Remembering Jane Dembner: Consummate Professional Planner and Community Advocate

Women in Planning Series: Part VI

by Kristen E. Humphrey, MLA, Local Assistance and Training Planner

To read about Jane Dembner, having never had the opportunity to meet her, is to read about a planner who was, like so many we have featured in this series, passionate about what she did, persistent in her goals, and unwavering in her ideals. She has been described by her family and peers as driven, determined, a leader in the community, “intellectually curious and a proactive problem solver,”[i] and “an intrepid innovator.”[ii]

Born and raised in New York, Jane was educated at Oberlin where she received her bachelor’s degree and the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her master’s degree in planning. Dembner built a versatile career that included roles in the non-profit, private, and public sectors, spanning nearly three decades.

Her experience ranged from land use and transportation planning, development, civic engagement, policy development, as well as conducting community surveys…to producing award-winning comprehensive and master plans. Her career also spanned a good bit of the mid-Atlantic region starting in Virginia and Washington D.C., but the majority was here in Maryland.

In Washington D.C. she worked for BDM International, a technical services firm. From there she went to LDR International, a landscape architecture, urban design, and planning firm in nearby Columbia, where she rose to the position of Principal. LDR was later acquired by HNTB, a national engineering, architecture, and planning firm, where she ultimately became an Associate Vice President.

While at LDR and HNTB, among her many projects and accomplishments, Dembner developed new and revised plans for cities and counties throughout the greater Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area and across the state, including the town of Bel Air and City of Frederick, Queen Anne’s County, Washington D.C., and Columbia.[iii]

She was instrumental in developing plans farther afield as well, including master and/or comprehensive plans for cities and counties large and small including: Florence, AL; Dublin, OH; Raleigh, NC; Arlington and Williamsburg, VA; Maine’s scenic Route 1; and Chicago, IL.

Dembner also managed major reinvestment projects such as serving as the Deputy Director for the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, which aimed at revitalizing a twenty-mile stretch of the Riverwalk as well as the Eleventh Street bridge.[iv] She finished her tenure at HNTB having achieved the tremendous distinction of becoming the first woman to be named an HNTB Fellow, a prestigious award.[v]

Following HNTB, Dembner became the director of Planning and Community Affairs for the Columbia Association (CA) in 2010. There, according to President and CEO of CA, Milton Matthews, she was a leader but also as a “…twenty-year resident of Columbia, [she] had an even greater presence in the community.” He continued:

[Jane] was incredibly knowledgeable, quick thinking, engaging, and committed to making Columbia not just a place with a treasured past, but also a promising future. James Rouse once spoke of Columbia as a garden for growing people. Jane embodied that concept wholeheartedly.[vi]

During her nine years at CA, Dembner oversaw capital development projects and programs, parks and open spaces, and watershed management. She also developed a strategic plan for Columbia and master plans that dealt with many of the community’s priorities, including meeting the needs of seniors, maintaining the city’s numerous recreational facilities, and improving its extensive network of trails for greater bicycling and pedestrian safety. Fundamentally, however, she knew she was responsible for fostering strong relationships among local agencies, organizations, and community members, and is credited with finding creative and instrumental ways, both professionally and personally, of fulfilling that directive.

Dembner launched a Community Building Speakers Series in 2012, aimed at addressing the social issues that were at the core of James Rouse’s famed planning and design of Columbia. In 2014, Jane turned her focus to what she recognized to be a pressing need for a regional housing plan that would actively promote and welcome racial and ethnic diversity. She felt that it was vital to build upon the community’s legacy and “be proactive in preserving the unique parts of [the] metropolitan area, like Columbia, that are racially integrated.”[vii]

Out of this effort, the Columbia Housing Center came into being. The Housing Center is a non-profit organization, begun in 2016, whose mission is to promote integration and diversity in Columbia through an array of housing advisory services, training, and educational programming. Once fully funded and operational, the center will act as a rental housing locator service, helping landlords find tenants and tenants find homes. Dembner was both founder and, as president of the board, the main force behind the creation of the center. She is aptly credited with having the vision that started it all.[viii]

As a planner, bicycling advocate, and cyclist herself, she also participated in a number of alternative/active transportation plans and initiatives, including: enhancing Columbia’s well-known pathway system for CA; serving on Howard County’s Complete Streets Work Group and Bicycle Advisory Group; and acting as co-chair of Bike HoCo’s Bike Howard Implementation Committee.[ix]  She led the development of the committee’s Connecting Columbia: An Active Transportation Agenda in 2012, and the charge to implement its agenda.

Finally, from 2013-2017, she helped her husband, Michael Osborne, himself a survivor of lung cancer, create a 5k benefit walk called “Breathe Deep Columbia” in support of the LUNGevity Foundation which benefits cancer research. Together they raised $200,000 for the cause.

About the breadth and impact of her career, perhaps this remembrance, from APA Maryland’s website, says it best:

The wide range of projects [she engaged in], hint at Jane’s tremendous energy, agility, and smarts. A committed planner, Jane struck an unusual balance between idealism and a pragmatic drive to get things done through consensus building and management dexterity. For those who worked with and tried to keep up with her, Jane’s unflinching integrity, directness, strength of character, caring, and humor were inspiring qualities.[x]

Jane Dembner passed away not quite a year and a half ago at age 58, following an extended battle with cancer – entirely too young. It is evident that her absence from Maryland’s planning community and the many branches, stems, shoots, and leaves of the Columbia community she nurtured and supported will be felt for some time to come. And yet, there is some comfort in knowing that, to everyone’s good fortune, her work (and good works) will most assuredly endure.

[i]  Columbia Association Mourns Loss of Jane Dembner, Milton W. Matthews, Columbia Association Blog, July 30, 2019.

[ii]  Jane Dembner (Obituary), Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun, June 17, 2019.

[iii] Jane Dembner – In Memorium, American Planning Association Maryland Chapter website, August 20, 2019.

[iv] Ibid

[v]  Ibid.

[vi] Columbia Association Mourns Loss of Jane Dembner, Milton W. Matthews, Columbia Association Blog, July 30, 2019.

[vii] Remembering Jane Dembner, Columbia Housing Center website.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix]  Bike HoCo website.

[x]  Jane Dembner – In Memorium, American Planning Association Maryland Chapter website, August 20, 2019.

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