Weitzman News

  • Photo courtesy Lisa Keene Kerns

  • Khaled el-Khishin with Keene and Ana Maria Keene

  • Nisha Botchwey, PhD (MCP’99, PhD’03) with Keene

Remembering John Keene (1931–2022)

Read the obituary in The Philadelphia Inquirer, "John C. Keene, emeritus professor of city and regional planning, legal expert, and international lecturer, dies at 90"
Read the obituary in the University of Pennsylvania Almanac, "John Keene, City & Regional Planning"

Message from Dean Steiner to the Weitzman Community
Monday, March 7, 2022

It's with a heavy heart that I write today. Over the weekend, we lost another remarkable member of the Weitzman community with the passing of John Keene (MCP'66), professor emeritus of city and regional planning. I was a student of John’s, and he was on my dissertation committee, so I knew him well.

John joined the faculty in 1966, and over five decades at Penn, he taught an encyclopedic array of courses on the legal aspects of different planning fields and planning theory, from land development regulation and growth management techniques to protecting farmland and brownfield remediation. He was awarded the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Foundation Award for Distinguished Teaching in 2004, and the G. Holmes Perkins Award for Distinguished Teaching in 2005. After a Fall 2012 course with John, one student wrote, “I was skeptical of Professor Keene’s teaching style during the first few weeks of class. It is, to say the least, rather different from that you’d see in a typical planning class. As the semester progressed, however, I think we all came to realize that it worked, and well, and that we were learning a lot more about planning, about the law, and about planning law that we would’ve otherwise.”

In the tradition of the great systems thinkers that have distinguished our school since its beginnings, John’s research explored the ways in which law, planning, land-use policy and environmental policy interact. Among his many publications are the books Saving American Farmland: What Works?, Guiding Growth: A Primer on Growth Management for Pennsylvania MunicipalitiesThe Protection of Farmland: A Reference Guidebook for State and Local Governments; and Untaxing Open Space: An Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Differential Assessment of Farms and Open Space. His also advised local governments and charitable organizations on the legal aspects of environmental and farmland protection, and growth management.

In addition to his contributions as a teacher and scholar, John held many leadership roles, including service as chair of the President’s Commission on Judicial Procedures (1982–1983), the University ombudsman (1978–1984 and 2006–2009), chair of the Department of City and Regional Planning (1988–1992), chair of the University’s Faculty Senate (1998–1999), and two terms as chair of the Department’s graduate group. He was also an officer of the Penn Association of Senior and Emeritus Faculty.

Weitzman is collecting tributes to late faculty member John Keene (MCP’66), professor emeritus of city and regional planning. To add your voice, contact news@design.upenn.edu. In lieu of flowers, the family has requested all gifts in John’s honor be made to the School's City and Regional Planning Endowed Fellowship.

Fritz Steiner (MRP’77, MA’86, PhD’86) 

Dean and Paley Professor, Weitzman School of Design

John was my teacher. He was right out of central casting for what one expected for an Ivy League professor, only a bit more handsome than your stereotype. With degrees from Yale, Harvard, and Penn, John was an academic thoroughbred. He was a demanding, rigorous, and fair teacher. After I left Penn for the first time, I invited John to the Pacific Northwest for a conference on farmland preservation and he subsequently contributed to a book I edited on the topic. John was a supportive mentor and brilliant collaborator. When I returned to Penn, I asked John to be on my dissertation committee. With his fellow lawyer-planner colleague, Ann Strong, as my chair, I am pretty sure my dissertation was almost typo-free. They were deep, critical readers and advisors. As we grew more friendly, John took me into his confidence and shared a paper on environmentalism and Marxism that he had written for one of Ian McHarg’s classes. He had received a B+ from Ian, which John felt was too low. After reading it, I agreed; the paper was fascinating and highly original and should have been published. It was a great joy to return to Penn for a third time and see John remain so active. A wonderful teacher and scholar, John Keene was part of the fabric of the Graduate School of Fine Arts through our evolution to the Stuart Weitzman School of Design.

Eugénie L. Birch

Lawrence C. Nussdorf Professor of Urban Research and Education, Weitzman School of Design

John Keene loved Penn, especially the Department of City and Regional Planning, where, over the years, he chaired the department and the graduate group with grace and wisdom. He was an inspiring teacher, always up-to-date on the latest twist in planning law. He practically invented the earliest thinking on growth management, farmland protection, and transfer of development rights. Students lined up to take his classes because they knew he would take them step by step through the cases that framed their profession. He left a lasting imprint of how to understand the laws and rulings that have driven urban and regional planning and showed them how to improve them. 

John was a wonderful colleague, always ready to help out with a committee, a report, or simply move a department meeting along when things got tough. He left a lasting imprint of his diplomacy and diligence on his faculty colleagues.

John’s kind spirit went beyond the professional lives we all shared. I remember having lunch with him one day when we discussed our families. To my amazement, he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a spreadsheet to show me how he kept track of his grandchildren and their birthdays. He took great pleasure in his joyful marriage with Ana Maria, proudly explaining her work in curating an important exhibit on Latin American Art for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And one time, he and Ana Maria stopped off at our home in Cape Cod on a trip to Martha’s Vineyard to visit one of their children. While we were visiting, he secretly snapped a photograph of my namesake granddaughter and me in the bright sunshine—somehow he captured a special moment, again leaving a lasting imprint of his sensitive eye and phenomenal photographic skill. 

John was an elegant, thoughtful man who left lasting imprints on his colleagues, students, and family. He will be missed but never forgotten.

Tom Daniels

Crossways Professor of City and Regional Planning, Weitzman School of Design

John Keene was a pioneer in recognizing the importance of protecting and preserving America's farmland. Together with his business partner and Penn colleague, Bob Coughlin, John co-authored many consulting reports, including the landmark 1981 study for the National Agricultural Lands study, The Protection of Farmland: A Guide for State and Local Governments. Years later, the American Farmland Trust asked John to be the lead author on their farmland preservation guidebook, Saving American Farmland: What Works, 1997.

John was instrumental in bringing me to Penn in 2003. I had long admired John's work in planning law, growth management, and farmland preservation.

In 2016, I invited John to join me in writing a book on the legal aspects of Farmland Preservation. The book appeared in 2018, The Law of Agricultural Land Preservation in the United States (Chicago: American Bar Association).

I always valued John’s wise counsel and sharp legal mind. He taught generations of Penn students about planning law and managing growth, both fundamental to planning practice.

Even after he “retired” from the City and Regional Planning Department, John continued to teach in the Master’s of Environmental Studies program well into his eighties. He was a Penn stalwart for more than five decades.

John D. Landis

Professor Emeritus of City and Regional Planning, Weitzman School of Design

Great universities require dedicated stewards like John Keene to stay at the top of their game.  I first met John soon after I joined the Penn faculty in 2007.  He appeared at my office door in that unassuming but determined way of his hoping to garner a few minutes of my time.  Like many veteran faculty, I assumed John was going to fill me in on Penn and PennDesign’s rich history, but that wasn’t the way the conversation went at all.  Instead, John wanted to talk about the future, and about Penn’s obligation to educate the next generation of professional planners.  That was John in a nutshell:  committed to providing the very best graduate school education he and we possibly could, committed to improving planning pedagogy, and above all, committed to our students and to their personal and professional journeys.

John was proudly old-school in his approach to teaching.  He believed in having students brief legal cases and in having them connect facts, legal doctrine, and public policy.  He believed in having students write term papers that developed clear and cogent arguments.  Most of all, he believed in providing students with the knowledge and confidence to make a difference in their professional lives.  As Dean Steiner wrote in his tribute to John, it was not unusual to have students initially rebel against having to take John’s required planning law course only to complete the course a few months later lavishly singing John’s praises as a teacher and a mentor.

After becoming an emeritus faculty member—he never really retired—John served for several years as Penn’s campus ombudsman, figuring out ways to bring conflicting parties together around common ground.  As department chair, there were many times I sought out John for his counsel regarding a particularly thorny academic policy or personnel question.  Invariably, John would provide a way forward that not only solved the immediate problem but did so in a way that honored the dignity of everyone involved.

John’s legacy is his hundreds of students who right now are using the skills he taught them to make our communities better, fairer, and more sustainable. The University of Pennsylvania, the Weitzman School of Design, and above all, generations of city planning students and colleagues are lucky to have had a teacher and friend of John Keene’s integrity, thoughtfulness, empathy, and dedication.  

Janet A. Deatrick, Marshall Meyer, and Janice Madden

Janet A. Deatrick is President, Penn Association for Senior and Emeritus Faculty
Marshall Meyer is President Elect, Penn Association for Senior and Emeritus Faculty
Janice Madden is Past President, Penn Association for Senior and Emeritus Faculty

John C. Keene served as a member of the Penn Association for Senior and Emeritus Faculty (PASEF) Council as a member at-large from 2016–2020, Faculty Development, Diversity & Equity (SCFDDE) Representative from 2016–2020, and as the Secretary from 2020 to the time of his death. Professor Keene was a dedicated member of Council. He is remembered for his dignified demeanor and his determination to serve the needs of senior and retired faculty through his work with PASEF. He was always supportive and often asked questions to move issues toward resolution. When he knew his illness was progressing, he was concerned not only with meeting his PASEF responsibilities but also with how PASEF was positioned to continue to meet the needs of its members. His involvement continued throughout his last days. In fact, on the day he entered hospice care, he called to thank PASEF for the opportunity to serve and to say good-by to his colleagues. We salute Professor Keene for his service to our community of scholars and for his distinguished career.

Lauren Archibald (PhD’95)

Professor John Keene was both my mentor and professor while I was a PhD student. I was fortunate—and grateful, to be able to work part-time for him as well. Professor Keene was cordial, engaging, and generous with his time and his knowledge. In class, he always kept us sharp–we never knew which one of us he'd grill that day!

David Yim (C’03, MCP’09)

I had the pleasure to take [Professor Keene’s] planning law courses as an undergraduate in Urban Studies and then again as a graduate student in the Master of City Planning program. I remember I would seek his help to understand some of the materials during his office hours, and he was a gentleman that patiently helped me to understand and digest through the materials I struggled with.  He always had my respect and I send my condolences to his family. 

David M. Scolnic (MCP’83)

Shareholder, Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller

Professor Keene was hugely influential in my life. It was his class on the law of urban development that motivated me to become an attorney. He inspired me to synthesize law and planning. When an opening came up to teach the class that John Keene taught for so many decades, I felt so indebted to Professor Keene that I knew I had to do it. I only hope that I can inspire others half as much as he inspired me.

Janice F. Madden  

Professor of Regional Science and Sociology, Penn 

Over the years, John and I often worked together with students in City Planning and also shared exchanges at academic workshops. John was a caring supervisor of students and a broad thinker, always concentrating on the bigger picture. It was a bonus to have him join the PASEF Council and serve as an officer during my “presidential rotation” for the organization. He shared information about his worsening condition with me, but also said that he wanted to remain a part of the University to the extent he was able. I salute the Quaker who died with his boots on! He is missed already. 

Yao-Hua Peng (MCP'97)

Planning Law, especially the US Supreme Court’s decisions, can be hard for a student from Taiwan to study. In general, I believe, the government has executed its land use regulations (zoning control) with due process.

In his class, Planning Law, Dr. Keene strongly pressed me to learn American law without translation. Actually, Supreme Court opinions are really hard to read, especially for an international student. After one year of study, he said that he had evaluated my course-credit “incomplete” and said, “You will audit next year, in Spring Semester of 1995.” As he spoke, I cried because I failed his test. He seemed a little surprised at the time. Next year, I took his course and it really helped me to understand US Supreme Court opinions. When I carefully read the Justices’ words, I noticed and discovered the Court’s consideration, for example, for eminent domain—taking private land for public use with just compensation in the interest of public welfare, which requires the government to do its homework in evaluating the value of the land. I understood planning law as a real tool to initiate city development in the right way through cases such as Village of Euclid v. Amber Realty Co. (1926) (zoning system) and Penn Central Transportation Co. et al v. City of New York et al. (1978) (TDR) and so on. The law has put city planning on a right road. 

On the other hand, on the relationship between aesthetics and law, I see myself as an architect. After I had finished writing a term paper on whether aesthetics bear upon building permits, I came to the conclusion that aesthetics is not tied to the law. Under law, a building’s aesthetics are distinct from a building’s structure. This applies not only modern or International Style buildings but other buildings. It was a big discovery.

Around 2008, when Professor Keene travelled Taiwan to visit some of us alumni, I asked him the question, Is a comprehensive plan definite?He said no, it is not a rigid law. My main doubts were removed. After I obtained my master’s in law degree in Taiwan, in 2013, focused on real estate development and heritage preservation, Professor Keene reviewed the paper and wrote me a note, “I miss you.” As Professor Keene showed, we need to stay connected to each other even after graduation. I remember, at our commencement in 1997, with my father present, when he asked me, “What would you like to do in the future?”

After I began working in Taiwan, the Development Rights (DR) concept was revised, and in the city of Taipei, from 1999, it successfully protected historic structures from being torn down. However, the DR did not apply to nearby neighborhoods, according to the court’s decision. The government never invited me to discuss the DR concept in more detail, and randomly applied it to parks and roads. Furthermore, the local government regulated DR with building volume bonuses during the review process, as a gift to developers, making buildings higher, regardless of zoning. The government has destroyed the zoning system, and we have no way to repair it. Common Law has seriously come in conflict with Statutory Law.

As time goes on, I appreciate being a member of the Penn family. In Taipei, when we come together to resist unchecked development, we honor the memory of John Keene.

He’s still alive in our hearts.

Elizabeth Hitchcock (MArch‘92)

Registered Architect

I remember John Keene with great admiration, as one of the finest professors I encountered at the (formerly known as) Graduate School of Fine Arts at Penn. As an architecture student I didn’t imagine I’d have much use for his class in land use law, but I signed up for it to satisfy a distribution requirement. It turned out to be one of my most enjoyable classes of my three-year tenure, due in no small part to John’s excellent teaching methods. He was a wonderful University citizen and his death is a profound loss not only to his family and friends, but to his students and colleagues.

Josef Nathanson (MCP‘65)

I was sad to learn of the passing of John Keene. I was a classmate of John in the MCP program (1964–1966). John came to the program having already earned his law degree and brought a notable level of maturity and seriousness to his graduate studies. But he also exhibited a cheerfulness and openness that made him a well respected member of our class. I was aware of his later career as a member of the Penn faculty, but only now have learned of his many contributions to the Penn community. 

My condolences to his family, friends and colleagues. 

William Keller

During my service as Fine Arts Librarian (1997-2014) it was our privilege to work with Professor Keene on library acquisitions, database use and, possibly most important, the development of his students’ critical awareness in their information-seeking practice. It was also our pleasure to help him navigate through the historical bibliography of prints as graphic art. Overall, he was exacting in his expectations and appreciative of our collections and services. 

Nancy Farriss

Professor of History Emerita, Annenberg School for Communication

John Keene dedicated his life to making the world a better place.  Many people have good intentions.  Not so many act on them and even fewer have John Keene's grasp of how best to pursue these goals. He was a discerning student of systems at many levels. He generously shared this understanding with generations of students and with the broader public, and he tirelessly worked to improve them, starting with the University of Pennsylvania, where his many stints on committees, presiding the Faculty Senate, and serving as Ombudsman are gratefully remembered, up through cityscapes and constitutional organization to the relationship between humans and the physical environment. At all these levels John contributed ideas and efforts to sustain, protect, repair, as needed.

As a human being John will be remembered for his gentle manner and consideration. Applying an old adage handed down in my family to the effect that "politeness is to do and say the kindest thing in the kindest way," I reckon that John Keene is the politest man most of us will ever meet.

M. Richard Nalbandian (MRP‘73)

John was a man of great intelligence, skill, decency and caring – a truly rare and powerful combination. 

I will not attempt to list John’s professional accomplishments since they are listed elsewhere. They alone speak to a life of purpose and contribution. 

I will, however, say a few words about John’s impact as a teacher, colleague and friend. John maintained both intellectual rigor and a spirit of generosity with his students and younger colleagues. Once upon a time, more than 50 years ago, I was a beneficiary of those gifts and encouragement. John had a lasting impact on the academic development and career trajectories of countless students and early career professionals in the fields of planning and law. Some of us were fortunate enough to “graduate” from the status of student or mentee into a lasting relationship as colleague and friend. While I enjoyed that peer-level status for several decades, I never lost sight of my gratitude and deep respect for John’s professional and strategic insights and his enduring curiosity to learn more, to experience more, to share more. 

I will miss John and treasure the memories of our shared history. 

Khaled el-Khishin (PhD‘90)

When John told me that he was terminally ill over a month and a half ago, I was still hopeful that he would survive. I prayed for his recovery. The news of his departure from our world left me lost for words. John did not only supervise my PhD dissertation in the late 1980s, he was a mentor and a personal friend ever since. We shared an interest in global and US politics, a zeal for travel, and a passion for the English and French languages. We also exchanged articles on art and other topics. On my last visit to the US over 6 years ago, John was gracious enough to receive me for dinner and an overnight stay at his beautiful home where I admired his passion for silver objets d'art and fine art. It was a great opportunity to reminisce on old memories, get to know his charming wife Ana Maria, and catch up on his many accomplishments since I left Penn in 1990. In June of 1990, I invited John to my farewell party at International House where he got to meet my parents and sample some delicious Egyptian food prepared by my mother. Three years ago, when I informed John that I will be visiting Mexico on a leisure trip, he showered me with advice as to which places I should visit. He particularly recommended Puebla, a city I was delighted to visit. Moreover, he introduced me to his son Mario who I met briefly over dinner in Mexico City. Though my social bonds with the Keene family were the icing on top of the cake, my discourse with him in emails and occasional calls was really fulfilling. I valued his interests in Middle Eastern culture, politics, and Islam. His ideals and morals were equally awesome. I will grieve for John, the fine gentleman, and the great professor and mentor for many years to come. May he rest in peace!

Jay Grant (MCP‘07)

Professor Keene will forever be a major factor in my professional development, particularly as related to preparedness and thoroughness.  Taking Planning Law under his professorship taught me so much more than the fundamentals of planning law, and for that I will always be grateful.  Professor Keene lived such an exemplary life to which we all can aspire.  To the Keene family, I wish you blessings and peace during and beyond this challenging time; and I thank you for lending John to all of us for so many years.

Jessica Morris (MArch‘14)

It was during a very small, short summer course that I encountered Professor Keene, who was committed to teaching, so long as there were students with interest to learn. I was an interloper from the Department of Architecture, with broad interests and little discipline. In short order, Professor Keene's teaching style allowed me to establish a general appreciation of methodological rigor, such that developing an approach to engaging with policy felt quickly within reach. Professor Keene's course offered an accessible gateway to the world of sustainable development policy through an institutional lens, which became an ongoing and established thread in my small interdisciplinary practice that has emerged since working with John a decade ago, that one summer. If my encounter was any reflection of the impact of Professor Keene's resolute knowledge, which he shared through teaching and practice, I attest to John's ability to advance, cultivate, and pique student interest in policy and sustainable development with an admirable ease. Not only was Professor Keene patient and encouraging, but he was willing and able to connect with students through informal dialog on critical and challenging questions that related to the environmental limits of, and policy-based mechanisms for managing growth, e.g. on Martha's Vineyard, where we both had personal connections, and a big-picture understanding of what may be at stake, in terms of climate, environment and sustainability.   

William J. Cohen (MCP’99, AM’02, PhD’03)

Associate Professor of Practice, Temple University

What wonderful experiences I have had with John Keene. He was such an important influence and guide that has shaped what I have aspired to become as a university professor. I remember when I entered the graduate program in City and Regional Planning, he introduced himself and said, "I plan on playing a major role in your life at Penn." I suppose my status as a "special student" (as Tony Tomazinis called me) had something to do with that since I was moving from the professional trenches after 30 years of practice to the halls of academia. Throughout my studies at Penn I always felt that John held me to a higher standard which I accepted, and frankly relished.

Taking his courses was both challenging and exhilarating, especially Planning Law. As he meticulously posed questions from the podium, we students knew that preparation was a must. As each person was called on to respond you could see the fear of being wrong on their faces. When I received my term paper back he called me to his office. I was nervous—he didn't like it, I thought. The paper was graded A+ and later became published in a law journal after I had incorporated John’s insightful comments.

Progressing into the doctorial program, I asked him to be my dissertation supervisor which he accepted. I was prepared for the long haul and the acute level of review and guidance that I knew he would provide. He kept my “feet to the fire” and was continually available to answer my questions and offer moral support. One day during oral examinations, I was extensively grilled by Seymour Mandelbaum on planning theory. I began to feel that I was being nailed to the wall until John interrupted and began to grill Seymour. How about that! I really thought my ship would sink but John rescued me and kept it afloat.

I never resisted asking John questions and seeking his advice; he was always available and generous with his time. Although once I felt that he was not especially pleased with my knock on his office door. As I entered his office I noticed the unnoticeable. John was in the throes of heavy competition with a solitaire game. I thought perhaps he was in the midst of deep reading. Oh well! 

After the dissertation was presented to the faculty, John—along with Jonathan Barnett and Nick Muhlenberg (a key member of Ian McHarg’s regional planning faculty)—encouraged me to have it published. After 13 years of additional research and consultation with John, the work was finally published. I wrote in the dedication of Ecohumanism and the Ecological Culture: The Educational Legacy of Lewis Mumford and Ian McHarg (2019), “John Keene would become not just one of my professors but also my advisor, dissertation supervisor, confidant, and friend. I relied on John’s careful guidance to keep me moving in the right direction; he was truly indispensable to my success at Penn.”

Kenneth Kaufman (L’72, MCP’72)

I first knew John Keene as the creator of Penn's Joint Program in City Planning and Law.  I was in my first year at Penn Law and had always wanted to attend planning school after I finished law school.  When I heard about the program being started, I contacted John Keene and he strongly encouraged me to apply.  I was accepted and it was perfect for me.  It was one of Penn's first joint degree programs.  Professor Keene also taught classes I took (he was an outstanding teacher) and acted as my adviser.  I spent my career as an attorney focused on planning law.

Robert Ravelli (MCP‘82)

I was in the MCP program graduating in 1982. Professor Keene taught planning law and his class was one of the best ones I took during my time at Penn. He was articulate and had a certain distinctive style that Dean Steiner aptly called “from central casting.” You could have pictured him in a TV courtroom drama. After I graduated from Penn, Professor Keene was always very interested in the work I was doing and how my career was progressing. I would drop in to see him when I was visiting the Penn campus right up to when he retired.  

He was a great inspiration and will remember him fondly. 

John R. Benson (MArch’72)

To me John Keene was the embodiment of perspective and excellence in interdisciplinary teaching and research on planning and (architectural) design.  He was also an approachable and insightful person, an inspiration.  He built on what I’d learned at Yale and greatly enhanced my ability to lead interdisciplinary consulting teams serving pubic and private clients that moved our physical environment forward which served me unusually well in my long career.  He led courses not available elsewhere and inspired many students such as me.  

John Fry

President, Drexel University

I first met John Keene 25 year ago in a contentious faculty meeting at Penn. He was a tough adversary who asked difficult questions and demanded accountability. Eventually our rocky relationship grew into one of mutual respect, and then into a cherished friendship. John was endlessly curious, deeply committed to his students, and a wonderful host of fun dinner parties. I will miss him greatly.

Nisha Botchwey, PhD (MCP’99, PhD’03)

Dean, University of Minnesota, Humphrey School of Public Affairs

I met Professor Keene in Spring 1997 when I was considering Penn for graduate school. He met with me one-on-one and showed a sincere interest in my ideas and reasons for wanting to study planning. Largely due to this interaction, I chose Penn to study planning and had the opportunity to study with him. I took planning law with him and was both thrilled and terrified in class. I was thrilled because as he facilitated the class, the context of the time and reasons for why the case of focus was important was made visible. I was terrified … well, anxious to do a good job explaining the case when he would cold call during class. This approach forced me to be ready for every class and do my best to contribute to our collective learning. 

While we had email then, sharing an article in that way was not easy to do, but that did not stop professor Keene from sharing materials with me. He would make photo copies and drop them in my student folder in the front of the office, then ask me what I thought about the article when next we met.

He was a stellar professor, advisor, planning law leader, and academic friend. Thank you Professor Keene.