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As we continue to grapple with the changing notions of the city and what it means to be urban, it’s also important to take a look back at the iconic figures who have shaped these views throughout the 20th century and beyond. Earlier this month, Planetizen released its list of the top 100 urban thinkers based on an informal poll of its readership. Most of the big names are there and most had a substantial impact on the built environment, our views about it, and even how Louisville evolved over time.

Here’s a rundown of a few of the urban visionaries who, either directly or indirectly and for better or worse, have some sort of connection to Louisville’s built environment. One massive oversight we spotted was the omission of Louisville’s native urban pioneer and recent Athena Medal recipient Grady Clay. Clay has done a great deal to advance urban issues in Louisville and abroad and even coined the term “new urbanism” decades before the Charter of the New Urbanism.

  • [ 1 ] Jane Jacobs – We’ve mentioned Jane before for including Louisville in her epic book Death and Life of Great American Cities (thanks to the help of Grady Clay). She was also an early pioneer in grassroots opposition to urban renewal and highway building campaigns.
  • [ 2 ] Andres Duany – Duany is a prominent New Urbanist and one of the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism. He designed prominent towns such as Seaside, Florida and Kentlands, Maryland in addition to Norton Commons here in Louisville.
  • [ 4 ] Frederick Law Olmsted – Olmsted’s impact on Louisville is undeniable and goes without stating. The Father of Landscape Architecture designed many parks and parkways here along with Central Park in New York City and his masterpiece Prospect Park in Brooklyn.
  • [ 6 ] Daniel Burnham – Planner of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, a fair credited with bringing neo-classicism to prominence. Burnham also designed the Starks Building on Fourth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard.
  • [ 24 ] Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk – Founding partner in Duany-Plater-Zyberk with her husband Andres Duany and influential New Urbanist whose firm designed Norton Commons.
  • [ 31 ] Bruce Katz – Proponent of regionalism and an urban thinker at the Brookings Institution who frequently studies Louisville and offers advice on policy for the city.
  • [ 36 ] Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. – Olmsted’s son who took over the family landscape architecture practice and continued to design many parks and landscapes throughout Louisville.
  • [ 48 ] Thomas Jefferson – The third president also had a keen interest in architecture and planning. He designed a city plan for Jeffersonville, but the plan incorporating diamond-shape blocks with parks at each intersection was never adopted.
  • [ 54 ] Frank Lloyd Wright – prominent American architect whose urban ideal was Broadacre City, a low-density pattern that closely resembles contemporary suburbs. Wright’s protege and son-in-law William Wesley Peters designed the Kaden Tower near Dutchman’s Lane based on plans by Wright.
  • [ 63 ] Wendell Berry – Little introduction needed for the famous Kentucky writer who espoused the virtues of local economies, sense of community, and connection to place among other things.
  • [ 65 ] Rem Koolhaas – Dutch architect and founder of Office for Metropolitan Architecture. OMA was the firm commissioned to design Museum Plaza before the New York office split and came under the direction of Joshua Prince-Ramus.
  • [ 66 ] John Gilderbloom – Professor at U of L’s graduate program in Urban & Public Affairs and director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods. Author of Promise and Betrayal on how U of L has helped to revitalize the Russell neighborhood in Louisville.
  • [ 67 ] Walter Kulash – Transportation engineer who is a pioneer in livable traffic design for walkable communities and forefront engineer for traffic calming street design. Kulash was responsible for the feasibility study for the campaign that showed how an urban boulevard could handle traffic in Louisville.
  • [ 68 ] Donovan Rypkema – A principal at a real-estate and economic development consulting firm in Washington DC, Rypkema is a strong proponent of the economic value of historic preservation as a means to improve local economy and sustainability. He frequently lectures in Louisville on such topics.
  • [ 98 ] John Norquist – Former mayor of Milwaukee who successfully removed a portion of elevated highway from that city. Currently, Norquist is the president of the Congress of the New Urbanism and has spoken at several events organized by the campaign in Louisville.

Check out the complete list of urban thinkers from Planetizen on their web site.

If you’re interested in reading up on some other great urbanists, here are a few of my recommendations from the Planetizen list that are worth checking out:

  • Christopher Alexander – A Pattern Language and A Timeless Way of Building
  • Kevin A. Lynch – The Image of the City
  • Lewis Mumford – The City in History
  • Leon Krier – prominent, though largely theoretical, New Urbanist. Anything you can find is worth looking at.
  • William H. Whyte – Social Life of Small Urban Places and City: Rediscovering the Center
  • Camillo Sitte – City Planning According to Artistic Principles
  • Janette Sadik-Khan – New York Transportation Commissioner responsible for creating innovative bike and pedestrian infrastructure in the city. Read more from Forbes.
  • Colin Rowe – Collage City
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Branden Klayko


  1. Planetizen’s list and Branden’s personalized sub-list make for a rich feast of ideas. The large list includes, looking from a 21st century urbanist perspective, both heroes and villains (Moses, Levitt, Ford, Le Corbusier, Disney) and puts in perspective the questions we have to ask ourselves as we design and redesign for this century. I am new to this area, and have just begun in the last couple of years reading in the areas of architecture and urban design. What strikes me when looking at Jacobs and Clay and Kunstler (he should be on the list) and Miller is that changes in our attitudes towards cities and spaces began when folks simply started LOOKING carefully, classifying, noting. That’s pretty much what happened in the Enlightenment: We stopped taking the givens as sacred and actually looked at the world.

    One thing I see missing in the big list is the kind of micro-thinking and meta-thinking of writers such as Gaston Bachelard (The Poetics of Space), Yi-Fu Tuan, Witold Rybczynski, James Hillman, Robert Venturi, William H. Whyte and artists and poets like Allen Ginsberg, Gerald Stern, Richard Hugo, Edward Hopper, and Joseph Cornell.

    The essay from the Urbanophile linked earlier contains a lot of the questions we need to ask as we ponder the work and ideas of the folks on the list.

  2. Thanks for pointing out a few additional names of important urban thinkers, Ken. All of your examples are great (I particularly recomment Witold Rybczynski), and it’s especially interesting that you included poets and artists. Edward Hopper is another great choice.

  3. As a local urban thinker, I'd like to suggest Jim Walters of Bravura.

    He was project manager of the Humana building, working closely with architect Michael Graves. He was designer/developer of Waterfront Park Place. He worked on the original design of Waterfront Park. He worked with Architect Cesar Pelli and renowned landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx

    on a 1980s push for a local botanical gardens.

  4. Funny that I was so self-righteously talking about SEEING, while I failed to notice that Whyte and Kunstler ARE on the list. Shame on me. I’ll still hold to my premise that going beyond the professionals and names in the actual fields of architecture, landscape design, urban planning and design, and looking at artists and thinkers from other fields is always beneficial: historians, philosophers, psychologists, geographers, poets and artists are saying things about place and space that the ‘pros’ can learn from. I’m always a little suspicious of ‘professionalism’ – especially when it means circle the wagons and keep out ideas from beyond the dogmas and areas of expertise. One may wonder why, for example, I would put Joseph Cornell on the list. His little boxes were surreal and personal, but what he tells us about the rules of objects in space, the relationships between things and light and color and textures within enclosed space is something for architects and planners to learn from.

    For several years I moderated a discussion called “The Poetics of Objects and Space” – first on, then on I had participants from all over the world, and their observations – personal, often lyrical, sometimes angry, sometimes cleanly objective – would have been excellent input for architects and planners. Perhaps we should be LISTENING to the ways we are in places as well as, from a distance, simply observing.

    By the way, here’s a nice little website for seeing architectural space in a creative way:

  5. Thanks Michael and Ken for adding to the list of great thinkers. Louisville has its share of great urbanists. I have often pointed out Grady Clay, but there are many others as well. Jasper Ward comes to mind; Al Schneider has also had a distinct impact on the shape of urban Louisville as well. Anyone have any other nominations?

  6. I spent the morning with George Parker of the Louisville Film Society. We’re working on some projects… and LFS are working on projects… that should bring interesting, engaging, and transformative things to the community. Talking to George, I remarked that Louisville has great CULTURAL life, but that our INTELLECTUAL life seems thinner. I’m not sure why that is, or if it is actually true. I’m wondering what IDEAS are being generated here, not just what ACTIVITY is being generated. Are we creative, but not thoughtful…?