Illustration by Mary Crooks
  • Urban Planner: Dr. Thomas Culhane
    T.H. Culhane is an urban planner and engineer.

    Monday, August 29, 2011

    Thomas, who goes by T.H., is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. T.H. and his organization, Solar C3.I.T.I.E.S., work to install solar-powered water heaters on the roofs of homes and businesses in Cairo, Egypt. (Solar C3.I.T.I.E.S. is an acronym that stands for “Connecting Community Catalysts Integrating Technologies for Industrial Ecology Systems.”)

    T.H. interprets his work with urban planning and engineering as being a “soldier on a different battle front.” Working in slums with sustainable technology is like basic training in geography, technology, and humanity, he says.


    T.H. grew up in Chicago, Illinois, where his mother taught in the  Head Start program, which helps prepare children for school.

    The Museum of Science and Industry, the largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere, is in Chicago, and T.H. remembers visiting it almost every weekend. “They had these great exhibits of all kinds of science,” he says. “How coal is mined, how the heart works . . .”
    Chicago also sits on the shore of Lake Michigan, site of a massive fish kill in 1965. “I could smell it! We could see Gary, Indiana, from the lake, and we knew [the pollution] had to be coming from those factories. Not coincidentally, that was also right at the edge of the black community.”

    T.H. studied biology and anthropology at Harvard University before earning a Ph.D. in urban planning from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).


    “Talking to people—all types of people—like we are all participants in the great conversation. I’m doing my part, and I’m comfortable in my part of the conversation.”


    “Being separated from my [wife and daughter]. This sort of work also involves some financial risks. . . . There are some really, really poor times.”


    “Space! Space is everything. Space is destiny, geography is destiny. Geography is non-linear, it’s 4-D.”

    Explorers have a unique relationship to geography, T.H. says, because unlike many people, explorers are not tied to a specific workspace. “Explorers’ work is where we go.”


    As an Ivy League urban planner working with some of the world’s poorest communities, T.H. is acutely aware of different spaces and different audiences. T.H. stresses the need for developed nations to respect the dignity and autonomy of the developing world.

    “We all need to participate in the great conversation,” he says.

    He also points to the developing world’s interest in science and technology. “I haven’t found any resistance,” he says.

    Technology can become a status symbol, he says, which can affect the environment of a family, a community, and even an entire nation.

    For instance, T.H. recalls meeting a young mother while he was working in Southeast Asia. T.H. was struck by the unusual name of her son: Armstrong. Armstrong, his mother told T.H., was named after American astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. “The woman’s hopes and ambitions for her son were tied to science and technology.”
    Political leaders can help expose communities and countries to sustainable technology. T.H. worked with former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo after Obasanjo left office. Obasanjo equipped his own home with solar-powered water heaters, even though he could afford more expensive technology.

    “The people have to see that this is quality technology, and that I use it,” T.H. remembers Obasanjo saying. Interest in solar-powered water heaters increased after Nigerians saw the heaters on Obasanjo’s roof.


    Instead of specializing in a specific field of engineering or urban planning, T.H. encourages students to study the broad scope of liberal arts. He emphasizes the need for wide-ranging knowledge and the ability to make connections between disciplines such as music and engineering, or anthropology and art.

    He also encourages those interested in urban planning and engineering to study . . . marketing.

    “We need to make it sexier! We need an Ikea of solar hot water heaters. American schools are so good at marketing!”


    T.H. says “all real learning takes place outside of school. I learned in spite of school, not because of it.” He emphasizes the importance of surrounding yourself with positive, interesting resources. “That should be your school,” he says.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    acute Adjective

    sharp or intense.

    ambition Noun

    strong desire for success and recognition.

    anthropology Noun

    science of the origin, development, and culture of human beings.

    Encyclopedic Entry: anthropology
    astronaut Noun

    person who takes part in space flights.

    autonomy Noun


    battle front Noun

    site in a battle where troops directly confront the enemy.

    biology Noun

    study of living things.

    black Adjective

    person of African descent.

    coal Noun

    dark, solid fossil fuel mined from the earth.

    coincidence Noun

    incident of two or more related things happening at the same time.

    destiny Noun

    fate, or the powers that determine the pattern and outcome of events.

    developing world Noun

    nations with low per-capita income, little infrastructure, and a small middle class.

    dignity Noun

    self-respect or self-esteem.

    Emerging Explorer Noun

    an adventurer, scientist, innovator, or storyteller recognized by National Geographic for their visionary work while still early in their careers.

    emphasize Verb

    to stress or place importance on.

    engineering Noun

    the art and science of building, maintaining, moving, and demolishing structures.

    environment Noun

    conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

    equip Verb

    to prepare or provide the right equipment.

    exhibit Noun

    display, often in a museum.

    expensive Adjective

    very costly.

    explorer Noun

    person who studies unknown areas.

    financial Adjective

    having to do with money.

    fish kill Noun

    sudden death of large numbers of fish, often because of pollution.

    geography Noun

    study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

    Encyclopedic Entry: geography
    Head Start Noun

    (1965-present) program of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department whose mission "promotes school readiness by enhancing the social and cognitive development of children through the provision of educational, health, nutritional, social and other services to enrolled children and families."

    heart Noun

    vital organ for all animals with a circulatory system, responsible for pumping blood throughout the body.

    humanity Noun

    condition of being human, including the study of art, literature, philosophy, and the sciences.

    Ikea Noun
    interpret Verb

    to explain or understand the meaning of something.

    Ivy League Noun

    group of prestigious colleges and universities in the northeastern United States: Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell, the University of Pennsylvania, and Brown.

    Lake Michigan Noun

    (58,051 square kilometers/22,400 square miles) one of the Great Lakes of North America, bordered by the U.S. states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

    liberal arts Noun

    wide-ranging course of study including the arts and social sciences.

    marketing Noun

    art and science of selling a product.

    massive Adjective

    very large or heavy.

    mine Verb

    to extract minerals from the Earth.

    Moon Noun

    Earth's only natural satellite.

    museum Noun

    space where valuable works of art, history, or science are kept for public view.

    nation Noun

    political unit made of people who share a common territory.

    Encyclopedic Entry: nation
    Neil Armstrong Noun

    (1930-present) American astronaut and the first man to walk on the moon.

    non-linear Adjective

    not in a predictable path or series of steps.

    Olusegun Obasanjo Noun

    (1937-present) former president of Nigeria.

    PhD Noun

    (doctor of philosophy) highest degree offered by most graduate schools.

    pollution Noun

    introduction of harmful materials into the environment.

    Encyclopedic Entry: pollution
    resistant Adjective

    able to withstand the effects of a substance, material, or behavior.

    science Noun

    knowledge focused on facts based on observation, identification, description, investigation, and explanation.

    shore Noun


    slum Noun

    area of a city that is crowded, often lacking basic services such as electricity or sewage, and inhabited by poor people.

    solar Adjective

    having to do with the sun.

    specialize Verb

    to study, work, or take an interest in one area of a larger field of ideas.

    status symbol Noun

    object or behavior that displays the owner's social or economic status.

    sustainable Adjective

    able to be continued at the same rate for a long period of time.

    technology Noun

    the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.

    unique Adjective

    one of a kind.

    urban planning Noun

    process of creating or improving the natural, built, economic, and social environments of urban areas. Also called city planning.

    Western Hemisphere Noun

    area of the Earth west of the prime meridian and east of the International Date Line.

    workspace Noun

    area where a job or work is performed.