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OBITUARIES / Melville C. Branch, 1913 - 2008

Urban planning pioneer was 'a giant in the field'

February 18, 2008|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Melville C. Branch, an educator, author and urban planner who taught at USC for many years and served on the Los Angeles Planning Commission through the 1960s, died Feb. 11. He was 94.

Branch died of complications from heart disease at his home in Pacific Palisades, his wife, Dr. Hilda Rollman-Branch, said.

A pioneer in his field, Branch was the first graduate student to earn a doctoral degree in regional planning at Harvard University, in 1949.

"Melville Branch was one of the patriarchs of city planning," said Tridib Banerjee, a professor of urban and regional planning and a longtime colleague at USC. "He was a giant in the field. Our school is very much associated with his name."

Known primarily as a theorist, Branch "was one of a generation of scholars who built a definition of what planning is all about," said David Sloane, director of the Urban Planning Program at USC. He considered engineering, architecture and public health to be the foundation of the profession, Sloane said.

While some city planners lobby for preservation of old buildings, creation of public parks, pedestrian-only zones and other specifics, "Branch didn't have a pet cause," Banerjee said. "He believed in rational planning based on as much information as possible. He was interested in the physical aspects of planning, starting with the land and transportation, but also in strategic planning and resource management."

During his nine years as a member of the Los Angeles Planning Commission, including one year as its president, Branch often met with real estate developers hoping to build housing with inadequate plans for traffic, with neighborhood residents concerned about the proliferation of gas stations near their homes and with similar groups.

His theory on how to solve urban growth problems included a view from above. One of Branch's first books was "Aerial Photography in Urban Planning and Research," published in 1948. "Now aerial photography is commonplace in planning," Sloane said.

Branch wrote more than 20 other books. "Comprehensive Planning for the 21st Century: General Theory and Principles," published in 1998, reflects his long years of thinking about the issues, Sloane said.

Branch became immersed in a career of teaching and writing even before he had completed his graduate studies. In the early 1940s, he helped establish the Bureau of Urban Research at Princeton University. He went on to become an associate professor of planning at the University of Chicago in 1947.

In 1950, he moved to Los Angeles, where he worked for eight years in the planning department at TRW, the corporate conglomerate known for technology-related products for the automotive, defense and aerospace industries.

He then taught at UCLA before joining the faculty at USC in 1966.

Melville Campbell Branch was born Feb. 16, 1913, in Richmond, Va.

He graduated from Princeton University and earned a master of fine arts degree at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in France in 1934.

He also spent a year doing independent research in planning at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan before going to Harvard.

He served in the Naval Reserve from 1943-1946, reaching the rank of lieutenant.

He married Hilda Rollman in 1951. Along with his wife, he is survived by a stepdaughter, Veronica Kaufman of Sacramento, and several nieces and nephews. He retired from teaching in 1993.

A memorial service is planned for later this year.

mary.rourke@latimes.com

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