East Hill Notes: The Bottom-Line Impact of Susan Christopherson


By Gary Stewart

Thousands of Cornell staff and faculty live in Tompkins County, and many have the privilege of regularly engaging with off-campus communities as part of their jobs.

The university’s Office of Community Relations is often inspired by the quiet town-gown connections and world-class programs that play out year-round, sometimes under the radar.

Our staff is also saddened when we lose a champion and leader on the public engagement front, as was the case with the death of Professor Susan Christopherson, who died from cancer in December at age 69.

Chairperson of the Department of City and Regional Planning in Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art and Planning, Christopherson was Cornell for countless people engaged in regional economic development. She was the first woman to be promoted to full professor in city and regional planning at the university, and the first woman to chair the department in its nearly 80-year history. She used these platforms and her talent for the common good.

Christopherson’s work as an economic geographer reflected her commitment to integrating scholarship with public engagement. In recent years, she completed studies on advanced manufacturing in New York’s Southern Tier and on the role of universities and colleges in revitalizing the upstate New York economy.

It seems like she was always ahead of the curve, or as AAP Dean Kent Kleinman described her: “a remarkable intellect, a master of so many fields, a whirlwind of creative ideas.”

At a 2007 panel titled “The Brain Drain/ Brain Gain Issue in Upstate New York: Research, Education and Outreach,” Christopherson spoke with trademark passion and eloquence about the region’s declining manufacturing base and the need for Tompkins County to be a leader in supporting entrepreneurship and fostering small businesses. Fast forward 10 years, and that focus and related results are the norm.

Years before Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned fracking in New York, primarily citing unresolved health risks, Christopherson, who moved to Ithaca in 1987, was researching and writing about the economic impacts – pro and con – of fracking operations.

After the Cuomo decision, she wrote, “The governor surely also weighed the economics and the politics. What I’ve found is that most people, including politicians and people in the media, assume that fracking creates thousands of good jobs. But opening the door to fracking doesn’t lead to the across-the-board economic boon most people assume.

“In the four Ohio counties with the most shale permits, the number of local people employed actually decreased between 2007 and 2013,” Christopherson wrote. “The most skilled workers on drilling crews are from Texas and Oklahoma and they return home to spend their earnings. A look at the job numbers gives us a much better idea of what kind of economic boost comes with fracking, how its economic benefits are distributed and why both can be easily misunderstood.”

She was successful because she always focused on verifiable data over wish lists and anecdotes.

Christopherson co-authored “Remaking Regional Economies: Power, Labor and Firm Strategies in the Knowledge Economy,” winner of the 2009 Regional Studies Association Best Book Award. She published more than 100 articles and policy reports, served on the editorial boards of several leading journals, and was editor-in-chief of a book series on cities and regions.

In December 2015, the Association of American Geographers announced Christopherson had won its Lifetime Achievement Honors award, citing how she “pushed the boundaries of academic inquiry, but has done so in a way that addresses issues of public concern and provides information to policymakers and citizens alike.”

“I was consistently inspired by her determination and passion, as well as her deep love and concern for the people who surrounded and supported her in spurring the department to be an exemplary model of planning’s highest aspirations,” said Wylie Goodman, scheduled to graduate in May with a Masters in Regional Planning, and who had worked with Christopherson. “She was a trailblazer as an academic, urban planning practitioner and administrator. Female students, in particular, have lost a steadfast mentor and guide.”

In short, Susan Christopherson lived here, and lived well, and her research and writing that often embraced and intersected with Tompkins County’s economic challenges and opportunities will live on.

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East Hill Notes are published the second and fourth Mondays in Tompkins Weekly. Gary Stewart is associate vice president in Cornell University’s Office of Community Relations.


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