Jerry Kaufman taught urban planning for 30 years at UW-Madison, focusing his restless intellect on research into racial segregation and poverty in cities. Later, he shifted focus to urban agriculture, starting courses on community food systems and putting his knowledge to use on projects including Troy Gardens on the North Side.
"No one (in urban planning) was really working on where people get the most important thing in their lives, which is food," said Will Allen, a MacArthur "genius grant" recipient in 2008 and founder of Growing Power in Milwaukee. "He was the first to get his students to start thinking about that."
Kaufman, who died of cancer in his Madison home Thursday at age 79, served from 2000 to 2012 as board president of Growing Power, a national nonprofit based in Milwaukee that promotes urban agriculture. Allen called him a father figure and "probably the most positive person" he's met.
Kaufman started as a professor at UW-Madison in 1971 and retired in 2001. While teaching and publishing research, he also played an active role in the Madison community, doing surveys and serving on city and county committees studying race, poverty and land use — important issues as Dane County's population grew larger and more diverse.
"He was always interested in community engagement," said his son, Dan, a New York Times reporter who lives in Brooklyn. "He didn't want to retreat into the ivory tower."
A 1991 study by Kaufman and Charles Pfeifer, then executive director of Madison Urban Ministries, found a widespread gap in native Madisonians' knowledge of their new, more diverse neighbors from Chicago and foreign countries. It spawned a renewed focus by community groups and politicians on closing that gap.
Later in his academic career, he focused more on the nascent study of urban agriculture, starting what's believed to be the first graduate urban planning course in community food systems with UW-Madison colleague Marcia Caton Campbell. He also worked with city planners, farmers, community groups and North Side residents on Troy Gardens, a sprawling urban agriculture showcase developed on city acreage in the 1990s.
"He had this incredible spirit of inventiveness," said Caton Campbell. "Why not do these novel things? Why not do them here?"
Kaufman also is survived by his wife, Judith, and daughter, Ariel, both of Madison. Funeral arrangements are pending.