Peter Marcuse
Peter Marcuse


Peter Marcuse died on March 4, 2022, at his home in Santa Barbara, CA. He was 93 years old. He continued to pursue his commitment to social justice through his writing and activism until the end of his life. During his long career he was an attorney in Connecticut working within the areas of civil rights and labor law, an influential member of planning boards in Connecticut, New York, and California, a professor of planning, an advocate for progressive causes, and a founder of various international scholarly collaborations. [1]

Peter came to the United States as a refugee from Nazi Germany in 1933 along with his father, the eminent philosopher Herbert Marcuse, and his mother, Sophie Wertheim, a mathematician. He graduated from Harvard College, then after earning a law degree from Yale, he practiced law on behalf of labor unions, non-profit housing corporations, and civil-rights litigants for 20 years. At the same time, while also serving as an alderman and city planning commission member in Waterbury, CT, he acquired master’s degrees in urban studies at Columbia and Yale.  Subsequently he received a PhD in planning from Berkeley in 1972, joined the UCLA planning faculty, and became a member, then president, of the Los Angeles planning commission. In 1975 he returned east to become director of Columbia’s planning program.

At Columbia Peter continued a vigorous program of publication in both scholarly and more popular journals, ranging from the Journal of the American Institute of Planners to The Nation. He continued his civic involvement as a member of the upper-West Side Manhattan community board and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) board of directors. Along with his academic job, he participated in numerous scholarly, governmental, and non-profit organizations. He joined David Harvey, Manuel Castells, Michael Harloe, and others in creating RC21, the committee on urban and regional research (RC21) of the International Sociological Association. RC21 foundeded the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research and held yearly, interdisciplinary conferences that brought together urban scholars from around the world. He attributed his theoretical framework to the insights of Harvey and Castells.

Access to housing became a central theme of Peter’s further scholarship. He led a major study in 1978 of housing conditions in New York City. Required every three years under state law, the study involved calculations of vacancy, rent burdens, owner occupancy, etc., which Peter used to demonstrate the inequities in the city’s housing market. He investigated differences between American and German cities in the provision of affordable housing. Using the European experience to show alternate paths to housing provision, he critiqued the idealization of home ownership and what he labeled the fabricated myths of the ‘benevolent State.’ He took advantage of his fluency in German to travel often to his country of birth and was a direct witness of one of the most important political events of twentieth century Europe, the collapse of the DDR, while he was a Fulbright scholar there in 1989.  His scholarship revealed many assumptions characterizing the debate on post-socialist reconstruction in Europe, including the Berlin case, at a time when most European planning and architecture schools were celebrating it as an unalloyed positive outcome.

Spatial segregation in cities worldwide was another focus of his research, which examined gentrification and abandonment, displacement and homelessness. He studied how ‘urban ghettos’ evolved over time in American cities, tracing these phenomena back to the effects of various US federal programs, from urban renewal in the 60s to the most recent push against concentrated poverty.

As well as being concerned with the substantive impacts of planning, Peter examined the roles played by planners in supporting or overcoming the conservative bias of municipal governance. He wrote a widely cited article on planning ethics. Regarding planning decisions as necessarily conflictual, he accused “technicist” planners of smoothing over conflict so as to facilitate capitalist profits.

Peter’s students universally regarded him as a benevolent but demanding teacher. They all cite his openness to different points of view, his sense of humor, and his encouragement of their own contributions to the discipline. As a program chair he demonstrated the same warmth to his colleagues, always willing to comment on their work and engage them in significant conversations. Under his guidance the Columbia program was a center of intellectual life.

Peter left a lasting mark on the planning academy and profession. His legacy will be long remembered.

We extend our deepest sympathy to Frances, his wife of over 70 years, and his sons, Harold and Andrew.

Susan S. Fainstein and Laura Saija


[1] See Peter Marcuse, Peter. 2017, “From Utopian and Realistic to Transformative Planning,” pp. 35-50 in Encounters in Planning Thought, edited by Beatrix Haselsberger, London: Routledge, 2017; Susan S. Fainstein, “ACSP Distinguished Educator, 2011: Peter Marcuse,” Journal of Planning Education and Research, forthcoming, Summer 2022.