Remembering Pioneering Urbanist Hank Dittmar

April 16, 2018
by Rick Cole

Remembering Pioneering Urbanist Hank Dittmar

Hank Dittmar only worked for the City of Santa Monica for six years (early in his remarkable career), but his untimely passing reminds us of the remarkable contributions made every day by our City staff and the legacy they leave. 

Hank Dittmar who died of cancer recently at age 62, was a global sustainability authority and urbanist, advising governments, companies and communities all over the world on making cities and towns more livable and resilient. 

For eight years, Hank directed the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community, directing the foundation’s philanthropic work on behalf of Britain’s Prince Charles to promote timeless ways of building and more sustainable development around the world.

Prior to that, Hank spearheaded a profound rethinking of American planning principles as Founding President and CEO of Reconnecting America which pioneering at the national level the new model of mobility that is one of Santa Monica’s five strategic goals.  He also served as the influential chairman of the Congress for the New Urbanism which has championed a revolution in how Americans think about their cities and towns.  As the founding director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, he spearheaded a successful national coalition and wrote into landmark Federal law new policies to promote walking, cycling and public transit to encourage planning of walkable cities and towns. He was an influential advisor to leaders around the world; a respected writer who authored or co-authored four books -- Transport and Neighborhoods, New Transit Town, Sustainable Planet and Green Living -- and a Visiting Fellow at Kellogg College at Oxford University.

Hank’s master’s degree in Community and Regional Planning was from the University of Texas, and his Bachelor’s from Northwestern University. In 2008, he was named the Outstanding Alumnus of The Graduate School of the University of Texas at Austin, and in the same year received the prestigious Seaside Prize for his contributions to urban design worldwide.

Hank went to work in 1983 as a transit planner for the Big Blue Bus.  In his short stint in public transit, he helped create the light rail set aside fund to prod the County to eventually bring light rail to Santa Monica.  That fund was later used to purchase Bergamot Station and the 4th and Colorado site that is now the final stop for the phenomenally successful Expo extension. 

After just a year at BBB, City Manager John Jalili named Hank, then just 28 years old, as the Director of the Santa Monica Airport. In his five years at the helm, Hank implemented the provisions of an agreement between the City and the Federal Aviation Administration to upgrade the airport, including a new administration building, runways and taxi areas improvements to make SMO safer. He developed a strengthened noise abatement program and oversaw the addition of other facilities, including the Museum of Flying and the Santa Monica College satellite center.  He left Santa Monica in 1989 to return to work for San Francisco's Metropolitan Transportation Commission where he was recruited to head special projects and later served as director of Legislative Affairs. 

A visionary and a leader who left his mark on how we think about cities and how we build the future, Hank was also a brilliant and far-ranging man of the world.  His family was quoted as saying, “Hank’s love of music, literature and art filled his life with joy. He was moved to tears by beauty. Hank nurtured friendships spanning continents and decades. His positivity in the face of adversity aided his tireless work to better the world. As a father and husband his resilience and humor will always remain an inspiration.”

The Santa Monica City Council unanimously adjourned their April 10th meeting in honor of Hank Dittmar.

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