Darren Walker, Vice President of Foundation Initiatives, Rockefeller Foundation

Darren Walker, Vice President of Foundation Initiatives, Rockefeller Foundation

Darren Walker is vice president of foundation initiatives at the New York City-based Rockefeller Foundation, which he joined in 2002. In that role, Walker helps lead the foundation's work, at home and abroad, in fostering innovations that build economic resilience and the assets of poor and vulnerable people. He also is responsible for the development of the foundation's new strategy for New York City, as well as its work in support of the rebuilding of New Orleans. Prior to joining the Rockefeller Foundation, Walker served as COO of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, was a full-time volunteer staff member at the Children's Storefront School, worked in the capital markets division of the Union Bank of Switzerland, and served at the international law firm of Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton. He currently is a fellow of the Institute for Urban Design.

Philanthropy News Digest: The Rockefeller Foundation launched its Jane Jacobs Medals program in February, a month or so before the first anniversary of Jacobs' death. What's the goal of the program?

Darren Walker: Although the Rockefeller Foundation is a global foundation, the institution is firmly committed to the well-being of its local community. We've launched several programs over the past three months — the Opportunity NYC Program with Mayor Bloomberg and other foundation and private partners, the Cultural Innovation Fund, and the Jane Jacobs Medal — that reaffirm our commitment to New York City. The goal of this particular program is to celebrate and reward those who work to make New York a more diverse, dynamic, and equitable city through creative uses of the urban environment. Of course, we hope that the visibility of the program and awardees will also inspire others to action.

PND: Does the creation of the program mean that urban design and planning have become priorities for the Rockefeller Foundation?

DW: While the grant that allowed Jane Jacobs to write The Death and Life of Great American Cities came out of the Rockefeller Foundation's seminal Urban Design and Planning Program, I don't believe Jane thought of herself as a designer or planner. Jane was more interested in fostering the "spontaneous inventiveness" of her fellow citizens and neighbors than in the theories or designs of planners. She challenged conventions and assumptions and sought to inspire people to own and use the urban environment in creative ways. Similarly, rather than focusing on the field of urban design and planning, the Rockefeller Foundation created the Jane Jacobs Medal to honor the inventiveness of people who are active in their neighborhoods. While I could imagine a Jacobs Medal awardee having a design or planning background, it's just as likely that an awardee could be an environmental justice activist, a preservationist, a blogger, a public artist, or a tenant organizer. We're more interested in innovation than discipline.

PND: Through her writing and activism, Jacobs was largely responsible for preserving the historic character of Greenwich Village in the 1960s. What do you think she'd say about the city's revitalization in the nineties and the current building boom that is changing the face of neighborhoods in all five boroughs?

DW: Jane was very concerned about the scale of buildings and the importance of street life. I think she'd be shocked to hear that some of the big developers have said they are embracing 'Jacobsian' principles by promoting hugely out-of-scale mixed-used developments. On the positive side, I think she'd be excited by the community activism that has sprouted up in parts of Brooklyn, the Bronx, Harlem, and other less affluent neighborhoods to clean up and make use of the waterfront, empty lots, and community centers in very interesting and creative ways.

PND: You've said in other forums that Jacobs' work had an international impact. Can you give us some examples?

DW: Jane was personally very active in her final home city of Toronto, fighting the Spadina Expressway and standing up for her neighbors on many fronts. In fact, her role in helping to maintain the integrity of Toronto's neighborhoods is so widely celebrated that the city has declared her birthday Jane Jacobs Day and the Canadian government gave her a Royal Medal of Order. Thanks to her writings and her work in two of North's America's largest cities, her principles and ideas have taken root around the world.

PND: Mayor Michael Bloomberg has predicted that the population of New York City will increase by a million people by 2030. Can the city accommodate that kind of growth? And given that prediction, what kind of advice do you think Jacobs would give the mayor and his successors?

DW: Jane was all for density, but I don't think she had any idea how rapidly the city's population would grow. Certainly, from the Rockefeller Foundation's perspective, two great concerns with that growth are the effects of climate change from emissions and affordable housing, and we're involved in efforts related to both. Likewise, we're very interested in Mayor Bloomberg's plan to educate the public about his PlanNYC 2030. I think Jane would encourage her fellow New Yorkers to really review the plan, ask questions, and provide feedback. This is a wonderful opportunity for New Yorkers to play a part in the planning process. I don't want to give away too much too soon, but the Jane Jacobs Exhibit and Programs at the Municipal Arts Society in the fall will give people the tools and know-how to examine, question, and become active in their neighborhoods. I think Jane would be proud of that.

— Emily Robbins