Poll: The 100 Most Influential Urbanists?

Planetizen is running a poll to create a list of 100 Most Influential Urbanists.  They last did this in 2017, when I was honored to be #57. They now have a new list of 200 nominees, partly based on public nominations, and want the public to rank them. I’m honored to be shortlisted again.

Personally, I’m not sure don’t how to vote in a survey that mixes figures from throughout (Western) history with people living today.  That mixing feels unfair both ways. People who lived longer ago have had more time for their influence to be felt. On the other hand, the living tend to be strongly biased toward other living people. Do those two unfairnesses cancel each other out? Probably not, except maybe among historians.  The bias toward the living is overwhelming. I’m not really the 57th most influential urbanist ever, because there have been countless influential people, in cultures all around the world, in all the millennia that there have been cities.  So I’d have had an easier time figuring out my vote if I hadn’t had to choose between people I know well and people who lived 2500 years ago. It’s like being asked if I prefer apples or Shakespeare.

Note, too, that the survey is asking how influential people were, not whether that influence was good or bad. The list contains several people whose net impact on urbanism has been negative in my view, including Robert Moses, Le Corbusier, and Elon Musk.  Will they be assessed purely on the magnitude of their influence and not its direction?  Perhaps historians can be called upon for such godlike moral neutrality, but I find myself struggling to give such figures fairly high marks for “influence,” since I would be contributing to their influence by ranking them.

But methodologically questionable as they always are, people love lists.  So whatever method you use to make these mysterious choices, I hope you have fun with it.  Vote here.

6 Responses to Poll: The 100 Most Influential Urbanists?

  1. Jonathan Hallam July 5, 2023 at 1:57 am #


    1) One of your core insights is that the constraints of 2D geometry really matter (if I’ve understood correctly).

    2) Elon Musk’s efforts, primarily the tunnel boring thing, seem to me to be an effort to address this core constraint (one can imagine others, e.g. skybridges between buildings).

    The point is, it comes across that you’re pretty down on Elon, but really, his efforts to tackle the core problem are in good (or at least, much better) faith than the ridiculous a-geometrical rubbish we routinely hear from the likes of Uber.

    • Sean Gillis July 11, 2023 at 8:21 am #

      If the Boring Company seemed at all interested in building rail tunnels and using innovation to drive down cost, it would be a wonderful help on tackling the constraints of geometry. Although, if you check out pedestrianobservations.com Alon Levy makes some convincing arguments that many engineers and builders are already making progress on the cost issue: Spain did great work expanding subways and Turkey is also doing good work at much lower costs than you find elsewhere. Those are just two examples.

      Musk and the Boring Company are building tunnels for cars – low capacity vehicles. So the passenger throughput is extremely low. They are using low capacity cars and every car has a driver. Maybe worse, the station areas are pretty big but the boarding of passengers is very slow in the videos I’ve seen. This approach can’t scale much and will remain at least an order of magnitude lower capacity than true urban rail systems. So you are adding very minimal capacity to move people, but underground at huge cost compared to roads. I mean as a toy around the Vegas Convention Centre it seems to be working, but I’m guessing the huge shows have massive lines for the tesla-tunnels, and/ or people just skip and walk.

      The constraints of geometry are very real and one reasonable response is to use space efficiently, which is the opposite of sending cars to move people travelling in numbers to similar locations. Musk is re-solving (wrecking?) a problem already solved by people movers for short distances/ modest capacity and subways for longer distances and higher capacities.

      • Jonathan Hallam July 14, 2023 at 4:45 am #

        Thanks for the link to pedestrianobservations – I wasn’t aware of that one! Definitely good news about reduced tunnelling costs. IIRC, tunnels are actually pretty cheap because TBMs are pretty efficient these days whereas blasting or carving out large, bespoke stations is costly.

        I can’t help but wonder if a station is really necessary? How about straight through platform screen doors to elevator and up into the lobby of whichever building is above?

        • Sean Gillis July 14, 2023 at 5:03 am #

          Well, tunneling and subway building is relatively cheap in southern Europe and other places. In Canada, the UK and the US transit costs are outrageously high.

          Pedestrian Observations talks a lot about station costs, so you can get more details there. Their basic thesis – keep it simple. Smaller stations with less stuff underground. I believe they use Berlin as an example – simple centre platform stations with central elevators and stairs.

  2. Johnny July 5, 2023 at 5:29 pm #

    This hasn’t much to do with transit. It should be on your personal blog.

    • Jonathan Hallam July 6, 2023 at 12:53 pm #

      I was glad to know about it!