Richard Meier, emeritus professor and "super planner" dies at 86
BERKELEY – Richard Louis Meier, an emeritus professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and an early thinker on the importance of sustainability in planning, died on Feb. 26 of pneumonia and congestive heart failure at Alta Bates Medical Center in Berkeley.
Meier taught for more than 35 years in the departments of architecture, landscape architecture, and urban and regional planning in UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design.
Between 1950 and 1956, he taught in the University of Chicago’s Program of Education and Research in Planning. He was a research social scientist in the Mental Health Research Institute at the University of Michigan between 1957 and 1967, focusing on systems theory, and then was a professor in the School of Conservation in the University of Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources.
He joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1967 to help establish the Department of City and Regional Planning’s new doctoral program.
“Dick joined DCRP’s faculty in the 1960s, determined to apply systems analysis tools for taking on some of the more intractable urban problems,” said Robert Cervero, the department’s chair. “Dick was a true renaissance man, viewing cities holistically and through a truly trans-disciplinary lens. He was among the first urban scholars to articulate the need for sustainable planning, to warn us of the threats posed by carbon emissions, and to seek out ways to improve the lives of the poor in developing countries. He’ll be sorely missed.”
Meier earned his B.S. in chemistry at the University of Illinois, Urbana, in 1940 and his M.S. in organic chemistry at UCLA in 1942. Before earning his Ph.D. in organic chemistry at UCLA in 1944, he made his mark as a generalist and futurist, persuading that newly established department to teach leading-edge developments in nuclear chemistry and physics.
While working as a Standard Oil of California research chemist in Richmond, Calif., Meier began talking with UC Berkeley scientists about the post-war implications of atomic energy and weapons and became a member of the Federation of Atomic Scientists.
As the federation’s executive secretary from 1947-1949, Meier became the point person in the scientists’ efforts to explain to the public why American atomic research should be kept out of military control and why international nuclear proliferation should be contained.
He took part in a 1947 Princeton, NJ, conference of scientists, social scientists and diplomats that was chaired by Albert Einstein and that sought support for the Marshall Plan and other solutions to problems posed by the development of weapons of mass destruction. The meeting turned into an impassioned appeal to Edward Teller, a Hungarian-American theoretical physicist known colloquially as “the father of the hydrogen bomb,” not to work on the hydrogen bomb, according to Meier’s family.
During a Fulbright fellowship in Manchester, England, from 1949-1950, Meier shifted his attention to technological solutions for the problems of the world’s biggest and poorest cities. He also worked in 1981 at Seoul National University as a Fulbright professor.
As early as 1951, Meier convinced a University of Chicago colleague, the New Deal “brainstruster” Rexford Tugwell, of the inevitability of his (Meier’s) forecasts. Tugwell said these included “the displacement of natural by synthetic fibers; the enlarged use of electronic calculators and classifiers; the radical improvement of communications by the use of ultra fax and television devices; the production of steel by a hydrogen reduction process; the perfection of synthetic rubbers and plastics; more economical conversion of coals to liquid fuels; more effective control of insects; the introduction of microbiological food supplies; advances in the control of weather; more effective antibiotics; control of the human nervous system with drugs; advances in genetics by analysis of human sperm and ova ... ; and advances toward technological oneness in the world ... followed by tighter organization and by holistic planning devices.”
Meier’s first book, “Science and Economic Development: New Patterns of Living,” (1956) predicted the birth control pill, new forms of low-energy transportation, new technologies to replace scarce natural resources, the use of solar power, and the growth of resource-conserving cities. A review by UK economist Alec Cairncross in 1958 described Meier as “a super-planner who has been working on a blueprint for the world of 2000 A.D. and is ready to give marching orders not only to those who control new investment, but also to scientists in their laboratories and pilot plants.”
Born on May 16, 1920, in Kendallville, Ind., Meier grew up the oldest of five children in a family that was poor. His father was a German-American Lutheran schoolteacher, choirmaster and organist. His mother became seriously ill shortly after the birth of her youngest child, and much of the running of the household fell to young Meier.
At UCLA, Meier was denied a $50 student loan because his family had no property for collateral. Half a century later, following the death of his wife, Gitta Unger Meier, he used her life insurance to set up a foundation in India along the lines of the Grameen Bank to make revolving loans to help poor women establish small-scale businesses.
His research led him to believe that increasing education for girls and micro-entrepreneurial opportunities for women would be the most effective way to limit family size and to foster sustainable development more generally, observed Robin Standish, Meier’s wife and collaborator in recent years.
Meier regarded his third book, “A Communications Theory of Urban Growth (1962),” as his most important and original contribution. In it, he drew on information theory, systems theory and thermodynamics to argue that the vitality of cities was a function of the flow of information, images and ideas that could be measured in terms of transactions among members of the urban community. Professor Jennifer Light of Northwestern University’s Communications Department said that although the book was largely ignored on its publication, it is now essential reading for graduate students in communications.
Meier generated a flood of papers, technical reports and other books that included “Developmental Planning (1965),” “Planning for an Urban World: Design of Resource-Conserving Cities (1974)” and “Urban Futures Observed: In the Asian Third World (1980).”
He pioneered simulations gaming in the social sciences, and tried out - with his children on his living room floor - the first versions of his simulations of an island ecosystem, the building of America’s transcontinental railroads and a Puerto Rican barrio.
Stuart Umpleby, a professor in the Department of Management Science and director of the Center for Social and Organizational Learning at George Washington University, recalled encountering Meier at the International Futures Research Conference in Kyoto in 1970: “He told me stories about research - his and others. I found the stories fascinating. They were so well-crafted, they did not seem real. The form of the stories was that of a scientific experiment. But the personalities, settings and events were as vivid as a Hollywood movie.”
In retirement, Meier continued teaching, writing and turning out new ideas, despite increasing disabilities.
Meier’s final book, “Ecological Planning, Management and Design,” published online in 2003 (http://www-dcrp.ced.berkeley.edu/faculty/meier/), laid out many of his strategies for paths to sustainable communities, particularly for the urban poor in developing countries. It reflected his unquenchable optimism about the future and his belief that good planning and social justice are inseparable.
He was a member of the American Chemical Society, American Geographical Society, American Sociological Association, Society for General Systems Research, American Association for the Advancement of Science, World Society of Ekistics, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy and the World Future Society.
He is survived by his wife, Robin Standish of Berkeley; son, Alan of Berkeley; daughters, Andrea Meier of Chapel Hill, NC, and Karen Reeds of Princeton, NJ; three stepchildren, David Standish of Oakland, Michael Standish of Los Angeles, and Miriam Standish Hartmann of Sunnyvale, Calif.; four grandchildren and four step-grandchildren; and his brother, Ralph Meier of Crystal River, Fla. His first wife, Gitta, died in 1982.
The family requests donations to go to the University of California, Berkeley, Scholarship Fund, the American Friends Service Committee: http://www.afsc.org/give/now.htm, or the Global Fund for Women: http://www.globalfundforwomen.org/cms/.
A memorial program will be held at UC Berkeley at noon, Sunday, April 15, in Wurster Hall, located on campus near the intersection of Bancroft Way and College Avenue.
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