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William J. Cohen papers

Identifier: MSS 0468

Scope and Content Note

The William J. Cohen papers, spanning the dates 1967-2001, comprises 37 linear feet of materials that document Cohen’s entire career as an urban and environmental planner in Delaware.

The materials include maps, correspondence, reports, photographs, slides, transparencies, reference files, professional files, reports, studies, plans, technical library, printed materials, videotapes, audiotapes, computer disks, company checks, newspaper clippings, ephemera, deeds, and business cards. The collection contains a large amount of oversized materials, especially maps. It also includes files that were tangential to his planning career.

These materials are a historical record of planning in the State of Delaware. Cohen’s career as a city and regional planner started at the end of the 1960s and spanned three decades of significant and volatile legislative policies about land use, community development, environmental impact, coastal management, commercial revitalization, historic preservation, and riverfront planning and development.

Cohen’s first job as a professional planner was with the Delaware State Planning Office (Boxes 1-3). This position was the genesis of his lifelong devotion to the environment, land use, and preservation. The assignments, individual contacts, and projects that he coordinated and implemented were invaluable steppingstones, and were the basis for his thirty-four-year career as an urban planner in Delaware. Cohen’s legacies are numerous from the tip of Cape Henlopen in Delaware’s southernmost county to the development of Wilmington’s waterfront in the northernmost county.

The collection, which is housed in 37 boxes, is arranged in seven series. Series I-V, which is the bulk of the papers, show each step of Cohen’s planning career from 1967-2001 (Boxes 1-18). During this time he held positions with the State of Delaware, the City of Newark, and was self-employed for sixteen of the thirty-four years. Series VI-VII covers his final years in Delaware as a consultant and contains materials that were part of his personal and professional life (Boxes 18-19). For twenty-three years he taught in the Geography Department at the University of Delaware (Box 12). From 1978-2001 Cohen developed and taught eleven courses, including some for the Honor’s Program. He also worked for the Historic Red Clay Valley, Inc. (Wilmington and Western Railroad) and Cecil County Arts Council (Box 19). During his last few years in Delaware, Cohen resigned from the State, was a city and regional planning consultant, and was matriculating as a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania (Box 18). When he left Delaware in 2001 to work in Bar Harbor, Maine, he was working on his dissertation.

The collection also houses a technical library, which Cohen originally created at the Delaware State Planning Office. The library, which grew over his career, is included in Appendices A and B (Boxes 20-33).

For more than three decades Cohen worked in Delaware as a city and regional planner. He developed an expertise in natural resources and the environment, planning and the application of its theory, recreation and open space, and community development. He participated in numerous professional associations (Boxes 18-19) and watchdog groups such as the Christina Conservancy (Box 11), Friends Society of Brandywine Park (today called Friends of Wilmington Park) (Box 19), and Citizens for White Clay Creek (Boxes 10-11). This collection reflects the depth of Cohen’s legacy to the citizens of Delaware.

Series I covers the years 1967-1977 and Cohen’s first and second jobs as a planner. He began in 1967 at the Delaware State Planning Office. He was assigned significant projects including the development of a comprehensive plan for the City of Lewes. This project included the “great sand dune” controversy (1970) which involved Governor Russell W. Peterson and other key public officials. Many of these early contacts served as mentors and later as colleagues and employers. Another assignment was the review of educational institutions under the Capital Budget and Capital Improvements Program. He worked with the University of Delaware, Delaware Technical and Community College, Delaware State College (University), and Delaware Department of Public Instruction (Boxes 1-3). This series also contains materials about Cohen’s job as planning director for the City of Newark (1971-1977). This six-year period was filled with of significant accomplishments and controversies. Under his leadership Newark’s and the State’s first flood-plain ordinance was passed. In addition, Delaware’s first bike-path system was created. Two important and controversial issues were debated during his time: the location of the Newark Beltway and a proposed development known as Hidden Valley (Boxes 3-4).

Series II covers Cohen’s career as a consultant, which spans the years 1977-2001. This series is a major portion of the collection (Boxes 5-12). Cohen was self-employed for sixteen of those years either as a sole proprietor or as president of his own corporation. In 1977 he left the City of Newark and became a planning consultant. Within a year the business had grown enough for him to incorporate as William J. Cohen and Associates, Inc. The files contain his “planner-on-call” concept, which was a creative approach to offering planning services to smaller communities. His company had contracts with an array of entities in Delaware including cities, municipalities, counties, and state agencies. He also had a few non-governmental clients (e.g., individuals, companies, nonprofit organizations, and schools). Among significant projects were the Delaware City Coastal Energy Impact Study (1981-1982), Lewes Coastal Impact Study (1979-1980), documentation of Port Mahon Lighthouse (1983), implementation of a Sussex County Community Development Grant (1977-1980), and a Feasibility Study for a Revolving Historic Preservation Fund (1978-1979). During this time he became an advocate to preserve the White Clay Creek. His effort along with many community partners resulted in 2001 with the Creek’s inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic River Program.

Series III contains materials relating to Cohen’s twenty-three years as an instructor for the University of Delaware’s Department of Geography. The files include syllabi and a course list (Box 12).

Series IV summarizes Cohen’s accomplishments as a photographer. His professional interests in photography crystallized in the years after a workshop on cyanotype and Van Dyke techniques (also called non-silver imagery). He began to exhibit his work in the early 1980s, and by the mid-1980s he began to pursue actively a tangential career in commercial photographic services. From 1987-1996 Cohen opened a photographic studio, specializing in construction progress and architecture (Boxes 12-13).

Series V is found in Boxes 13-18, and contains the years that Cohen returned to work for the State of Delaware. In 1990 he was hired as a senior resources planner at the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. The next eight years proved to be prolific and Cohen contributed vastly to land use planning, waterfront revitalization, and public policy. With the recommendation of former Governor Russell W. Peterson, Cohen was appointed executive director of the Governor’s Task Force on the Future of the Brandywine and Christina Rivers (1992-1994). He worked closely with co-chairmen Peterson and the University of Delaware’s President Emeritus E. Arthur Trabant. They coordinated a large task force to recommend “A Vision for the Rivers” (1994). In 1995 Cohen was part of the Governor’s Brandywine and Christina Transition Team, which produced a final report, Implementing a Vision for the Rivers. This series also contains the materials that Cohen amassed as an application for the Profile in Courage Award. Cohen compiled the application and supporting materials to nominate Governor Russell W. Peterson for his dedication to the creation and implementation of Delaware’s Coastal Zone Act. Other work accomplished during this time was focused on the Nanticoke Watershed and the twenty-year assessment of the Coastal Zone Act. In 1993 Cohen was selected to be a Governor’s Management Fellow. All the documents from this experience are included (Box 15). This series also contains materials from conferences and workshops that Cohen attended throughout the eight years at the State. In 1998 he resigned from the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

Series VI covers Cohen’s last few years in Delaware. He was matriculating as a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania and resigned from the State to complete his dissertation. At the same time he became a sole proprietor as a city and regional planner. The files contain some research papers that Cohen completed at the University of Pennsylvania. He held a MA granted in 1976 from the University of Delaware. As part of a joint degree program, the University of Pennsylvania conferred upon Cohen a Master of City Planning (MCP) in 1999, a Master of Arts in City Planning (2001), and the Ph.D. in 2003.

Series VII consists of materials from Cohen’s personal and professional life, additional employment, professional affiliations, business cards, a city planning game, and his thesis as part of the Master of Arts degree granted by the University of Delaware in 1976 (Box 19). Additionally, there are newspaper clipping files that cover the years 1977-1986.

Concluding the collection is the Technical Library that Cohen created at the Delaware State Planning Office and maintained throughout his career in Delaware. The library has a guide, which includes an introduction, shelf guide, and description of the classification system (Box 4, F116). The Technical Library has been put into a database and materials can be accessed by author, title, date, call number, and publisher. Cohen developed a library classification system based on one used at the Fels Institute at the University of Pennsylvania. He adapted the system for use by subject, and his entire classification system is explained in the guide. Cohen still owns a portion of the library. He gave the University a major portion of its content in 2001; a portion housed at the White Clay Creek Preserve in 1995 is now reunited with this collection. In 1982 Cohen donated some consulting project reports to the University of Delaware's Morris Library. This list can be found with the guide in Box 4 (F116). The portion of the library housed in The Cohen Papers is listed in the Technical Library series at the end of the collection. The Techical Library is presented alphabetically by author, to mirror its physical housing.


  • Creation: 1967-2001


Language of Materials

Materials entirely in English.

Access Restrictions

The collection is open for research.

Terms Governing Use and Reproduction

Use of materials from this collection beyond theexceptions provided for in the Fair Use and Educational Use clauses of the U.S.Copyright Law may violate federal law. Permission to publish or reproduce isrequired from the copyright holder. Please contact Special CollectionsDepartment, University of Delaware Library,

Biographical Note

William J. Cohen (b. 1941) is a native Delawarean. At the University of Delaware he studied political science, and received a BA (1965) and MA (1976). After college he worked in commercial real estate, which laid the foundation for his life-long career in city and regional planning.

After acceptance in the University of Pennsylvania’s city and regional planning Ph.D. program in 1996, he was named a Lewis Mumford Scholar. In 1999 Cohen received a Master of City Planning (MCP) from the University of Pennsylvania, and in 2001 he received a Master of Arts in City Planning (MA) from the same institution. He earned the Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 2003.

In the summer of 1967 Cohen accepted a position as research assistant at the Delaware State Planning Office in Dover, Delaware. This job was an introduction to community and state planning, which required considerable on-the-job training. Cohen and his young associates built their knowledge of land use, population, housing, community development and planning, transportation, and economic analysis.

His first significant assignment was as project planner for Lewes, Delaware. He had a variety of duties such as research, field work, analysis, project management, and writing reports. In 1968 he was promoted to Planner I, and in 1969 he became a senior planner.

In 1971 Cohen was selected Planning Director for Newark, Delaware, where he developed managerial experience and faced community-planning challenges. Newark’s and the State’s first flood-plain ordinance was passed under his leadership. The position required interaction with the city council, the planning commission, community groups, appointed and elected officials, and residents.

After six years he left the City of Newark and established his own consulting practice. His firm provided comprehensive services in urban planning, government affairs, research, and design. He contracted with a variety of profit and non-profit entities. As the list of clients grew, Cohen needed additional expertise. He incorporated and hired a small staff. From 1978-1990 his company produced significant reports and studies. Most of the projects were contracted with government agencies in Delaware; a small amount of work was completed for non-governmental entities.

In 1990 Cohen returned to state government as a senior resources planner for the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), where he worked for eight years. During this time he was selected to be the executive director of the Governor’s Task Force on the Future of the Brandywine and Christina Rivers. Former Governor Russell W. Peterson and President Emeritus of the University of Delaware E. Arthur Trabant were co-chairs of this highly visible collaboration of the public and private sectors. Under Cohen’s leadership this group engineered the successful analysis of the riverfront development that would provide the planning for revitalizing the Brandywine and Christina Rivers. This task force laid the groundwork for the subsequent development of Wilmington’s riverfront. This project proved to be the most significant accomplishment of Cohen’s career in Delaware.

In 1993 Cohen was selected to be a Governor’s Management Fellow, which required placement in a government office. He used the experience to study the effect of the arts on Delaware’s economy.

From 1978 to 2001 Cohen was an instructor for the Department of Geography at the University of Delaware. During this 23-year period he taught eleven different courses that related to public policy and urban planning.

In 1998 he resigned the position at the State to become a city and regional planning consultant and to focus his energy on the completion of a Ph.D. In 1996 he had been admitted to the graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of City and Regional Planning. Cohen completed the requirements for the Ph.D. in 2003.

Cohen held additional administrative positions (e.g., resource development director for the Historic Red Clay Valley, Inc., 1986-1988), and owned an architectural photography firm from 1987-2001. Also, he was president of the Board of Stewards of Friends of Wilmington Parks (1995-1998), senior policy advisor for the University of Delaware’s Institute of Public Administration (1997), a charter member of the American Institute of Planners (1978), a charter member and president of the Delaware chapter of the American Planning Association, president of the Delaware Association for Public Administration (1976-1978), and a professional affiliate of the American Institute of Architects. Cohen authored and co-authored over sixty-five technical and professional publications, reports, and studies.

Biographical information derived from collection.


37 linear foot


The William J. Cohen Papers, spanning the dates 1967-2001, comprises 37 linear feet of materials that document William J. Cohen's (b. 1941) entire career as an urban and environmental planner in Delaware.


The William J. Cohen papers have been retained in their original order and reflect the provenance of their creator. There has been some minor reordering of some materials to make access easier for the user.

Cohen organized his files to reflect the progress of his career. Some materials (mostly found in Series II. A.-II.C.) span his entire career. An example is his involvement with the preservation of the White Clay Creek (Boxes 10-11). His advocacy for this area began during his job at the City of Newark. In 2001 efforts by Cohen and his colleagues were rewarded with the inclusion of the White Clay Creek and its stream valley in the National Wild and Scenic River Program. Other projects started in one phase of his career and continued into the next, such as the Delaware River Basin Commission Level B Study, which started in 1977 when he was a sole proprietor and continued into his incorporated company (Box 8). Projects and associations that began in one career often moved into another. Many colleagues and supervisors were mentors and eventually became co-workers, such as Peter Larson, who Cohen met in the 1960s (Box 18). Additionally, file dates may overlap into the next year or decade or decades, because the materials were accumulative and interrelated to future projects and contracts.

Generally, contents of a file are arranged in the order in which each item was executed, so that the most recent documents are at the beginning of a file. Folder numbering begins anew with each series.

The technical library is at the end of the collection.


Gift of William J. Cohen, 2001-2004.

Shelving Summary

  • Boxes 1-43: Shelved in SPEC MSS record center cartons
  • Boxes 44-46: Shelved in SPEC MSS manuscript boxes
  • Removals: Shelved in SPEC MSS oversize boxes (20 inches)
  • Removals: Shelved in SPEC MSS oversize boxes (32 inches)


Processed by Sally W. Donatello and Theresa Hessey, 2002-2004. Encoded by Thomas Pulhamus, March 2010.

Finding aid for the William J. Cohen papers
University of Delaware Library, Special Collections
2010 March 22
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the University of Delaware Library Special Collections Repository

181 South College Avenue
Newark DE 19717-5267 USA