Dylan Stevenson commented. “Doing so offered me a glimpse as to how different planning ‘circles’ communicated and the ways in which planning subfields attempt to tackle the same problem.”

CRP faculty and alumni were among the recipients of faculty awards at the conference. Assistant professor Nicholas Klein was recognized as one of the Top Reviewers for the Journal of Planning Education and Research (JPER). In selecting a Top Reviewer, editors examine the quantity, quality, and timeliness of each candidate’s reviews.

Additionally, Courtney Knapp (CRP Ph.D. ’14), associate professor at Pratt Institute, received the Paul Davidoff Book Award for her publication Constructing the Dynamo of Dixie. The award recognizes an outstanding book regarding participatory planning and positive social change, opposing poverty and racism as factors in society and seeking ways to address social and place-based inequalities.

The 2020 ACSP conference will be held in Toronto, Canada.

Steven Higashide: Winning the Fight for U.S. Urban Transit

bus sketch on street

Envisioning better surface transit in Boston, created as part of a campaign for bus improvements. illustration / Ad Hoc Industries

Date and location: November 15, 12:20 p.m. in Abby and Howard Milstein Auditorium, Milstein Hall

Steven Higashide is a writer, planner, and the director of research for the national foundation TransitCenter, which works with advocacy organizations and public transportation agencies to improve transit that makes cities more just and sustainable. Over a 12-year career in transportation advocacy, he has helped defeat congressional attempts to end federal transit funding, won state legislation strengthening penalties for careless driving, and authored research into the preferences of transit riders and city policies that prioritize transit. Higashide is the author of Better Buses, Better Cities, and his writing has appeared in outlets including The Atlantic, Los Angeles Times, New York Daily News, Next City, and Planning & Environmental Law. He received his master’s degree in urban planning from New York University and is a member of the Transportation Research Board’s Standing Committee on Transportation Demand Management. He was named to the Association for Commuter Transportation’s “40 under 40” in 2016.


Better urban transit is essential to making U.S. cities more just and sustainable. Yet implementation lags, even though better bus and rail service mostly requires enacting best practices that have long existed elsewhere. Why is this? In this talk, Steven Higashide shows how reactionary local, state, and federal politics have enacted structural barriers that make even incremental change difficult in American transit. Cities that overcome them do so through alliances between civic advocates, public agency leaders, and pro-transit elected officials. From New York to Indianapolis to Seattle, transit reform hinges on visionary bureaucrats, steadfast mayors, and advocates of all stripes—wonky transportation bloggers, progressive churches, downtown business groups, and civil rights lawyers.This talk details structural impediments to better transit (like public engagement processes and funding programs that are biased against riders) and the campaigns and coalitions that reformers have used to win transit funding, street space, equitable policy, and operational excellence.

This is a Russell Van Nest Black lecture.

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Stephen Hammer: Financing a Resilient Urban Future: World Bank Experience Financing Climate-Resilient Urban Infrastructure

wave splashing road

photo / Cire Notrevo,

Date and location: November 8, 12:20 p.m. in Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium, 132 Goldwin Smith Hall

Stephen Hammer serves as an advisor of global partnerships and strategy for the climate change team at the World Bank and leads on the bank’s engagement on climate change issues with the United Nations, the G7, the G20, and select other institutions. He formerly served as manager of climate policy for the World Bank Group (WBG), and before that, as a lead specialist on cities and climate change. Prior to joining the WBG in 2013, Hammer was a member of the graduate faculty at MIT and Columbia University, where he taught classes on energy systems, energy policy, benefit-cost analysis, and urban climate change issues. Hammer has served as an advisor to Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC team; the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s work on urban green growth; President Bush’s Commission on Environmental Quality; and the Chinese Ministry of Housing, Urban, and Rural Development, for which he developed and led training programs for more than 250 Chinese mayors on urban energy and climate issues. Hammer holds a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, an M.P.P. from Harvard University, and a B.S. from the University of California–Davis.


As urbanization trends become more prominent globally, questions arise about how cities will develop physically, demographically, economically, and technologically. Each dimension has implications for the type and scale of infrastructure needed to facilitate —or manage —these changes. Climate change raises the ante on all of these issues. The cost of the direct physical impacts of climate change may be exceeded by the indirect economic losses suffered if essential infrastructure systems and supply chains are forced offline. In the Global South, the problem is even more complex because many cities already facing an infrastructure deficit must also grapple with the growing demand for infrastructure sufficient to accommodate their burgeoning populations. Where will the resources come from to pay for climate-related repairs or these new or replacement climate-resilient urban infrastructure systems? This talk will explore what funding and financing instruments may be available to local governments and infrastructure system operators in cities around the world.

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