Dr. Jim Cohen, Senior Lecturer and former Director of the Urban Studies and Community Planning Program, retires this summer after 27 years at the University of Maryland. Jim was integral in shaping the program, leveraging his passion for environmental planning to bring new coursework and opportunities to the school, including community projects in Baltimore and Prince George’s County. He engineered the university’s National Center for Smart Growth, which was developed to leverage the expertise of multiple university programs. Dr. Cohen is a favorite among students for his generosity of his time, eagerness to share his knowledge and friendly nature.
A native of Peoria, Illinois, Jim made his way to California as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer after getting his undergraduate degree in history at the University of Michigan. After his stint with VISTA, Jim and two friends joined the fervent social and political commentary of California’s early 70s, starting a fledging alternative newspaper out of another friend’s garage, while Jim made money working the night shift as a custodian for a local department store. But it was a job with the San Diego Department of Human Services a short time later that launched Jim’s trajectory in planning. That job led to more work in Sacramento, where he worked with community action agencies to expand their scope and, eventually, back to school, this time at Cornell. Jim earned his graduate degree at Cornell and then set his sights on a Ph.D., after discovering a genuine affinity for teaching as a teacher’s assistant. “I really liked teaching in grad school,” explained Jim. “I found a lot of satisfaction in working with students and knew it was a path I wanted to pursue.”
Serendipity brought Jim to the University of Maryland in 1990. He had recently moved to Washington, D.C. with his wife, when he got a call from the program head two weeks before classes began. A faculty teacher has unexpectedly left, and they needed someone to take over his course load. His first year as an instructor, Jim taught five classes while successfully completing his Ph.D. dissertation. “It was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done,” he recalls.
Jim was brought on as a lecturer, a position he maintained despite prodding from colleagues. He never went for tenure so that reserved tenure spots could be awarded to newer faculty, attract new talent and build the program. Jim reveled in the work he was able to execute with his colleagues. He often collaborated with Marie Howland, who retired last year, on projects and studies. Jim was instrumental in nabbing a one million-dollar grant that funded five projects (four in Baltimore and one in Prince George’s County) that enlisted the lion’s share of the urban planning faculty and employed 10 graduate students. He launched the first of MAPP’s I-Series courses, “The Sustainable City,” still one of the most popular general classes at MAPP, which circles back to his love of environmental urban issues. But it is Jim’s students that bring him the most joy. He loves working on studio projects collaboratively with his students, sharing his expertise and helping to cultivate their own. Many alumni have remarked that it was Jim who swayed their decision to attend Maryland because of his attention and care in answering questions and sharing his time.
“Students come in and they are so bright but have very little or no experience in planning,” said Jim. “Watching them develop these skills and knowledge, and then watching them grow in their professional life is the best part of my job.”
“The Urban Studies and Planning (URSP) Program has been lucky to have Jim Cohen as our director for more than ten years,” said Professor Emeritus Marie Howland. “He has worked tirelessly to recruit top students, to be sure their educational needs are met in URSP, and supportive of their job placement upon graduation. Jim is an inclusive leader that has created a positive, supportive, and intellectually stimulating environment for both faculty and students.”
As Jim eases into retirement, he’ll continue to be active in his community of Greenbelt, Md., where he has lived since 2005. Jim’s home was the former childhood home of a student, one that he had visited years before it went up on the market (pure coincidence brought him back to purchase it). A tight-knit community built during The Great Depression, Greenbelt has a long history of activism and community, something that fits with Jim’s sensibility. He is currently the chair of the building committee and is implementing ideas to make the community more energy efficient. Jim is also going to learn to play the piano, and has not ruled out coming back to UMD to teach occasionally.
“Conscientiously, intelligently, generously, and with a distinctive sense of humor, Jim Cohen made the Planning Program work,” says longtime colleague Professor Emeritus Howell Baum. “He made sure that we admitted good students and that, once here, they were well advised and listened to. He provided intellectual and material support for professors’ teaching and scholarly interests. He scheduled classes to match professors’ interests with students’ needs. Jim did much of this on his own, quietly, sometimes invisibly, so the rest of us could take it for granted that we could walk into classrooms and proceed to teach and learn. In all these ways, he has been an extraordinary leader and friend.”