Robert Marans: Architect, Social Scientist, Planner…and Donor

By Susan Rosegrant

They say that eyes are the window to the soul. For Bob Marans, his office at the Institute for Social Research (ISR) is a window—if not to his soul—then at least to his heart and mind.

Photos cover a portion of one wall, capturing scenes from Iran, Qatar, China, Turkey, Germany—countries he visited in the last decade for conferences or to do research, and where he kept his camera ready. There’s a brightly decorated can of Chinese tea, a metal platter from India stamped with a peacock, an Asian doll—all gifts from former students. Books are stacked and leaning at crazy angles on shelves, desks, sills…really any available surface; books on architecture, urban planning, quality of life, survey methodology, sustainability. The books, perhaps more than anything else, indicate the breadth of Marans’s interests and work. “Some people think of me as an architect, some people think of me as a social scientist, some people think of me as a planner,” Marans says with a laugh. “I’m all of the above.”

Bob Marans in his office at ISR

Bob Marans in his office at ISR (Photo by Eva Menezes)

Marans, professor emeritus of architecture and urban planning in U-M’s Taubman College of Architecture & Urban Planning and research professor at ISR, first came to U-M as an undergraduate in 1952, earning a bachelor’s degree in architecture. After receiving a master’s degree in urban planning and an architect’s license, he worked for a number of years before returning to Michigan to pursue a Ph.D. He earned his doctorate in 1971 and never left. Over the last 40 years, Marans has become known in particular for his research into different aspects of the built and natural environments and how those environments affect behavior and quality of life. The Environmental Design Research Association in June awarded Marans its 2012 Career Award.

For a scholar who has stressed the importance, even the necessity, of crossing intellectual boundaries, it’s no surprise that Marans continues to do wide ranging and interdisciplinary work. He makes frequent trips to Chengdu, China, where he is talking with faculty at Sichuan University about incorporating social science training into their environmental curriculum. He is collaborating with colleagues in architecture and at the School of Public Health to look at how environmental features of Detroit’s neighborhoods—including land uses, street patterns, and recreational facilities—may affect physical activity and health.

Some people think of me as an architect, some people think of me as a social scientist, some people think of me as a planner,” Marans says with a laugh. “I’m all of the above.”

And Marans has kept that interdisciplinary focus in mind as he has thought about ways that he and his wife Judy can contribute something more to the university and ISR. Last year, he and retired faculty member Kan Chen, formerly a professor of electrical engineering at U-M’s College of Engineering, decided to join forces. Chen and Marans had become close colleagues years ago when they served consecutively as the directors of an interdisciplinary doctoral program at U-M in urban, technological, and environmental planning. Now they decided to create a fellowship that would carry on that kind of interdisciplinary approach by supporting a graduate student who wanted to apply social science methods to the broader issue of sustainability. “The students who receive it would have the ability to do the kind of research that I’ve been doing, which I believe is important,” Marans says, “looking at links between the environment and issues of sustainability, on the one hand, and people’s behavior, on the other.”

The Robert and Judy Marans/Kan and Lillian Chen Fellowship in Sustainability and Survey Methodology awarded its first fellowship this spring to Sarah Mills, a doctoral student in urban and regional planning. The fellowship, administered by ISR and the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute, covers tuition for Mills to earn a Certificate in Survey Methodology from ISR. Mills plans to apply those survey methods in her doctoral research into what rural communities can do to curb urban sprawl and foster sustainable development in the Midwest. Mills, Marans says, is just the kind of student he had in mind when he and Chen created the fellowship. “She has engineering training, she’s getting her doctorate in planning, and she’s quantitative in her background,” he says.

For members of the university community interested in creating their own award or fellowship, Marans says it wasn’t hard; he and Chen worked with Patrick Shields, ISR’s director of development, and pulled it together in a matter of a few months. “Just have a vision for what you want to do and why you want to do it,” he says. “It’s part of giving back.” His eyes skim over the books, objects, and photos that surround him. “ISR and U-M have been good to me,” he says. “This has in many ways been my home.”

Bob’s CV (pdf)