Planning April 2018

National Planning Excellence Award for Planning Pioneers

Margarita Piel McCoy, FAICP

Margarita McCoy McCoy at the lectern at Cal Poly. Photo courtesy Department of Urban and Regional Planning, Cal Poly, Pomona.

The main thing you need to know about Margarita Piel McCoy, FAICP, is that once she decided on a course of action, she stuck to it. Steven Preston, FAICP, nominated McCoy for this year's Planning Pioneer Award. He cited her accomplishments as both a planning practitioner and a teacher. But her personal story, he added, "is as compelling as her passion for her students."

McCoy died in March 2016 at the age of 92. Born on Long Island in 1923, she was the daughter of a famous brewing family. She started college at Wells, a small women's school in Aurora, New York. After a year, thinking about a career in journalism, she transferred to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, but left after a year, still with no clear idea of what she wanted to do. (She eventually completed college at Boston University in 1944.)

Marriage and a family took her to Sudbury, Massachusetts, and led to her first exposure to urban planning, thanks to the League of Women Voters. The league regularly sent new members to observe local political bodies. "The only thing left for me to observe," she said later, "was the planning board."

As it turned out, the board was a busy place. Sudbury at the time was transforming from a quiet New England village into a rapidly growing suburb of Boston. "I found it very interesting," she was later quoted as saying, "but it's being done all wrong." Soon after, she ran to fill a board vacancy, and won, "by the skin of my teeth," she said. She also took advantage of a provision that allowed planning board members to audit classes at MIT and Harvard.

In the early 1960s, her husband's engineering job took the family to Southern California (where she learned to body surf). When they divorced, McCoy got serious about a career, enrolling in planning school at the University of Southern California. "I did well in class," her colleagues recall her saying. "I was the only one who had actually done planning."

McCoy earned a master's degree in planning from USC in 1970 and was asked to stay on as department administrator. She then moved to Cal Poly and a job as planning department chair, a post she held from 1977 to 1983. Preston points out that McCoy was the first woman to chair a university planning department in the U.S. — and the first to be appointed full professor of urban planning.

Preston, who recently retired as city manager of San Gabriel, California, received a master's degree in city planning from Cal Poly and later taught there. He wrote of McCoy that "she challenged us to open our doors to women and minorities," and she helped to create a department that had a national reputation "for producing the best technical planners in the Los Angeles area."

McCoy enjoying lunch with a colleague. Photo courtesy Richard Willson, FAICP, Cal Poly, Pomona.

In fact, McCoy's specialty was planning theory. But another Cal Poly colleague, Richard Willson, FAICP, says that didn't stop her from teaching a wide range of classes, "wherever she was needed, which often meant planning 101" — and for being very picky about grammar and plagiarism in student papers.

At the same time, McCoy led an active community and professional life. She was at various times president of the AICP commission (including in the critical period after the APA–AICP merger); a member of the APA board of directors; and cofounder of the Planning and Women Division.

She retired from Cal Poly in 1989 but did not stop working. As a consultant in the 1990s, she urged communities in the Southwest to adopt comprehensive plans that balanced growth, preservation, and protection from natural hazards.

She served nine years on the planning commission of La Habra Heights, California, where she lived. She stepped down from the commission in 2012. At public meetings, Preston wrote in his nomination, she took process beyond what she called "these little cabals of real estate people and government that decided development in secret."

McCoy was honored by APA both locally and nationally. She received the 2006 National Women in Planning Award for "opening the door to many women planners," and in 1995, the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning established the Margarita McCoy biennial award for those who make "an outstanding contribution toward the advancement of women in planning."

Richard Willson, whose time at Cal Poly overlapped with McCoy's, recalls her clear-eyed advice. "She wanted me to see the world as it is, not just how I wished it to be."

Finally, a word from Joanne Garnett, FAICP, a founding member of the consulting firm Orion Planning+Design based in Sheridan, Wyoming, who served with McCoy on the AICP Commission from 1990 to 1994. In her letter of support, she wrote: "Once I complained to her about a particularly thorny problem as a public-sector planner. Margarita's response was immediate and direct: 'If you don't care about this problem and think about the future, who will?'"

—Ruth Knack, FAICP

Knack is a former executive editor of Planning.

Three Questions

with Steve Preston, FAICP

What was her biggest challenge?

She entered the profession in midlife in the 1960s, forced by circumstances to build a career. She soon demonstrated that she was prepared to enter a male-dominated field as an equal member of the academy.

Her greatest accomplishment?

She became a beacon for women and minorities, pushing recalcitrant programs to hire them and to address the needs of their communities.

What lessons can planners learn?

That perseverance counts and that women bring power to discussions of planning and equity. They can also learn something from the personal grace that she exhibited throughout her life.