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RRI remembers Tom Fookes

By Peggy Lauer, Southern CA Coordinator for RRI’s Forces of Nature & former RRI Green Plans Director

Posted on August 29, 2013 by admin

Thomas Winston Fookes, a great friend to us at RRI and one of our first Forces of Nature, passed away on August 2 in his homeland of Aotearoa (New Zealand). Tom was a passionate practitioner and teacher of green planning and part of a tight knit network of green plan advisors from New Zealand, the Netherlands, other European states, Canada, and Mexico City. Numerous colleagues, students, friends and family the world over will sorely miss him.

Tom’s life was brief by most counts, but from his early 20s to his death in his 60s, he accomplished more for his community, his nation, and the field of planning than anyone RRI has met over the past 25 years. When I worked with Huey Johnson and our small RRI staff throughout the 1990s, he was a frequent speaker at conferences and workshops. He last joined RRI for a Green Planning conference held in conjunction with the 2008 Bioneers Conference. Tom was the one to orient visitors from the U.S. on his nation’s green plan – the Resource Management Act – during RRI’s Seeing is Believing policy tours to New Zealand. He knew everything about it, as he was a chief architect of the RMA during its first five years of inspiration and implementation.

Working within the Ministry of Environment, Tom was the author of some of the RMA’s important elements. He was behind the most extensive public participatory process in New Zealand history, an effort that gathered voices from the Coromandel in the North to the wee islands off the southernmost coast of the nation. For several days, people were encouraged to ring up the Minister, Geoffrey Palmer, and talk with him directly about environmental problems that concerned them as well as related societal issues. This democratic effort was the foundation of the restructuring of the nation’s environmental laws, a stark departure from the top-down approach of asking citizens to respond to a government proposed solution.

The key to Tom’s genius was his willingness to take chances in an arena that is risk-averse. He saw the enormous wave of challenges standing in the way of the Ministry’s inclusive big vision for forestry, fisheries, agriculture, habitat protection, air quality – and its relationship with industry. But, by turns of focused hard work and a mischievous, delightful way of tweaking the system he served, Tom was able to grab hold of opportunities that few in his generation noticed. From behind the scenes Tom always worked to turn those into opportunities for New Zealanders.

As a top student in geography and urban planning in the early 1960s, Tom studied best practices from around the world. He had the good fortune of studying for two years in Athens, Greece with Constantinos Doxiadis, who had assembled leaders in disciplines concerning the built environment. Together they developed Ekistics. Tom fell in love with the work and its practical complexity. He worked closely not only with Doxiadis, but those he brought to Greece, such as the anthropologist Margaret Mead and cutting edge architects, such as Buckminster Fuller and Lord Llewelyn Davies.

Tom brought home what he experienced in Greece, but he “left his hat” there, as he put it, which he went back often to retrieve. Years later Tom became president of the Society of Ekistics, and he and his wife, Susan, bought a second home where he went on to spent a month at a time, refreshing his vision for the environment and society.

My most vivid memories of Tom were from my three months in New Zealand in 1998. He had recommended me in my application for a visiting lectureship in the University of Auckland’s Planning Department. I learned I’d been accepted for the fall semester the day after I learned I was pregnant. I remember being startled when I saw the subject line of Tom’s email, which read, “Congratulations!” My first thought was, how did he know I’m having a baby?

Four months pregnant and with a light load as a guest lecturer on international green planning, I was lucky enough to audit one of Tom’s graduate town planning seminar classes. He listened more than spoke, gently guiding students’ ideas by giving them larger context. His enthusiasm and passion for his work was amazing to behold, particularly as he had recently been diagnosed with cancer and had begun his first round of chemotherapy. Despite his diminished energy, he pushed himself to maintain his workload. This was a concern to his family, but they knew how integral his work and intellectual rigor was to his quality of life. Tom’s colleague, Dr. Michael Pritchard, alternated with him as dean of the school. He watched over me, and oriented me to the campus and the politics. Although I lived on campus, Tom and Susan welcomed me to spend time with them and two of their young adult children. Catherine was studying art in college and Ian was in his first year in philosophy. Their older daughter, Emma, whom I had met as a university student years earlier, was now a law clerk for the government in Wellington. As an English teacher, Susan opened my eyes to the challenging education system in the nation’s largest city, and insights into the changing relationships between the Maori and other Polynesians and the dominant culture of the Pakeha, the Euro-New Zealanders.

It was exhilarating and calming to be pregnant in New Zealand, lecturing at a world-class university, in a city experiencing a cultural explosion in art, food, and wine (though I couldn’t drink it), and having a winning rugby team, the Auckland Blues, to cheer on. It was great to find truly cage-free eggs and chicken, and to walk and swim every day. And it was useful to read what others in resource management on an international scale saw in New Zealand’s green plan. Here was a small, largely agrarian, “laboratory” country – the first nation in which women voted, and where nuclear ships have been barred since 1987 – that was ending agricultural subsidies and using watersheds to redraw political lines. Dr. Fookes was among those explaining the eventual benefits to the people – and the environment – which was also so important to the nation’s economy.

My time there as an expectant mother, seeing a midwife and meeting Maori and Samoan mothers-to-be, led me to a deeper place spiritually – enhanced by the nation’s stunning physical wilderness. New Zealanders grok that Mother Earth is very much alive and always creating. Some of the majestic mountains are still active volcanoes, as well as sacred sites, revered by the Maori and acknowledged by the Pakeha. The sweeping seascapes and fiords sometimes shift during earthquakes. The rivers are pulsing with fish. Whatever their background, New Zealanders live closely with nature – and seemingly have it in their DNA from childhood. Many give back to this land. Tom did, with passion, savvy, and deep love.

I came home with a fresh perspective on the merits and challenges of green planning – and continue to use Tom’s wisdom in my work. On a personal level, I credit Tom and his extraordinary family for my deep love of New Zealand. On a trip to the Bay Area in 1998, Sue and Tom met my baby, Jackson Lee Lauer Meuse. Both Catherine and Ian each met him here a few years later.  My son spent three months of his inner water life in New Zealand, a place that nurtured both of us, and I believe he will return someday to Aotearoa to meet the Fookes family. While he won’t meet Tom, he will know many stories about him. Jackson will then see that so much of what Tom Fookes did for his beautiful and resourceful country is still there to behold. We will carry Tom Fookes’ legacy with us always.

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