Richard Willson, a leading transportation planning expert and educator who inspired and guided generations of students toward rewarding work in the planning profession, died unexpectedly on December 6, 2022, after a cardiac arrest while jogging. He was 66.
Willson joined the College of Environmental Design (ENV)in 1986 as faculty in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning (URP), where he served three terms as its chair (1994-2000, 2004-08 and 2012-16). He created the department’s first endowment and organized the Dale Prize for Excellence in Urban and Regional Planning, recognizing scholars and practitioners in emerging trends.
Willson’s academic and professional contributions were recognized in 2015 when he received the Provost’s Award for Excellence in Scholarly and Creative Activities. He was inducted in 2008 to the prestigious American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) College of Fellows for his outstanding achievement in mentoring and teaching.
“He was a larger-than-life presence,” said department chair and professor Gwen Urey, Willson’s colleague of 29 years. “His enthusiasm for innovating as a teacher along with his zest for engaging students in the theory and practice of planning energized all of us. Rick’s ability to conjure curiosity in students and practitioners alike led to dynamic and collaborative planning practice inside and outside the department.”
Willson’s planning practice influenced his approach to teaching and scholarship, and he was known for his work that reformed transportation and land use for livability, environmental sustainability, and social equity in communities across the United States.
The university’s Climate Action Plan was one of the ways his research, interdisciplinary collaboration, academic leadership, and service benefitted Cal Poly Pomona.
“Rick believed that advocacy requires a community, and he recently encouraged me to accelerate the implementation of the CPP Climate Action Plan that he co-authored as a member of the university’s Climate Change Committee Task Force (2007-15),” remarked ENV Dean Mary Anne Alabanza Akers.
As interim dean (2002-03), Willson refocused ENV’s alumni donor group on ways to provide additional teaching space and he participated in efforts that generated more than $1 million in external gifts. He also collaborated with deans from the colleges of Engineering, Science, and the Letters, Arts, and Social Science to advance Geographic Information Systems (GIS) studies on campus, resulting in the interdisciplinary GIS minor program.
Most recently, Willson was an advisor to President Soraya M. Coley on parking management, public transit and alternative transportation strategies. He was instrumental in securing Class Pass, the transit access pass program that provides CPP students free and unlimited rides on all Foothill Transit and Silver Streak lines, and bringing the service launch of the Silver Streak rapid line bus stop in front of the Student Services Building that will take students from campus to downtown Los Angeles in under one hour.
Danny Wu (’95, urban and regional planning) described Willson as “a talented educator who linked planning theory to practice, taught his students to challenge the norms of the profession, and made the time to get to know them.”
Wu recalls Willson was a regular presence at student events, alumni gatherings and professional conferences. Willson encouraged Wu’s graduate studies at UCLA, and the two would eventually work together as colleagues when Wu was appointed as the university’s first executive director of Transportation and Planning — a position Willson helped create.
“I was fortunate to be able to work with him on initiatives that we were both passionate about and for the campus he so loved,” Wu said.
A dedicated pedagogue, Willson mentored students, alumni, and junior faculty through political change, economic recessions, and a global pandemic. He secured CPP’s participation in the Minority Student Fellows Program of the Transportation Research Board of the National Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine (TRB) at its inception in 2009 and served continuously as a faculty mentor.
Willson’s students appreciated his dry wit, empathy, and generosity of spirit as well as his unique dance moves at URP Awards Banquets. He was known for motivating student excellence earning him ENV’s outstanding teacher award twice.
“Willson always pushed me hard to become a better version of myself: a better writer, a savvy policy analyst, a successful researcher, a compassionate teacher. He was aware of my potential and shortcomings. He was my academic father, and one of my toughest critics,” shared Serena Baboomian Alexander, Ph.D. (’12, urban and regional planning), Visiting Scholar at the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) and Associate Professor at San Jose State University (SJSU) who last met up with Willson at the 2022 ACSP Conference in Toronto.
“Rick had a profound impact on my personal and professional life. I valued his authenticity, creativity, intentionality and altruism,” said Brian J. Bulaya, PMP, (‘15, urban and regional planning) Principal at Simple Shift Studio and Development Director of Thurmond Consulting LLC in Sacramento.
Mary Balderrama, (‘21, master’s in urban and regional planning) Transit Planner with the North County Transit District in San Diego, wrote, “He helped me be a realistic idealist and still believe in creating a better future in the world through planning and collaboration.”
Willson authored four books. “Parking Reform Made Easy” (2013) provides a method for reforming minimum parking requirements, while “Parking Management for Smart Growth” (2015) lays out a strategic approach to parking management in the context of a sharing economy. Willson also focused on how practitioners master the dance of idealism and realism in “Guide for the Idealist: Launching and Navigating Your Planning Career” (2018) and extended this interest to the American Planning Association (APA) Blog Series Launching your Planning Career: A Guide for Idealists. In “Reflective Planning Practice: Theory, Cases, and Methods,” (2021), Willson seeks to awaken students and practitioners to the opportunities of a pragmatic, reflective approach to planning practice.
“Together, these books show how Rick bridged the gap between practical problems and idealist aims and revealed his deepening concern for ethics in the planning profession. Rick was that rare breed: a pragmatic idealist… He made the world a better place, one parking space at a time,” said Willson’s mentor and colleague Donald Shoup, Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Urban Planning at UCLA. Shoup also noted that “Rick completed his Ph.D. in three years, faster than any other student in the history of our doctoral program. And he did it while teaching full-time at CPP.”
Willson advised public agencies including the City of Los Angeles Planning Department re:code LA project, the Southern California Association of Governments, the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury and the Federal General Accounting Office.
His many peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters are widely cited. The publication, “Renewing a Climate Action Commitment: Plan, Program, or Partnership,” for which he received an Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP)/Lincoln Institute of Land Policy case study award is forthcoming. Willson regularly presented papers and conducted workshops at conferences of the ACSP, APA, and TRB. The USDOT and other agencies funded his research, and he served as a Research Associate with the Leonard Transportation Center, California State University, San Bernardino and the Mineta Transportation Institute, SJSU. Willson was also a visiting professor and scholar at UCLA’s Urban Planning Program. He taught courses for practitioners at the Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Berkeley, smartgrowth.org and Planetizen. He was also an influential media commentator on California and national planning issues sought out by outlets like NPR, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and KCRW.”
As a practitioner, Willson held planning positions with public agencies and consulting firms in Canada and the U.S. before pursuing his doctorate. He then maintained a practice providing transportation planning solutions to public agencies including Eco-Rapid Transit, Metro, and developers of infill projects.
“We brought Rick to BART to modernize our parking mechanics …he brought the Board and staff to new thinking and best practices that allowed us to develop foundational policy and practical solutions. His probing work elevated our practice in unexpected ways,” said Ellen Smith, former BART Manager of Strategic and Policy Planning.
Committed to personal growth and self-discovery, Willson aspired to do the meaningful work of repair in the world. He integrated his art, music, poetry, and long-distance running with his profession, creating a symbiotic relationship that enriched all these endeavors. URP colleague Associate Professor Alvaro Huerta noted, “I always said to him that he was a true Renaissance person.”
Another URP colleague and City Planner at the City of Los Angeles, Elizbeth Gallardo (‘13, master’s in urban and regional planning), described Willson as a polymath who “stuffed life fun.”
“Rick loved mentoring as much as he loved writing, as much as he loved painting,” Gallardo said. “He has shaped my life to be what it is today and left many of us with memories like diamonds.”
Influenced by the urgency of global environmental strain and the notion that “observation is environmentalism,” Willson described his plein-air landscape paintings as reflections of human activity in the natural and built environments, skills useful in planning. His art has been featured in solo and group exhibitions in Southern California. In 2018 Willson curated “Positively Fourth Street – An Encounter with the Fourth Street Viaduct,” an exploration of the viaduct as a cultural artifact, featuring the drawings, paintings and text by Willson, painter Roderick Smith, and essayist D.J. Waldie at the Don B. Huntley Gallery.
At age 40, Willson became a disciplined marathon runner, completing the Los Angeles Marathon 23 times and challenging his students to join him. Distance running gave him time to work out vexing questions and taught him resiliency in adapting to changing conditions over the course of a race.
Willson earned his Bachelor of Environmental Studies Honors in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada in 1978, followed by a Master of Planning from the University of Southern California in 1983 and a Ph.D. in Urban Planning from UCLA in 1991.
Willson is survived by his wife, Robin D. Scherr; daughters Jenna Millican and Maya Scherr-Willson; son-in-law Ross Millican; grandsons Rhys and Callum Millican; and brother Ian Willson.
In honor of Willson’s exemplary career, a fund has been established to enable the University Library to cover the costs of converting his book “Guide for the Idealist” to open access, a project he was pursuing at the time of his death. Current, past and future students in urban planning and related fields at Cal Poly Pomona and beyond will benefit by learning how to make good choices, practice effectively, and find meaning in their work.
Gifts to support the “Guide for the Idealist” Open Access Project can be made online or by check payable to Cal Poly Pomona Philanthropic Foundation. For gifts by check, please include “Richard Willson Legacy Fund” in the memo field. Checks can be mailed to:
Cal Poly Pomona
PO Box 3121
Pomona, CA 91769
A recording of the Dec. 11, 2022, memorial service is available for viewing. The family invites the community to share memories and tributes, which will be compiled and presented to Willson’s family.