Karl Linn (1923-2005) built communities from the bottom up, working alongside citizens of working-class neighborhoods in nine American cities from Boston to Berkeley. A landscape architect, child psychologist, and university professor, Linn pioneered community design centers and community gardening movements across the United States. He is beloved for his vision and leadership in the field of grassroots community building.
Linn was at home wherever he went, thanks in part to his diverse background. He grew up on his mother's fruit tree farm in rural Germany and fled with his family in 1934 to Palestine, where he studied agriculture, started an elementary-school gardening program, and helped create a kibbutz. Linn moved to Switzerland in the 1940s and earned a degree in applied psychology. From there he went on to New York and worked as a child psychologist, cofounding a school for emotionally disturbed children. Eventually Linn returned to horticulture and rose to prominence as a landscape architect for the corporate and cultural elite of the East Coast. Gradually, however, he experienced the wealthy suburbs as "green deserts," devoid of public playgrounds, sidewalks, and benches where people could sit and talk.
Beginning in 1959, Linn taught landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. He would take his students into inner-city Philadelphia, where they witnessed the creativity and ingenuity of working-class communities and reciprocated with design services, helping transform derelict vacant lots into community gathering places—the neighborhood commons Building Commons and Community documents. Over the next decade, Linn started (or inspired into being) community design centers in ten cities. He taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New Jersey Institute of Technology, and other colleges and universities. With passion and determination, Linn would recruit volunteer professionals and local teams of volunteers—many remember those 7:00 am calls! With them, he would acquire reusable building materials from urban renewal demolition sites, build institutional and government support for their projects, and occasionally create temporary commons for conferences and special events.
Committed to a kinder, more compassionate world, Linn cofounded Architects/ Designers/ Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) in 1981. Still vibrant today, ADPSR works for peace, environmental protection, ecological building, social justice, and the development of healthy communities. Linn took an early retirement in 1986 to work full time in the anti-nuclear movement. In 1989, with Carl Anthony, he cofounded Urban Habitat, an organization that continues to empower low-income urban communities to advance environmental, economic, and social justice.
Linn spent his last years in the San Francisco Bay Area, spearheading the creation of a cluster of neighborhood commons projects in his northwest Berkeley neighborhood. An oral history of his life and work is archived at the University of California at Berkeley's Bancroft Library.
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