Susan Christopherson, a professor of city and regional planning known for her scholarly work and expertise on regional economic development, died Dec. 14 of cancer. She was 69.
Christopherson came to Cornell in 1987. She was appointed chair of the Department of City and Regional Planning (CRP) in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning (AAP) in 2014 and was a faculty fellow in the David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. She taught and mentored AAP students on the Ithaca campus and in New York City.
She was the first woman to be promoted to full professor in city and regional planning at Cornell, and the first woman to chair the department in its nearly 80-year history. She was on leave from Cornell this fall.
“Her loss will be felt keenly by the many colleagues, students, staff and friends who knew Susan as a remarkable intellect, a master of so many fields and a force for good,” said Kent Kleinman, the Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of AAP. “Her academic accomplishments were many, but they hardly sum up this remarkable person who was a whirlwind of creative ideas, hard work, fairness and grace. She will be sorely missed.”
A pioneer in her field, Christopherson’s work as an economic geographer reflected her commitment to integrating scholarship with public engagement. Her research and teaching focused on economic development, urban labor markets, and location patterns in media and other service industries. She conducted policy-oriented projects and international research in Canada, Mexico, China, Germany and Jordan, as well as multicountry studies. She also consulted with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the United Nations.
She co-authored “Remaking Regional Economies: Power, Labor and Firm Strategies in the Knowledge Economy,” winner of the 2009 Regional Studies Association Best Book Award. She published more than 100 articles and policy reports, served on the editorial boards of several leading journals, and was editor-in-chief of a Regional Studies Association book series on cities and regions.
In recent years, she completed studies on advanced manufacturing in New York’s Southern Tier, the photonics industry in Rochester, the role of universities and colleges in revitalizing the upstate New York economy, and production trends affecting media industries in New York City.
She also focused on human-environment relations and public policy related to unconventional energy extraction and nontraditional energy sources, analyzing the safety of crude oil transport by rail and the economic consequences of Marcellus shale natural gas drilling. This work led to her appointment to a National Research Council panel considering the implications of shale gas and oil development for communities in New York and Pennsylvania.
In December 2015, the Association of American Geographers (AAG) announced Christopherson had won its Lifetime Achievement Honors award, citing how she “pushed the boundaries of academic inquiry, but has done so in a way that addresses issues of public concern and provides information to policymakers and citizens alike.” This year she also received the Sir Peter Hall Contribution to the Field Award from the Regional Studies Association in Great Britain.
Christopherson was born March 20, 1947, in St. Paul, Minnesota. At the University of Minnesota, she earned her bachelor’s degree in urban studies in 1972 and a master’s in geography in 1975.
She received her doctorate in 1983 from the University of California, Berkeley, and won the AAG’s Urban Specialty Group Annual Dissertation Award. In 1982-83 she was a research associate at the University of California, Los Angeles Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning and the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego; a visiting professor of geography at San Diego State University; and a visiting lecturer at the University of Texas, El Paso.
“Susan was an important scholar, a highly regarded instructor and a dependable colleague who contributed much to the life of the department,” said Kieran Donaghy, professor and acting chair of CRP. “She conducted and supervised path-breaking research in the area of regional economic development and exerted a strong influence on the scholarly conversations in the field. Her presence in West Sibley Hall will be greatly missed.”
In her tenure as chair, Christopherson expanded and diversified the curriculum, and raised significant funding to support students.
“I was consistently inspired by her determination and passion, as well as her deep love and concern for the people who surrounded and supported her in spurring the department to be an exemplary model of planning’s highest aspirations,” said Wylie Goodman, MRP ’17, who worked with Christopherson last year. “She was a trailblazer as an academic, urban planning practitioner, and administrator. Female students, in particular, have lost a steadfast mentor and guide.”
Details of a memorial service on campus will be announced.