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Meet Professor Sy Adler
Meet Professor Sy Adler

Professor of Urban Studies and Planning  

Associate Dean, College of Urban and Public Affairs

Linking history to planning theory and practice

Ph.D., City and Regional Planning, University of California at Berkeley
M.C.P. City Planning, Harvard University

B.A., Urban Studies, University of Pittsburgh


  • Professor of Urban Studies and Planning
  • Associate Dean, College of Urban and Public Affairs
Evolution of planning institutions, theories and practices, urban social and political dynamics, the relationships between planning and public health

    • USP 540 History and Theory of Planning
    • USP 607 Advanced Planning Theory
    Political Economy of Transit in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-1963

    Office: Urban Center, Room 370 N or 750 C
    Phone: (503) 725.5172
    Professor Adler's Website

    Professor Sy Adler's interests include the comparative evolution of planning institutions, theories and practices, urban social and political dynamics, and relationships between urban planning and public health. He teaches courses about urban planning history and theory.

    In 2012, Professor Adler published Oregon Plans: The Making of an Unquiet Land-Use Revolution, a dissection of the political history of the Oregon statewide land-use planning program. The book is based on archival research and interviews with activists and planners who worked at local, regional, and state levels. Professor Adler wrote the book to help Oregonians and others understand the roots of the program, which is well-known and highly regarded throughout the planning world, and how and why it matters for daily life. Dr. Adler is now writing a book-length complement to that work, an historical analysis of the original growth boundary around the Portland metropolitan area. A short version, "A Historical Perspective on the Metropolitan Portland Urban Growth Boundary," was published in Planning the Pacific Northwest, in 2015. In 2011, Dr. Adler co-authored with Carl Abbott and Margery Abbott the chapter “The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area – Regional Planning for the New West” in Regional Planning for a Sustainable America. The chapter examines planning activities in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area since his co-authored 1997 book, Planning a New West.  Dr. Adler’s retrospective view about a co-authored 1992 article, “Gender and Space: Lesbians and Gay Men in the City,”published in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, also appeared in 2011 in Queerying Planning: Challenging Heteronormative Assumptions and Reframing Planning Practice.

    Prior to joining the PSU faculty in 1982, Professor Adler worked for the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning on transportation and growth management issues. While there he also did research about the history and politics of transportation planning in LA, and later published several articles on that subject. One paper, “The Transformation of the Pacific Electric Railway: Bradford Snell, Roger Rabbit, and the Politics of Transportation in Los Angeles,” published in 1991 in Urban Affairs Quarterly, won a best paper award from The Society for American City and Regional Planning History.

    He self-designed his undergraduate major in Urban Studies, and has endeavored since then to bring an interdisciplinary perspective to his teaching, research and outreach activities. 


    What Professor Adler has to say...

    UNIQUENESS OF THE TOULAN SCHOOL: “Let knowledge serve the city,” that’s us! We embody that here.

    ON TEACHING IN PORTLAND: The city and region is our laboratory. A perfect fit. To teach, research, and write where planning is not a dirty word is amazing. It’s taken seriously here to a greater extent than in many other parts of the country. It’s a privilege to teach in a place that is looked up to and well regarded.

    VISION FOR THE TOULAN SCHOOL: In order to connect the School with planning endeavors in the city, the region, and the state, I helped to establish, with support from the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, a new entity within the Center for Urban Studies: Planning Oregon: Research, Practice, Innovation. Planning Oregon is a forum within which practicing planners, civic leaders, faculty, and students do research and think strategically about issues land-use and related planning facing the region and the state.

    HOW I FIT INTO THAT VISION: Having studied state and regional history, I bring historical perspective. I look at questions of, “What, if anything, has changed?” “What do we think now about the approaches taken then?” “Are they the right approaches given what has changed?” “How is what we do here similar or different to how they do things elsewhere?” More and more, I teach history and theory in a comparative context.

    WHAT STUDENTS SHOULD TAKE AWAY: A nuanced understanding of why things are the way they are, and ideas for how to do things differently.

    ADVICE FOR PROSPECTIVE STUDENTS: Pick a school in a place where you want to practice. In graduate school, you’ll make connections;  the learning is very place specific. So pick a place where you can see yourself getting your first job. Learn as much about the faculty as you can to see if they are good fits for what you would like to learn. One takes instructors rather than courses. Learn who they are and what they care about; this is even more true for doctoral students.

    FAVORITE URBAN PLACES: I was born and raised in NYC; a five minute walk to Yankee stadium. I’m a big city kid, always will be. NYC will always be my place. I liked LA, and after 30 years in Portland, I really appreciate life here.

    FAVORITE NON-URBAN PLACES: The Columbia River Gorge. The coast. I find the sound of crashing waves extremely relaxing. You’re in your own little world out there. I’ve also developed an appreciation for trees from hiking in the forest. Being around big, older trees is a great source of pleasure. I’ve developed an environmental appreciation that I didn’t used to have.

    The Metropolis and Mental Life, by Georg Simmel. My original career goal was to be a psychiatrist.
    Dilemmas of Social Reform, by Peter Marris and Martin Rein. This analysis of the War on Poverty during the 1960‘s illuminated the conflicts generated during the implementation of various policies and programs that I was studying.
    The Power Broker, by Robert Caro, put Robert Moses at the center of infrastructure building in New York. I read it while developing my dissertation about transportation infrastructure in California, and it encouraged me to think more critically about the dynamics associated with planning and building major projects.