Thomas, who goes by T.H., is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. T.H. and his organization, Solar C3.I.T.I.E.S., work to install solar-powered water heaters on the roofs of homes and businesses in Cairo, Egypt. (Solar C3.I.T.I.E.S. is an acronym that stands for “Connecting Community Catalysts Integrating Technologies for Industrial Ecology Systems.”)

T.H. interprets his work with urban planning and engineering as being a “soldier on a different battle front.” Working in slums with sustainable technology is like basic training in geography, technology, and humanity, he says.

EARLY WORK

T.H. grew up in Chicago, Illinois, where his mother taught in the  Head Start program, which helps prepare children for school.

The Museum of Science and Industry, the largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere, is in Chicago, and T.H. remembers visiting it almost every weekend. “They had these great exhibits of all kinds of science,” he says. “How coal is mined, how the heart works . . .”
Chicago also sits on the shore of Lake Michigan, site of a massive fish kill in 1965. “I could smell it! We could see Gary, Indiana, from the lake, and we knew [the pollution] had to be coming from those factories. Not coincidentally, that was also right at the edge of the black community.”

T.H. studied biology and anthropology at Harvard University before earning a Ph.D. in urban planning from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK

“Talking to people—all types of people—like we are all participants in the great conversation. I’m doing my part, and I’m comfortable in my part of the conversation.”

MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK

“Being separated from my [wife and daughter]. This sort of work also involves some financial risks. . . . There are some really, really poor times.”

HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?

“Space! Space is everything. Space is destiny, geography is destiny. Geography is non-linear, it’s 4-D.”

Explorers have a unique relationship to geography, T.H. says, because unlike many people, explorers are not tied to a specific workspace. “Explorers’ work is where we go.”

GEO-CONNECTION


As an Ivy League urban planner working with some of the world’s poorest communities, T.H. is acutely aware of different spaces and different audiences. T.H. stresses the need for developed nations to respect the dignity and autonomy of the developing world.

“We all need to participate in the great conversation,” he says.

He also points to the developing world’s interest in science and technology. “I haven’t found any resistance,” he says.

Technology can become a status symbol, he says, which can affect the environment of a family, a community, and even an entire nation.

For instance, T.H. recalls meeting a young mother while he was working in Southeast Asia. T.H. was struck by the unusual name of her son: Armstrong. Armstrong, his mother told T.H., was named after American astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. “The woman’s hopes and ambitions for her son were tied to science and technology.”
Political leaders can help expose communities and countries to sustainable technology. T.H. worked with former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo after Obasanjo left office. Obasanjo equipped his own home with solar-powered water heaters, even though he could afford more expensive technology.

“The people have to see that this is quality technology, and that I use it,” T.H. remembers Obasanjo saying. Interest in solar-powered water heaters increased after Nigerians saw the heaters on Obasanjo’s roof.

SO, YOU WANT TO BE AN . . . URBAN PLANNER

Instead of specializing in a specific field of engineering or urban planning, T.H. encourages students to study the broad scope of liberal arts. He emphasizes the need for wide-ranging knowledge and the ability to make connections between disciplines such as music and engineering, or anthropology and art.

He also encourages those interested in urban planning and engineering to study . . . marketing.

“We need to make it sexier! We need an Ikea of solar hot water heaters. American schools are so good at marketing!”

GET INVOLVED

T.H. says “all real learning takes place outside of school. I learned in spite of school, not because of it.” He emphasizes the importance of surrounding yourself with positive, interesting resources. “That should be your school,” he says.

Urban Planner: Dr. Thomas Culhane
T.H. Culhane is an urban planner and engineer.
acute
Adjective

sharp or intense.

ambition
Noun

strong desire for success and recognition.

Noun

science of the origin, development, and culture of human beings.

astronaut
Noun

person who takes part in space flights.

autonomy
Noun

independence.

battle front
Noun

site in a battle where troops directly confront the enemy.

biology
Noun

study of living things.

black
Adjective

person of African descent.

Noun

dark, solid fossil fuel mined from the earth.

coincidence
Noun

incident of two or more related things happening at the same time.

destiny
Noun

fate, or the powers that determine the pattern and outcome of events.

developing world
Noun

nations with low per-capita income, little infrastructure, and a small middle class.

dignity
Noun

self-respect or self-esteem.

Emerging Explorer
Noun

an adventurer, scientist, innovator, or storyteller recognized by National Geographic for their visionary work while still early in their careers.

emphasize
Verb

to stress or place importance on.

engineering
Noun

the art and science of building, maintaining, moving, and demolishing structures.

environment
Noun

conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

equip
Verb

to prepare or provide the right equipment.

exhibit
Noun

display, often in a museum.

expensive
Adjective

very costly.

explorer
Noun

person who studies unknown areas.

financial
Adjective

having to do with money.

fish kill
Noun

sudden death of large numbers of fish, often because of pollution.

Noun

study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

Head Start
Noun

(1965-present) program of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department whose mission "promotes school readiness by enhancing the social and cognitive development of children through the provision of educational, health, nutritional, social and other services to enrolled children and families."

heart
Noun

vital organ for all animals with a circulatory system, responsible for pumping blood throughout the body.

humanity
Noun

condition of being human, including the study of art, literature, philosophy, and the sciences.

Ikea
Noun
interpret
Verb

to explain or understand the meaning of something.

Ivy League
Noun

group of prestigious colleges and universities in the northeastern United States: Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell, the University of Pennsylvania, and Brown.

Lake Michigan
Noun

(58,051 square kilometers/22,400 square miles) one of the Great Lakes of North America, bordered by the U.S. states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

liberal arts
Noun

wide-ranging course of study including the arts and social sciences.

marketing
Noun

art and science of selling a product.

massive
Adjective

very large or heavy.

mine
Verb

to extract minerals from the Earth.

Moon
Noun

Earth's only natural satellite.

museum
Noun

space where valuable works of art, history, or science are kept for public view.

Noun

political unit made of people who share a common territory.

Neil Armstrong
Noun

(1930-present) American astronaut and the first man to walk on the moon.

non-linear
Adjective

not in a predictable path or series of steps.

Olusegun Obasanjo
Noun

(1937-present) former president of Nigeria.

PhD
Noun

(doctor of philosophy) highest degree offered by most graduate schools.

Noun

introduction of harmful materials into the environment.

resistant
Adjective

able to withstand the effects of a substance, material, or behavior.

science
Noun

knowledge focused on facts based on observation, identification, description, investigation, and explanation.

shore
Noun

coast.

slum
Noun

area of a city that is crowded, often lacking basic services such as electricity or sewage, and inhabited by poor people.

solar
Adjective

having to do with the sun.

specialize
Verb

to study, work, or take an interest in one area of a larger field of ideas.

status symbol
Noun

object or behavior that displays the owner's social or economic status.

sustainable
Adjective

able to be continued at the same rate for a long period of time.

technology
Noun

the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.

unique
Adjective

one of a kind.

urban planning
Noun

process of creating or improving the natural, built, economic, and social environments of urban areas. Also called city planning.

Western Hemisphere
Noun

area of the Earth west of the prime meridian and east of the International Date Line.

workspace
Noun

area where a job or work is performed.