Jacqueline Leavitt, a professor emerita in urban planning and advocate for improved treatment of marginalized groups in urban planning, died Nov. 27 in Culver City from cancer-related complications. She was 76.
She taught urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs for 32 years and directed the UCLA Community Scholars Program from 1999 until she retired in June. The program connects chosen urban planning graduate students with labor and community leaders to research and collaborate with underserved Los Angeles communities.
Leavitt earned her master’s degree and Ph.D. at Columbia University and was a housing equality advocate, sometimes acting as a consultant for agencies such as the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the New York City Housing Preservation and Development Agency.
Her work extended beyond housing equality to study the underrepresentation of minorities and women in urban planning and labor, among other fields. Leavitt more recently used her research to study women taxi drivers.
She was one of the first researchers to study the intersection between feminism and urban planning, said Marie Kennedy, an urban planning professor.
Kennedy, then an architect interested in New York urban planning issues, said she met Leavitt in the 1970s. Their paths crossed at a strike against Columbia University after someone released information the university was planning to expand into Harlem, a historically significant center of black culture, she said.
“Both of us grew away from advocacy planning to transformative planning,” Kennedy said. “It’s the kind of planning that puts power in the hands of people who most need change.”
Paavo Monkkonen, an urban planning assistant professor who met Leavitt when he was interviewing for his job in 2011, said Leavitt always pushed the department to focus on social justice through initiatives like the Community Scholars Program. He added he was struck by how candid she was about her passion for social justice in urban planning.
“She was much more concerned with the real world in her work,” Monkkonen said. “Academic success was much less important to her than changing society.”
Kennedy said she thinks planning departments across the country are focusing more on urban planning’s technical aspects, such as identifying trends in urban growth and decay and allocating limited resources, instead of solving communities’ problems.
“Jackie understood (the technical aspect) was just a tool and what you really need to do is work in the interest of people,” Kennedy said. “I think that’s being lost and I’m concerned because I think her death leaves a huge hole in the field and at UCLA.”
Nina Flores, an urban planning graduate student who teaches in a social justice program at CSU Long Beach, was one of Leavitt’s students.
She said she is inspired by how Leavitt centered her work around social justice, though she thinks the academic community sometimes perceives research focused on social justice to be less scholarly.
Flores continued to spend time with Leavitt after she retired in June and left UCLA, becoming a part of the network of friends Leavitt called upon when she needed help, she said.
Leavitt’s home was like an intellectual salon, she added. Students, fellow organizers and scholars constantly visited her to talk about topics such as how to better integrate research into activism, or vice versa.
Her apartment was decorated with artifacts from Leavitt’s travels, including things people had made for her or that she had made herself, Flores said.
“Everywhere you looked, you’d be intellectually stimulated by books or a poster of something or her art,” she added.
Chris Tilly, director of the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment and an urban planning professor, said Leavitt visited communities around the world, including some in India, Brazil, the Philippines and Switzerland, for work and leisure.
“Every summer, she went to Switzerland to sketch,” Tilly said. “She would fly anywhere in the world to work with low-income, oppressed, marginalized people – especially if they were women.”
Kennedy said Leavitt left behind hundreds of small sketches and paintings depicting people and places from all the countries she had visited.
Tilly said Leavitt was working on a book when she retired detailing her life growing up in a working-class Jewish neighborhood in New York City and her experiences navigating gender in urban planning.
“She had an eye for urban design, but also for beauty,” he said. “She believed people who were excluded from society deserved beauty and equal access to it.”