ULI J.C. Nichols Laureate Theaster Gates: An Urban Development Visionary

Efforts by ULI members to engage with a broad range of innovators who influence urban development was evident in the selection of internationally acclaimed artist and urban planner Theaster Gates as the 2018 recipient of the Institute’s J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development. The annual prize, which is ULI’s highest honor, recognizes an individual who has made a distinguished contribution to community building globally, who has established visionary standards of excellence in the land use and development field, and whose commitment to creating the highest-quality built environment has led to the betterment of society.

Gates’s rise to prominence began with his use of art and culture to revive underserved neighborhoods in his hometown of Chicago. His creative approach to revitalizing neglected urban neighborhoods—including the reuse of building materials and other items to transform vacant properties into usable space—is what earned him the Nichols Prize. His studies in urban planning and sculpture have informed and inspired his work, which began on Chicago’s South Side, where he founded the Rebuild Foundation to transform neighborhoods and celebrate innovative artistic practices.

“My work has always aimed to revitalize forgotten spaces and, in doing so, bring together communities that have felt forgotten,” Gates said. “The incredible thing that happens when you revitalize those spaces, preserving elements of their history and infusing them with new purpose, is that you create a platform for communities to participate in their own revitalization. I’m honored to receive this award from ULI—an organization that understands how spaces can, and should, be empowering.”

  • “I am honored to receive this award from ULI—an organization that understands how spaces can, and should be, empowering.”

    – Theaster Gates, 2018 ULI J.C. Nichols laureate
  • “The Urban Land Institute paid tribute to Gates’s efforts by awarding him its most prestigious honor, the J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development.”

    – Forbes, December 2018

Gates and Rebuild Foundation have acquired more than 30 vacant buildings in Chicago for transformation into spaces for affordable housing and community amenities, catalyzing at least $45 million in new investment in South Side. The foundation hires and trains neighborhood residents to work in construction trades, providing employment opportunities for people to improve the places where they live—infusing a sense of community pride that helps residents who might otherwise be disengaged to become involved stakeholders. Gates also initiated Place Lab at the University of Chicago, a diverse team of professionals representing the fields of law, urban planning, architecture, design, social work, art, and gender and cultural studies to document and highlight urban redevelopment strategies initiated through art and culture. Another project he spearheaded, the Arts Incubator at the University of Chicago, received a ULI Chicago Vision Award in 2013.

ULI Governing Trustee and Nichols Prize Jury Chairman Michael Spies, senior managing director of Tishman Speyer in New York City, noted that the selection of Gates was a recognition of the way visionaries whose work extends beyond traditional real estate disciplines are influencing the built environment. It also reflects a selection based on the potential, rather than the history, of the recipient’s work, he said. “Many cities are looking to reinvent themselves, and Theaster’s work represents art and culture as important elements of reinvention. His model of readapting elements, of repurposing ordinary materials for works of art as well as rebuilding, is a model that clearly has huge potential to be replicated in communities around the world,” Spies said. “He is at once an artist, an entrepreneur, a community builder, and a visionary.”

In addition to Spies, other 2018 Nichols Prize Jury members were ULI Trustee Jodie W. McLean, chief executive officer of EDENS in Washington, D.C.; ULI Trustee A. Eugene Kohn, founder and chairman, KPF, New York City; Ellen Dunham-Jones, professor, School of Architecture, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta; and Mark Johnson, president of Civitas in Denver.

The ULI J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development was established in 2000 with a generous endowment to the ULI Foundation from the Nichols family.

Use Navigator to submit a confidential nomination for the ULI J.C. Nichols Prize, or to apply for service as a jury member.

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