In March 2006, as fierce dispute—and charges of inequity—surrounded the rebuilding plans for post-Katrina New Orleans, Darren Walker did the unimaginable. A vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation, Walker transformed a top-down planning process into an inclusive one. At the behest of the Louisiana Recovery Authority and the Greater New Orleans Foundation, Walker had traveled to New Orleans to convene a meeting that would rethink the city's course of action. He had agreed to come on one condition: that the gathering would include as many community members as possible. “Without an appreciation of the wisdom of local knowledge, the best thinkers in urban planning will fail in the redevelopment,” Walker says today from his office in New York. The Unified New Orleans Plan, a comprehensive vision for rebuilding the city that was supported by more than $10 million from the Rockefeller Foundation, was released in March.
Walker, 47, has been an advocate for sustainable community development throughout his career. A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and University of Texas School of Law, he left behind a private-sector job with the Union Bank of Switzerland in the mid-1990s to work for the Abyssinian Development Corp., a faith-based development group in Harlem. He helped turn around the long-disenfranchised neighborhood with affordable housing and infrastructure improvements before joining Rockefeller in 2002.
Today, Walker is responsible for overseeing the millions that the foundation gives out every year ($20 million in 2006 alone) to support sustainable built environments around the globe. He was instrumental in creating the new Jane Jacobs Medal, a $200,000 annual award honoring individuals who fulfill the principles of the famed urban theorist. (Jacobs herself received a Rockefeller grant to write her seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.)
This summer, Walker will convene another important meeting: an ambitious global urban summit to address the fact that, for the first time in history, the majority of the world's population will reside in urban regions. “If our mission is to help build more-resilient people and communities, that means that we need more-resilient cities,” Walker says.