Obituary: U geographer Judith Martin shaped Twin Cities

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 4, 2011 - 11:19 PM

She served as a bridge between academia and real life on the Minneapolis Planning Commission.

Geographer Judith Martin, who shaped the Twin Cities landscape perhaps more than any academic of her era, died early Monday of complications from treatment for a recurrence of breast cancer. She was 63.

While Martin taught a generation of urban studies students at the University of Minnesota, she also jumped into the nitty-gritty of planning, serving 15 years on the Minneapolis Planning Commission, eight of them at its helm. She played a major role in rewriting the city's zoning code and the comprehensive plan that undergirds it.

"She was a tireless advocate for the city," said City Council Member Gary Schiff, who worked closely on city planning matters with her. "She inspired legions of students at the University of Minnesota to fight for a better urban environment."

"She was a bridge from the ivory tower to City Hall and from theory to practice," Schiff said. "Everyone should learn her name, because we all live in a better city because of her."

Martin founded the university's Urban Studies Program and played a role in university governance, including a stint leading the Faculty Consultative Committee, the main conduit between the faculty and administration. But she was also an early leader in encouraging faculty to engage with communities off campus, according to faculty friend Marti Hope Gonzales.

"She had an enormous impact on this community," said Linda Mack, a Heritage Preservation Commission member and longtime urban design writer. "The academic work was really groundbreaking in terms of being about the community and its history and its neighborhoods. It came out of the caldron of the 1960s, where this was not about academic work but about making better places."

Martin lived on Nicollet Island in a building that had been slated for demolition, reserving the first townhouse while the building was still a shell. She prized the island for its quiet. "She loved to go down to the river and sit," neighbor Edna Brazaitis said.

Martin was passionate about the Fringe Festival, on whose board she served, and local fine arts, Hope Gonzales said.

She told a university interviewer that she arrived at the U from Chicago as a graduate student in American studies and history, wondering where the tall buildings were in an era when the Foshay Tower was the city's tallest.

She also brought an "edgy" approach, said David Lanegran, a Macalester College geography professor and collaborator on two books.

"She didn't write a lot of fancy theory, but she did a lot of sharp analysis of people and problems," he said. Her doctoral thesis analyzed one collection of tall buildings, the groundbreaking but controversial West Bank development now known as Riverside Plaza. She also herded academics through the writing of what Lanegran described as a highly regarded series of profiles of metropolitan portraits. She was equally at home discussing suburbs and central cities.

Schiff recalled Martin as an academic who was educating mayors, council members and planning commissioners about transit-oriented development and Portland, Ore.-style planning, long before those topics were popularized.

As a Planning Commission president, she strove for consensus, voting only to break a tie, and during a boom period of development presiding over meetings that stretched almost five hours long.

She is survived by a sister, Maureen Martin-Huber, and a brother, Dennis. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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