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Urban Influencers: Six Women Making Things Happen in Cities

Ariella Cohen / Mar 14 2013

For Release Thursday, March 14, 2013

One thing I’ve noticed throughout my years covering urban planning and development is a dearth of women in the field. It’s tough to track down conclusive stats, but if you take a quick scroll through faculty listings of the world’s pre-eminent planning, design and architecture programs, you will see far more men than women. Take a look at the principals of the firms winning major city contracts and again – men. If you want to go local, simply attend a local planning board meeting.

I’ve seen lots of women in the crowd, but when it comes to making decisions it’s the men in the room who routinely have the votes. Even in our own humble storefront, Next City, we find events often draw more Y chromosomes than X. (While more men may attend our events, the staff running them is two-thirds female, and our executive director, Diana Lind, falls squarely in the female camp.)

That said, I believe we are making progress. I know more and more women entering the field, and graduate program stats support my experience. Engineering, architecture and planning programs are becoming less and less of the sausage fests they once were. In honor of International Women’s Day this month – and the progress in the field – I offer a list of six women making a difference in today’s urban sphere.

And no, Jane Jacobs is not on the list.

Jennifer Pahlka

Jennifer Pahlka is the woman behind Code for America which, if it isn’t already reshaping how you communicate with the city hall closest to you, will likely be soon. Code for America is the civic tech movement’s Teach for America, importing talented young things into public urban institutions. Pahlka has already broken into the boys club that is the tech world. Now she’s conquering city hall.

Majora Carter

Majora Carter has been topping lists like this for years. A founder of the not-for-profit Sustainable South Bronx, Carter made her name derailing a plan to put a waste transfer station in her neighborhood and eventually went on to bring the polluted, long-neglected area its first waterfront park. A 2006 MacArthur Genius Fellow, Carter recently announced plans to launch Startup Box: South Bronx, a not-for-profit tech incubator that will bring technology, design and entrepreneurship programs to the same neighborhood she began cleaning up more than a decade ago. But while Carter has remained focused on the South Bronx, she has at the same time reshaped international discourse about green jobs, environmental justice and urban needs.

Janette Sadik-Khan

Credit: B-Roll on Flickr

To transportation geeks, New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan is everything. She has created miles of bike lanes, ousted cars from the streets to make those adorable parklets and fought hard to make NYC streets safer for people who value their legs. Which should be all of us. Also, she knows how to rock a dress with bike shorts.

Mimi Hoang

Mimi Hoang is one half of the architectural duo nARCHITECTS. The New York-based firm is destined for big things despite the tiny footprint of their most recent acclaimed design. Hoang and her partner (in life and work) Eric Bunge recently won New York City’s competition for a micro-apartment that could help ease the crowded city’s affordable housing crisis. With its graceful yet scary-small design, their “My Micro NY” is already on its way to reconfiguring the way we live.

Toni Griffin

Urban planner Toni Griffin has been designing neighborhoods in the country’s biggest cities for upwards of 20 years, but in 2012 she took center stage in a development of a different kind. Last year, the progressive planner helped to launch the new
J. Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City at the City College of New York. As director of the Bond center, she aims to heighten awareness of the access, inclusion and equity issues inevitable, yet often unconfronted, in architecture and development. It’s not just academics keeping Griffin busy, though. Earlier this year, she completed a new plan for Detroit, the foundation-funded Detroit Future City. Her vision has big potential to greatly shape the city’s redevelopment, just as her center has the power to help reframe the dialogue on urban design.

Saskia Sassen

At Next City, we never get tired of her. Sassen is sharp, forward-looking and brilliant. As we said in December: “The global street, Sassen writes, is ‘a space where new forms of the social and the political can be made, rather than a space for enacting ritualized routines.’ The Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, the ongoing rebellion in Syria, the crowds of jobless youth in Spain ¬– all of these embody Sassen’s notion.” The author and theorist can murmur global streetisms in our ear all night long.

Ariella Cohen is executive editor of Next City, where this article first appeared. Next City is a nonprofit organization dedicated to connecting cities and informing the people who work to improve them. Reach her at columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Nancy Mohr
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    One day I hope you connect with Lisa Schroeder, Executive Director, Riverlife, Pittsburgh.
    A remarkable planner (and woman).

  2. Posted March 16, 2013 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Your column is spot on. I am working with three colleagues on a new book entitled Design Downtown for Women — Men Will Follow. I’d love to interview each of the women you’ve celebrated.

  3. Posted March 16, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for taking note !
    Here are a three more women who have been working for decades to green cities:
    Hillary Brown, in NYC
    Barbra Batshalom, in Boston
    Susan Piedmont-Palladino, in Washington DC

  4. Nancy Mohr
    Posted March 17, 2013 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    I do not have access for a website for Ms Schroeder. NM

    625 Kirtland Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15208
    Tel 410-901-6307; email

    Lisa Schroeder is President and Chief Executive Officer of Riverlife, a public-private partnership that is implementing the Master Plan to revitalize Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Waterfront.
    She has guided the growth of Riverlife from a start-up in 1999 to a civic force responsible for the redevelopment of 63 acres of Pittsburgh’s downtown. More than $4 billion have been invested in real estate development on the waterfront, and the goal of a continuous Three Rivers Park extending for 13 miles throughout downtown Pittsburgh is 80 per cent complete.

    In 2011, she was recognized as an Outstanding Woman in Business by the Pittsburgh Business Times, and this year she received the Pittsburgh AIA Gold Medal Award for a community leader who “has been a driving force in…improving the experience of the built environment for all.”

    Ms. Schroeder joined Riverlife in 1998, when it was an ad hoc Task Force of decision-makers from the city government, foundations, property owners, developers and cultural institutions. She directed the creation of “A Vision Plan for Pittsburgh’s Riverfronts,” which earned the 2002 national AIA Honor Award in Urban Planning and Design and the Merit Award in Planning from the International Downtown Association.
    In 1999, she was appointed Executive Director to implement the Vision and Master Plan, and in 2008 became President and CEO of the corporation. Under her leadership, Riverlife has successfully advocated a high standard of urban development, ranging from State and Federal highway design to guidelines for public and private waterfront development.

    Ms. Schroeder grew up in Baltimore and has a 25-year record of working to improve the quality of urban life through downtown planning and development, historic preservation and environmental conservation.
    She received a B.A. Cum Laude in Art History from William Smith College as a member of Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year, and an M.S. from the Columbia University School of Architecture, Planning and Historic Preservation.
    She has served in professional positions for the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Maine Preservation Trust, and she has been an urban planning and preservation Consultant for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Connecticut State Planning Department, New York State Council for the Arts and the National Association of Realtors Division of Architecture.
    She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Pittsburgh Foundation, the Dollar Bank of Pittsburgh and the Regional Industrial Development Corporation; a Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College Center for Economic Development and a member of the Allegheny County Executive Transition Team.
    In 2008, Ms. Schroeder was described by the Pittsburgh Quarterly as being ”in front and center in the push to humanize our waterfronts and accelerate the rebranding of Pittsburgh from smokestack to gleaming city, recognized for its handsome beauty and human scale.”