USC Price School of Public Policy

Martin H. Krieger

Professor of Planning

For more about Martin Krieger: Webpage, Blog about Planning, Blog about Academic Life, Amazon Author’s Page. Professor Krieger’s ninth book, The Scholar’s Survival Manual will be out this coming Fall 2013. Recently, a second edition of his Doing Physics, was issued. And a year before that, there was Urban Tomographies.

Martin Krieger, a scientist who discovered that he does not work well in large groups, and with equipment, turned his analytical sensibilities toward the social sciences instead. Particle physics’ loss has been planning and development’s gain.

When Martin Krieger finished his doctorate in experimental particle physics at New York’s Columbia University in 1968, he had a problem. He didn’t like to do experiments, namely he did not like working the actual doing. “I love physics,” says the Price professor, “experiments are the way to go, but I am not good with equipment and at working in large groups. That’s a fatal flaw.”

Later that year, when he went to UC Berkeley as a post-doc, he got involved with Berkeley’s city planning department, because he had some ideas about how to use computers to model the way cities change. And with the environment an important political issue in the late ’60s, Krieger began writing on the topic, taking the position that environmental policy was wrong. One article, “What’s Wrong with Plastic Trees?” made him infamous among environmentalists because he argued that we live in an artificial world and that any so-called “natural, untouched” world is one we’ve never seen.

Gradually, Krieger began applying his analytical mind and the liberal education he had received as an undergraduate at Columbia to social sciences. Over the last 30 years, he has taught in professional schools of planning, architecture, public policy, business, education, and engineering at USC, UC Berkeley, the University of Minnesota, the University of Michigan and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Displaying a Singular Vision
In addition to teaching at Price, Krieger at one time served as curator of the gallery on the first floor of Lewis Hall. The shows he mounted were usually exhibitions of photographs taken by either Krieger or students. One early show featured photographs of Southern California malls, taken by undergraduate Mitchell Glaser. Another exhibition featured shots of all the houses in a super-block north of the USC campus, about 600 photographs in all. Krieger also has exhibited his photos of Los Angeles storefront churches, among other photos.

Krieger also began a series of documentation projects of everyday Los Angeles: storefront houses of worship, DWP stations, industrial sites and people at work, Pico-Roberts Orthodox Jewish Enclave, swapmeet vendors. There is a long tradition of serious visual documentation in urban planning, public administration, and development, and enormous concern about the visual in planning, Krieger says. He cites William Whyte’s “The City,” which encouraged people to make movies of urban behavior to understand how people actually live.

Where Math Meets Philosophy
Over the years, Krieger’s research has followed two main themes: mathematical models drawn from the natural sciences and the foundations of their use; and theories of planning and design drawn from the humanistic traditions and their philosophical foundations. Some of his early books devoted to theories of planning and design dealt with the idea that religious and theological language is useful to describe decisionmaking and judgment. When he wrote about decisionmaking, he realized that Augustine’s description of his conversion experience was a superb description of big decisions people make – a departure from most writing on the subject, which dealt with other models of rational decision-making.

At the National Humanities Center in 1978, a colleague observed that Krieger still thought much like a scientist. Krieger, who had left the field of physics years before, was interested in a revolution going on in particle physics at the time, based on the Standard Model of how the particle universe worked. He came to realize that the “new” model was really just a twist on the models he had studied years earlier. This led to an article titled “The Physicist’s Tool Kit,” which was about the basic models used for natural science. The idea, according to Krieger, was that “natural science is not about rationality; it’s about certain models.” He went on to write two technical books about mathematical physics.

“I was trying to understand what the mathematics had to do with physics, which is a very old problem,” Krieger says. “And it had a direct analogy within social science: what do mathematical models have to do with the world? That’s what really motivated me.”

He didn’t care about the philosophy of science, but about why mathematics has anything to do with social life. “My work on problems of planning and modeling cities inspired the writing of these books,” he says.

Seeing from Every Angle
Krieger sees his role at Price as that of intellectual switch-hitter, man of all trades, because he can understand most arguments made by most of his colleagues, whether historical, social scientific, or humanistic. “I know a lot about those things, and I have the kind of mind that’s supple enough to understand different arguments.”

The main thing he teaches students is how to think. For undergraduates, that means how to make sense of their projects. He also teaches them visual methods of planning and design that involve photography and graphics. He teaches master’s degree candidates the history of planning and cities, and how to think about cities. As for his doctoral students, he helps them learn how to turn their ideas into useful work.

Krieger says his virtue as a teacher is his ability to provide many contexts for students’ understanding. “I can listen to what they say and nothing stops me,” he says. “So if someone gives a talk, I can usually figure out what the basic insight is and whether it holds together. In other words, I’m better at listening to music than to individual notes. I’ll never discover some mild error in statistics or some problem in historiography. But I can usually figure out what’s going on, and that’s useful.”

Krieger has done what many people long to do. He has simply followed what interests him. He says he’s “gotten away with it” in professional scholarly settings by converting interests into published articles or books from serious presses. He also says that the grants he has received to fund his work have helped to validate what he does.

When students tell Krieger they want to follow in his footsteps, he cautions them. “It’s wonderful,” he tells them, “but you can’t really take these kinds of risks unless you have very good survival skills.”
In addition to serving as curator of the Lewis Hall Gallery, he authors an online column called This Week’s Finds in Planning.

Professor Krieger was elected a fellow of the American Physical Society (APS) in recognition of his contribution to the field of physics in the fall of 2006. Learn more about Krieger’s work by visiting his faculty page.