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Remembering Janet Smith

UIC Mourns the Loss of Our Urban Planning and Policy Professor and Co-Director of the Voorhees Center

Janet Smith, UIC Professor of Urban Planning and Policy and Co-Director of the Nathalie P. Voorhees Center

UIC and the faculty, staff, students and alumni of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs are mourning the loss of Urban Planning and Policy professor and Voorhees Center do-director, Dr. Janet Smith, who passed away on January 17, 2022, after battling ovarian cancer.

For a quarter century, Janet’s teaching, research and community service have focused on equity issues in housing planning and policy. Her research and outreach activities were regularly conducted in partnership with community organizations and policy stakeholders through the Voorhees Center at UIC.

Her work involved issues that range from the transformation of public housing projects throughout the U.S. and the expansion of housing options for people with disabilities to the relationship between housing and health, and community-driven strategies to keep housing costs affordable.

The loss of Janet is deeply felt in the CUPPA, said David Merriman, interim CUPPA dean and James J. Stukel Presidential Professor of Public Administration.

“Janet pressed us all to do better and relentlessly focused on making the world a better place for everyone. Our students, alumni, friends, and colleagues are richer in knowledge and justice because of her,” he said.

Janet led several large-scale housing research projects in Chicago including a regional homeless needs assessments, rental market studies funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Along with Larry Bennett and Patricia Wright, Janet co-edited and co-authored Where are Poor People to Live? Transforming Public Housing Communities (ME Sharpe 2006). She and John Betancur also published Claiming Neighborhood: New Ways of Understanding Urban Change (University of Illinois 2016).

The impact of her work earned Janet several honors, including the Urban Affairs Association’s 2020 Marilyn J. Gittell Activist Scholar Award for her “truly outstanding … contributions and commitment to activist-scholarship.”

Yittayih Zelalem, Janet’s co-director at the Voorhees Center, said her energy, enthusiasm and determination was inspiring to all who worked with her.

“Janet was a relentless advocate for justice and fairness with deep knowledge of community development and affordable housing. Her conviction for the protection of the rights of the disenfranchised among us was unparalleled; she was an inspiration to us and to our partners,” he said.

Since joining UIC in August 1997, she served as a mentor to numerous doctoral and graduate students who have gone on to work for community organizations and in the public and private sectors and the academy.

“Their commitment to the principles Janet consistently espoused – social equity, community voice, and valuing community-driven solutions to enduring urban problems – is testament to Janet’s enduring influence on urban planning and policy,” said Nik Theodore, professor and head of urban planning and policy.

Janet received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UIUC before earning a Ph.D. at Cleveland State University.

She is survived by her husband, James.

Tributes to Janet Heading link

The Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement (NVC) received scores of messages from friends, colleagues, associates, partners and supporters celebrating Janet’s life and legacy; some excerpts:


Supporters and Leaders

Dr. Smith was a leader both in and outside of the Military Economic Development Committee (MEDC), bringing advocacy, care and tenacity to the work. Many of us were lucky to serve alongside her, and I am honored to have had the opportunity to get to know her better through the Committee.

-Juliana Stratton, Lieutenant Governor, State of Illinois

My condolences at this sad time of great loss. Co-Director Smith is responsible for many of the wonderful accomplishments of the Center — my parents would be enormously proud of her tremendous contributions.

-Nancy Voorhees, Daughter of Alan and Nathalie P. Voorhees

Janet was such an earnest and capable person, driven by her care for others, and she achieved so much.  We are ever grateful for her work in making the NPV Center the excellent institution that it has become.
-Scott Voorhees, Son of Alan and Nathalie P. Voorhees

This is such a loss to everyone who was ever in contact with Janet. As the first director of the Voorhees Center, I was so delighted to see all the great work Janet accomplished over the years.

 -William Peterman, First Voorhees Center director

 I always looked forward to hearing from Janet about the good work continuing at the Voorhees Center.  Janet was such a fun and endearing person.

-Pat Wright, Former Voorhees Center director


Partners & Affiliates

Janet was one of the best people out there, and truly a light to everyone in our field. I do not quite know what we will do without her.  She is an irreplaceable inspiration and has been a driving energy for the truth and the meanings of that truth for the lives of people too few of us think about, let alone care about.

Janet left a thousand points of light in her wake, because you could not work even briefly with Janet without being lit on fire to some extent by her clarity of sight and heart.

 -Leah Levinger, Chicago Housing Initiative

This hurts! She was a beautiful soul!

 -John Paul Jones, Sustainable Englewood

I considered Janet a friend. This loss stings.

Joey Mak, Chicago:Blend

Last night and again this morning I had a good cry along with smiles thinking about Janet, who was one of my very favorite people in the world. She was a dear colleague, collaborator and strong advocate for the people and their communities. We so enjoyed “making trouble” together in defense of poor underserved communities.

It goes without saying that Janet’s legacy runs deep in Chicago. My course, UP 479, Community Engagement in Planning, is in its way an homage to Janet. So while I feel her loss keenly, I also have her with my students and me every time I teach that class.

-Lou Russell, University of Illinois

 Even on Zoom meetings, I could feel her enthusiasm.

–Linda Kendrick, Greater Peoria Economic Development Corporation

Janet was more than a colleague; she was a friend to the many lives she touched. Always thoughtful, insightful and supportive. I am thankful to have worked closely with Janet on several projects.  She was an inspiration.

-Christine Nappo, Cook County Bureau of Economic Development

 Janet was a wonderful bright and vibrant person. She was always a joy in our zoom meetings.

-Erin Marshall, Rockford Area Economic Development Council

I have a heavy heart and cherished memories. Janet and I enjoyed some wonderful conversations. We had fun debating the issues and solving world problems. She shed the light and valuable insights to make the world a better place!

-Dave Boulay, Illinois Manufacturing Excellence Center

A terrible loss for so many family, friends and colleagues. May her memory be a blessing to the many she touched.

-Irene Sherr, Cook County Bureau of Economic Development

Janet assisted us several times during the years. Her desire to work with public housing residents as partners was beyond any words that I have right now. She gave them hope and empathy, especially during the CHA Plan for Transformation.

-Willie L. Lewis Jr., Central Advisory Council, Chicago Housing Authority

We always looked up to Janet. She was very smart and fair with her Win-Win personality. She will be missed by all of us here at the Central Advisory Council.

-Francine Washington, Central Advisory Council

 Janet is an incredible inspiration and the past few years, I have been deeply grateful to have her as a mentor and friend.

Laura Nussbaum-Barberena, PhD | Director, Office of Student Research & the Policy Research Collaborative | Roosevelt University

 I am so sorry for the loss of a great friend, Jim’s loss of his soulmate and UIC’s loss of a wonderful leader, professor and mentor. Since meeting her twenty years ago at Great Cities, she maintained an influential role and was a good friend.

Gary O. Willis, NASA/ George C. Marshall Space Flight Centre

 Janet and I worked together on a number of projects on the far South Side, as well as food justice related projects through the Chicago Food Policy Action Council and other groups. Our center at Chicago State (the Neighborhood Assistance Center) was patterned after Voorhees, and Janet was a great mentor and just someone to talk to in general about projects. Janet truly helped make Chicago, and CUPPA, a better place. She was a great colleague and mentor.

-Danny Block, Chicago State University

Janet was such a wonderful person to know and work with. It is so sad to lose such a beautiful person.

-Ed Shurna, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless

 I had such a wonderful time working with Janet.
-Dan Persky, University of Chicago

This is a heavy loss for Chicago. I once co-taught a course with her in the MUPP program on public housing redevelopment more than 20 years ago, before I knew anything about it! Her writings about affordable housing and public housing redevelopment were the best out there.

-Peter Levavi, Brinshore Development

 Janet was well known for her work to many of us. May she help guide us out of these dark times, and may she remain an inspiration for people who want to lead a life of service to others.

-Maria Ayala, Enlace Chicago

 Janet was truly a special person with such a fierce commitment to equity in housing. We worked together closely on a HUD-funded study of the CHA’s Plan for Transformation in the late 1990s. It was a very contentious atmosphere to undertake research and we often felt under siege; I really got to know and respect her through that work.

Tom Lenz, Consult HLC



In a very personal manner, I deeply feel the loss of a dear younger colleague and friend.  While apart in age, we shared views on the mission of the profession of planning, embraced social and ethical values, and believed in the essence of what CUPPA should be and thus stand for

Raffaella Leonardi and Bob Leonardi, CUPPA, UIC

Janet’s collaboration on our education projects was invaluable. The Data and Democracy project that we concocted together was crucial in reshaping the narrative on school closings in Chicago and the relationship to gentrification and urban development.

-Pauline Lipman, UIC

Janet & I started together at UIC 26 years ago and have collaborated on so many projects together since then. I always thought, “I want to be just like her” with her incredible energy, passion, caring of other people, and understanding of social issues. She has been a great friend.

-Joy Hammel, UIC, Depts. of Occupational Therapy and Disability & Human Development

I saw Janet last at the beginning of the holidays; she continued to be full of energy and always upbeat. We went on a walk just after Thanksgiving and bumped into somebody she knew from the gym. She talked about starting weight training again!

Ann Barnds, UIC CUPPA (Retired)


Voorhees Center Staff and Research Assistants – Former and Current

Janet was a relentless advocate for justice and fairness with deep knowledge of community development and affordable housing. Her passion and conviction for the protection of the rights of the disenfranchised was unparalleled; she was a shining example to her colleagues, and an incredible resource to our partners. Her energy, enthusiasm and determination was inspirational to all who worked with her.

-Yittayih Zelalem, NVC co-director

 Janet was an incredible boss, mentor, and friend who has left behind quite a legacy. Hers was truly a life well lived.

Lauren Nolan

 I will always remember Janet with a lot of love. She was very kind and supportive.

 -Ivis Garcia, Metropolitan Research Center, University of Utah

Like everyone she partnered and collaborated with, Janet left a big impact on me. Her loss leaves a hole that is irreplaceable.

-Jessica Kursman

Janet was brilliant and I feel so lucky to have known her.

Milo Shapey

Janet was an amazing mentor, leader, and overall human being. She was a special person to me and so many others. We were lucky to have known and worked with her.

Andy Born

Janet was so passionate and warm, and I feel lucky to have worked with her. She led with kindness and compassion in everything she did. She will continue to inspire those she touched, myself included.

-Maggie Schafer

Janet was so kind, passionate, and brilliant. She took an interest in my education and career from day one and helped me plan for my future. She is one of the most inspiring people I have ever met and I feel so lucky to have worked with her.

-Allie Effrein  

Janet was an inspiration to many others and me.

-Ethan Jantz

 I, like countless others, am greatly impacted by the passing of Janet and am immediately brought to extreme gratitude for her life and her investment in mine.

-Karen Liu-Yates

Read more about Janet Heading link

Read about Janet in UIC’s feature story, “Janet Smith Knows the Neighborhood.”