Newark-based designer and urban planner Damon Rich has been described as a student of the politics and policies behind the "built environment."

Last month, Rich—who served as Newark’s first municipal urban city planner under former mayors Cory Booker and Luis Quintana and current Mayor Ras Baraka—was named a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, also known as a "genius grant," awarded to those who continue to innovate and create spaces that work towards a greater good.

Rich, a founding partner of urban design, planning and civic arts studio Hector, as well as the founder of the Center for Urban Pedagogy—a nonprofit organization that uses art and design to increase civic engagement—has been involved in a wide range of projects and is known for his socially conscious and creative approach in designing spaces that are mindful of communities often excluded.

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A long time advocate of neglected urban communities left powerless by racial and economic inequality, Rich notes some of the sweeping changes Newark has seen in recent years with the city's rapid growth in both land development and population, along with the adoption of legal measures that encompass some of these changes.

“The last couple of months have been intense with things like upzoning and MX-3,” Rich said. “There have been also real victories by advocates around rent control."

The city recently approved MX-3—a Mixed Use Residential and Commercial Zoning ordinanc, which increases density and allows for high-rises in the Ironbound neighborhood. The city also approved an inclusionary zoning measure that sets aside a percentage of housing for lower-income residents.

A rent control measure adopted by the city council in September now requires landlords to invest more money to rehabilitate vacant apartments before rents can be raised.

Charged in 2008 by former Newark Mayor Cory Booker to create a host of pilot initiatives along the Passaic River, Rich led the creation of the riverfront public access and redevelopment plan, which updated 50-year-old development regulations for 300 acres along five miles of the Passaic River, created the first municipal laws to guarantee public access to the river for all Newarkers.

The city's current riverfront development plan calls for approximately five miles of redevelopment.

Rich also spearheaded the drafting and implementation of Newark's first zoning overhaul in more than 50 years, working with social and housing justice groups to bring about new land use and housing regulations to the city.

“For me overall as a Newark planner, my goal was to increase the conversation around these issues,” he said. 

The February, 2015 adoption of the Newark Zoning and Land Use Regulations changed the fundamental rules for building in Newark, the city’s first zoning overhaul since the 1950s,

The new regulations work to support Newark’s residential neighborhoods and manufacturers by reworking boundaries, redefining zones and clarifying manufacturing and industrial definitions for increased transparency regarding potential environmental hazards.

The zoning plan, which was awarded the Outstanding Implemented Plan in 2015 by the American Planning Association New Jersey Chapter, continues to improve the planning process and includes dozens of procedural improvements to the operations of the city's planning and zoning boards.

Rich also worked with a team of designers and engineers and in collaboration with the city, Essex County, the Ironbound Community Corporation, and national nonprofit Trust for Public Land to design and build new riverfront spaces and later launched Newark Riverfront Revival (NRR), an organization created to connect Newarkers to the river through a variety of programs.

Rich's work has been recognized with awards and fellowships from Cooper Hewitt, the Harvard University Graduate School of Design and the International Architecture Exhibition in Venice, among others.

Rich is currently working with the state's Department of Transportation (NJDOT) and a coalition of groups to expand Route 280 and advocating for improvements such as increased lighting and other aspects of the pedestrian experience.

Growing up in the 70s in a segregated neighborhood outside of St. Louis, Rich said he was exposed to the issues of politics and environment at an early age.

“I was lucky to have families and teachers when I was growing up who encouraged me to be curious about what I saw,” he said. “I think coming from that kind of background brought about a lot of questions and a lot of discussion around architecture such as how do we use materials and how do we use them to reflect how we live?”

His initial foray into Newark in 2008 as the city's planner was an exciting time, Rich said, with the city already in the process of launching itself into what many refer to as a Renaissance.  

"The city being brought back to life is how people have described Newark for many years," Rich said. "But Newark’s been pretty continuously vital for 100 years."

The housing justice debate became front and center during the economic downturn that same year.

“We looked broadly at how we allocated money for building housing,” Rich said. “This was during the great recession in 2008, and these issues were debated on the front page of the newspapers. One thing I learned was that these issues weren’t new; they were very similar to the FHA scandals in the 1960s,” he said, referring to the massive mortgage fraud of the period perpetrated by the Federal Housing Authority.

The scandal left urban communities across the nation such as Newark, Philadelphia and Detroit in ruins.

In the continued quest to see the expansion of fair and equitable housing throughout the city, Rich credits housing advocacy groups and others for laying much of the groundwork.

“I was really lucky as a designer that I showed up 10 years after Newark residents, advocates and officials started building it up,” he said, noting the work of social justice groups. “Over my entire seven years with the city I was able to work with community organizations. We advocated for a few variations of what we’ve finally got in the law."

As the city continues to ramp up its revitalization-referred to by some as a full-fledged gentrification—social justice issues such as income inequality and affordable housing will continue to be at the forefront of the debate.

“Newarkers are very aware of the implication of how we tell these stories,” he said. “Revitalization is one of those words that a lot of colleagues use and it covers up some of the politics behind us. Urban renewal is another one of those words. 'Urban renewal equals Negro removal' was one of the slogans of the day. I’m glad that Newarkers didn’t let me get away with words like that."

Rich notes those involved in the decision-making process need to be mindful of communities and residents most impacted.

"We have to consider the psychiatric impact of urban planning and we need to talk to people like people," Rich said. "The story of planning in Newark can also be a scary movie like 'When Planners Attack.' Different rezoning such as inclusionary zoning needs to be seen as part of the process. It’s an agreement between the public, the development community, and the planner."