Obituary: Richard L. Meier, "Super-Planner"

 

Compiled by Karen Meier Reeds

4/8/2007


The regional planner, systems theorist, scientist, and futurist, Richard Louis Meier, who was recognized internationally for envisioning and devising pragmatic solutions for large-scale social problems--often years before the issues themselves were noticed by the public or policy-makers--died on February 26, 2007, of pneumonia and congestive heart failure in Berkeley, California.

Meier, an emeritus professor at the University of California, Berkeley, had taught for more than 35 years in the departments of architecture, landscape architecture, and urban and regional planning, in the College of Environmental Design.  (He was not related to the New York-based architect of the same name, with whom he was often confused.) Between 1950 and 1956, he taught in the University of Chicago's influential Program of Education and Research in Planning. Between 1957 and 1967, he first was a research social scientist in the Mental Health Research Institute at the University of Michigan, focusing on systems theory, and then a professor in Michigan’s department of natural resources, School of Conservation.

Even before taking his Ph.D. in organic chemistry at University of California at Los Angeles in 1944, Meier made his mark as a generalist and futurist, persuading the newly established department to teach leading-edge developments in nuclear chemistry and physics. While working as a Standard Oil research chemist in Richmond, California, Meier began talking with Berkeley scientists about the post-war implications of atomic energy and weapons and soon became a member of the Federation of Atomic Scientists (founded in 1945, renamed the Federation of American Scientists in 1946).

 As the FAS's executive secretary in Washington, D.C., between 1947-1949, Meier became the point person in the scientists' efforts in the late 1940s 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 notable 1947 Princeton “Thanksgiving conference” of scientists, social scientists, and diplomats, chaired by Einstein, that sought support for the Marshall Plan and other “solutions to the problems posed by the development of weapons of mass destruction.”  (In a letter to the organizers on the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, Meier volunteered his wife, Gitta Unger Meier, as typist and indicated that he would bring their 8-month-old daughter: "The baby is very convenient and doesn't mind being ignored for a few hours at a time.") In response to a rumor that Edward Teller had just solved early technical difficulties on the “Super-Bomb,” the meeting turned into an impromptu, impassioned appeal to Teller not to work on the hydrogen bomb. “Over two nights, it was so intense, I had no sleep,” Meier recalled in 2004.

 [Unpublished oral history, 2002-2007, interviewer, Andrea Meier; to be deposited at Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (January 1948), Vol. 4, No. 1, p. 32, “Princeton Conference of Atomic Scientists.” Federation of American Scientists Records, Box 14, Folder 3, and Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists Records, Box 16, Folder 1, Special Collections, University of Chicago Library, with thanks to archivist, David Pavelich. ]

 In the grim years of loyalty oaths and House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, Meier had more freedom of action than his colleagues who had participated on the Manhattan Project--Robert Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe, Leo Szilard, Owen Chamberlain, Leo Brewer (in recent years, Meier’s closest Berkeley friend)--but he too came under FBI surveillance. In a 1953 essay, "Scientists Before and After the Bomb," Meier and Eugene Rabinowitch (a senior chemist on the Manhattan Project and editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists) characterized the mood of American scientists in the McCarthy era as "restless, frustrated, and apprehensive."  

 [R. L. Meier and E. Rabinowitch, "Scientists Before and After the Bomb," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 290, The Impact of Atomic Energy. (Nov., 1953), pp. 118-126; see p. 126.  Link to article

Meier’s own response took both a personal and professional turn. His three children learned only recently that Meier and his wife, Gitta (a member of Berkeley’s Viennese refugee community), had deliberately taken the family on wilderness hikes and overseas travels to equip them with the resourcefulness they might need to survive a nuclear war. Meier’s zest for exploring—and getting lost—in both cities and backwoods taught the children to spot landmarks that would guide them safely home.

A Fulbright fellowship in Manchester, England, in 1949-1950, allowed Meier to add the social sciences to his intellectual back-pack and to shift his attention to technological solutions for the problems of the world's biggest and poorest cities. As early as 1951, he had convinced his University of Chicago colleague, the New Deal brainstruster Rexford Tugwell, of the inevitability of  "the displacement of natural by synthetic fibers; the enlarged use of electronic calculators and classifiers; the radical improvement of communications by the use of ultrafax 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 ....speedier...transportation; and advances toward technological oneness in the world...followed by tighter organization and by holistic planning devices."

[ R. G. Tugwell, “One World--One Wealth,” Ethics, Vol. 61, No. 3. (Apr., 1951), pp. 173-194; see p. 194, n. 23.  Link to article

Meier's first book, Science and Economic Development: New Patterns of Living (1956; reprinted 1966), confidently predicted the birth-control pill, new forms of low-energy transportation, new technologies to replace scarce natural resources, the utilization of solar power, and the growth of resource-conserving cities. A review by the eminent UK economist Alec Cairncross (later Sir Alec Cairncross) in 1958 described Meier's perspective as "that of 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."

[A. K. Cairncross, untitled review of  Science and Economic Development by R. L. Meier, in Economica, New Series, Vol. 25, No. 97. (Feb., 1958), pp. 69-70. Link to article:

Meier's exploration of the implications of birth control for economic development and women's lives, Modern Science and the Human Fertility Problem  (1959) appeared just before The Pill became a reality. His interest in the issue was far more than theoretical. Born in Kendallville, Indiana, in 1920, Meier had grown up during the Depression, the oldest of five children in the desperately poor family of a German-American Lutheran schoolteacher, choirmaster, and organist, Walter Alva Meier. His mother, Mary Lottmann Meier, almost died after the birth of the youngest child, and much of the running of the household fell to Meier. During Meier’s high school years in DeKalb, Illinois, the family lived in subsidized housing built from lumber recycled from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Meier’s pay of 40 cents/hour from summer work in a canning factory was essential to the family’s survival.

At UCLA, Meier was denied a student loan of $50 because his family had no property to use as collateral. Half a century later, following Gitta’s death in Bombay in 1982, 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 very poor women establish small-scale businesses. His research in many countries had 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. Later, Robin Standish (Meier’s wife and research collaborator since 1992) would demonstrate that raising women's status was key to social and economic change for communities generally.

Meier regarded his third book, A Communications Theory of Urban Growth (1962), as his most important and original contribution. 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 and could be measured in terms of transactions among members of the urban community. Prof. Jennifer Light, Department of Communications, Northwestern University, who interviewed Meier in 2005, observed that, although the book was largely ignored on publication, it is now essential reading for graduate students in communications.

[Personal communication, Prof. Jennifer Light. See also the Classics List compiled by the Center for Spatially Integrated Social Sciences,: Link to article:]

Meier's teaching at Michigan and Berkeley, his continuing conversations with Buckminister Fuller, Margaret Mead, Constantinos Doxiadis, and other members of the interdisciplinary Delos Symposia, and his international consulting projects with regional planners took him to more than thirty countries and fifty major cities and generated a flood of papers, technical reports, and three more books: Developmental Planning (1965), Planning for an Urban World: Design of Resource-Conserving Cities (1974), and Urban Futures Observed: In the Asian Third World (1980). Always alert for new forms of information technology, he would have been pleased to know that the full texts of several of his books will soon be available through Google Books.

To help students understand systems theory and the complexity of both natural and social systems, Meier pioneered the use of simulations gaming in the social sciences. He tried out the first versions of his simulations of an island ecosystem, the building of America's transcontinental railroads, and a Puerto Rican urban community with his children on the living-room floor (Wildlife, Pacific Express, and El Barrio, published in 1973-74; World Cities, 1986). Only a few days before his death, Meier was tickled to learn that on-line simulations of human society had reached the point that real-life law enforcement had to be called in to restore order in SecondLife.com's virtual communities.

Both in and out of the classroom, Meier was a strikingly informal teacher, making his points through a vast fund of stories with unexpected twists and back-of-the-envelope calculations. Prof. Stuart Umpleby, George Washington University, encountered Meier at a Futures Research conference in Kyoto, 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.” 

[Personal communication, Stuart Umpleby, 2007.]

Meier supervised more than seventy master’s theses and doctoral dissertations, eagerly taking on students from other countries and high-risk students and encouraging them to work at the frontiers of their fields. (He shared his home with the first students from mainland China to come to the University of California.) An inveterate mentor, Meier pushed everyone--whether freshmen, government officials, or the nursing-home staff during his final months of life--to ask: “What choices will this course of action lead to? How will this create feasible pathways to desirable futures?” 

Starting in childhood, when he read his way through several small-town libraries, Meier continually stunned people around him by the breadth of his knowledge and his flying leaps across cultural and disciplinary boundaries. During the Depression, he had played the stock-market on paper and convinced himself that he could become rich--and therefore happy. As a young professor, however, Meier realized that being able to walk into a bookstore and buy any book he wanted was wealthy enough.

In retirement, Meier continued teaching, writing, and generating new ideas despite increasing disabilities. For several years, the tall figure in the motorized wheelchair, with a sack of scientific journals in his lap, was a familiar sight at the paratransit stop on the Berkeley campus. He now focused on applying ecological principles to design sustainable cities and enable the happiness of their citizens. He was particularly fascinated by the potential of the novel technology of solar power towers as sources of renewable energy and as dramatic landmarks for cities.

At the very end, Meier picked up the threads of his systems theory and community mental health research with Leonard J. Duhl (Public Health and Urban Planning, University of California) and the “Space Cadets” in the late 1950s: he outlined a research project that would bring together the involuntary expertise of patients and the multi-national teams of direct-care health-workers to enhance “the comfort of people like me who are in the last 1 or 2% of life.”

Richard L. Meier’s introduction to his final book, Ecological Planning, Management, and Design (first version, 1993; revised and expanded version mounted on the web, 2003), laid out many of his strategies for paths to sustainable communities, particularly for the urban poor in developing countries. The book reflected his own unquenchable optimism about the future and his belief that good planning and social justice are inseparable:  

"…by the merging of information technology with ecosystems principles…[G]oals that previously seemed out of reach, such as sustainable development and accelerated control of global population, appear to be achievable in a human lifetime. Strategies that are well within our power to implement can be formulated to reach these goals….

Planning, I believe, is a procedure for gaining human freedom, and design a means of fitting knowledge to fulfill specific needs within the limits of environmental conditions. Distributing such freedoms widely is a matter of social justice, and thus a high priority for future change. Managing this process in order to extend opportunity to everyone…will assure a future for the community."

Richard L. Meier is survived by his wife, Robin Standish, his children, Alan of Berkeley, Andrea of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Karen Reeds of Princeton, New Jersey, his stepchildren David and Michael Standish and Miriam Hartmann, who live in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, four grandchildren and four step-grandchildren, and his brother Ralph. His first wife, Gitta Unger Meier, passed away in 1982. His papers and a long oral history will be donated to Bancroft Library.

The family requests donations to go to the University of California, Berkeley, Scholarship Fund, the American Friends Service Committee: Link to AFSC, or the Global Fund for Women: Link to Global Fund The family invites memories and tributes to be posted to the blog:

http://rlmeier-planner-and-futurist.blogspot.com/

Note: Ecological Planning, Management, and Design (2003), by Richard L. Meier, can be read at:  Link to  e-book manuscript: Meier's e-book manuscript

For more information:

Dr. Karen Reeds  (R. L. Meier’s older daughter; former sponsoring editor, UC Press; historian of science) karen.reeds@verizon.net

Ms. Robin Standish (R. L. Meier’s wife, co-author, research collaborator) robin standish <robinsta@berkeley.edu>

Dr. Alan K. Meier (R. L. Meier’s son) AKMeier@lbl.gov

Dr. Andrea Meier, (R. L. Meier's  

younger daughter, and interviewer on oral history, taken weekly with Meier from 2002-2007; blogboss, blog URL: R. L Meier Memorial Blog; ameier@email.unc.edu

Dr. Grete Unger Heinz and Dr. Otto Heinz  (R. L. Meier’s in-laws—Grete, the family historian, can respond most comfortably by email.)  goguh@aol.com (Grete & Otto Heinz)