Click here for the edited and condensed, print-only version of our interview with Nidhi Gulati,
a Project Associate with the Project for Public Spaces, a national planning, design, and educational nonprofit founded in 1975 dedicated to helping people build stronger communities through placemaking.
Blight: Could you tell us a bit about how you came to Project for Public Spaces and involved with placemaking?
Gulati: So I actually, I’m a born and raised Indian, and I’m a trained architect. And it’s just I have, um, throughout my life I just enjoyed spending more time outside but I also come from a place where, being a woman, I’m used to public spaces, it’s not a given, being comfortable in public spaces is not a given so my entire life even though I enjoyed being outdoors more it was always sort of a challenge. So I started diversifying a little bit from architecture because I thought I was more interested in how the outdoor spaces can be made more accessible for everybody, more flexible and so on and so forth. So I started in landscape architecture at Texas A&M but as all of us understand, being a very automobile-dominated suburban development that occurs in those parts of Texas, it was not exactly what I was looking for and I felt that landscape architecture as a discipline was not gonna get me where I wanted to go. It was not going to help me enough or substantially in understanding urban environments, access to public spaces, and how to process and things like that. So I ended up transferring to an environmental psychology-based master’s program in the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences and that switch, so it was RPTS at Texas A&M and I think that that switch was my “a-ha” moment in life for several reasons. Because it was the first time I ever read the psychology behind public spaces and Wilderness and the American Mind was one of the first books I read as a textbook and the Holly Whyte movie, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, was one of the things I watched as I was TA-ing for the park-planning class. So I think the whole environmental psychology aspect of that particular program opened my opportunities toward public spaces and I felt myself personally very driven to all these issues because I’d faced them all my life and suddenly I’m in the United States and I’m liberated and free. I can sit wherever I want, I can dance wherever I want, but there are just not enough opportunities to do that still. Even though the freedom exists and maybe the accessibility is much more improved but then the great public spaces are still kind of lacking, not so much in New York City or Portland per se but there are several cities that still lack that active public space. So that is how I found my way to Project for Public Spaces and I think this is the exact story that I told here to sort of establish how good I understand the designer’s mindset. I am an architect, I’ve been that, I’ve worked with designers my whole life and I understand what goes on in the designer’s mind and a lot of times that has not enough to do with the human scale, that has not come to deal with the actual users of any public space. We think of these things from a utilitarian point of view and we think of buildings and designs as more of like, oh sure they’re expressions of our own creative ability but not so much, where do they sit, what is the context, who are the people and how are they different from us at the city? I think all that is missing and my role here, in my role in life in general is to be the converging voice that brings environmental psychology together with the mind of the designer.
Blight: That’s interesting, approaching it from the perspective of a designer’s mind. We are considering how public space, in Portland too, how it’s actually used—looking at the intention vs. reality, so when you mention losing the human framework in the designer’s mind, how often does that happen, be it either in misunderstanding or how it’s approached?
Gulati: I think more often than they would want to. Public spaces, especially, they’re, first of all, people will only spend their residual time in public spaces. So it’s a totally voluntary use of space, it’s not like it’s their home, it’s not like it’s their office, they’re not forced to use it so it’s very, very optional for somebody to go into public space so it’s a hard audience to capture in the first place. Second of all, the same applies for the funds that are available for public space improvements, it’s a very, very optional kind of giving… it’s public infrastructure and that has to go towards all sorts of improvements, that has to go towards streets, that has to go towards parks, plazas, general maintenance, cleaning this and what not so it’s a very limited pool and even for the user it’s a very limited time for which you can capture it so there are too many constraints that people are often working with, and they take what they can get. If they can have resources available through a very middle-class, white conservancy or a foundation or whatever, whatever you can think of is just that when it’s available, when it’s possible, it happens. It’s not always part of the process that you go in and talk to the community, that you spend the extra time, go the extra mile, do the research, figure out who these people are, it’s not always possible. Certainly that’s what we are trying to do and push, that you know this should be a part of the norm, you go out and understand the context first, you go out and you talk to the community first, if they even want this place to be improved, you know, things like that, maybe they’ll tell you about another park that deserves more attention and not particularly the block that you’re looking at so it’s just, that is where we hope that it will get. It is slowly becoming a part of the process but as we both know that it’s not quite there yet so it’s something that we encounter more than we would want to. That particular interests have been given more priority or a particular group or a particular user group in general or a particular group that looks onto a public space so it depends on where the money is and where the push came from and who was the first person to get something started.
Blight: The PPS website gets at that regarding placemaking. What makes a good public space, how would you define public space? Is it strictly tangible, a physical space, or do you consider it in terms of new domains, online, and a context of purpose and boundaries?
Gulati: I think it is a very personal definition and several people define it very differently because there’s no denying the aspect of social media that you’re talking about, how far reaching it is, so there’s no denying that and I think it is something that we can’t, as an entire group, can’t say that this qualifies, the other doesn’t qualify—I think that is where we also have a lot of autonomy, that this is a very personal choice. I would say that public spaces need to have a physical manifestation. They are geographically located and the reason I say that is because being from an environmental psychology background and having looked at the concepts of community and community development in great detail, I would say people have a lot of their own identity associated with spaces where they spend time. You would want that to be something that contributes to a community or a nation for its betterment. For example so if it is a park that people feel attached to, chances are that they’re going to feel as they’re stewards of that place, if it’s dirty, if it’s not clean, if it’s not active or it’s falling apart or whatever, they have a responsibility and when that happens you’re generally looking at people who are more engaged in their neighborhoods, you’re looking at better citizens of tomorrow. So it has far reaching consequences to improve that space to actually engage the community in doing that whereas somebody engaging in a public space online or through a portal, that is just them, it’s not necessarily towards the betterment of a community or a neighborhood or a nation. I think that is, being from the design field, I think that’s critical so I would want to engage in all aspects of public spaces that have a physical manifestation; it can be private, it doesn’t have to be publicly owned or it could even be one entity donating that space for the better of the community. But it has to be, it can be sidewalks, it can be street space in general, it can be parks, plazas, anything that is outside of four walls I’d say, it can be public or private but it’s a physical entity.
Blight: Sure. When you were talking about your international upbringing, you mentioned gender. When you tour different cities, nationally and internationally, what do you observe of how public spaces are created, inhabited, and in other countries, their gender restrictions? What are the takeaways there?
Gulati: So I think the one thing that is common across the board—and it’s fascinating that there is anything common across the board—is that public spaces provide pretty much a mirror of the culture where you are located. So for example when I go to India and I still, I’m one of those people, I walk the streets, I prefer to take public transit, I do not drive a car, I’ve never driven a car in my whole life, so even though I’m one of the people who does use all the public spaces and public infrastructure I myself don’t linger in those spaces a whole lot. I don’t feel the level of autonomy because it is a very male-dominated culture so inside the household, it’s the, the lady of the house is not so much a concept, it’s more the man of the house… so the man is the primary caretaker of the household and provider and things like that and I think those cultural issues very quickly manifest into public spaces as well, because it’s pretty much a mirror of the culture where you are. Where if, you know, spending time with family and large families is pretty much an aspect of Hispanic families in general and they basically use their public spaces in the same way and because there are so many cultures in the world there’s no one-size-fits-all, obviously. There’s no silver bullet solution for any one of these, but the best way to understand how the public spaces are going to function is to understand the cultural definitions of these spaces and, you know, who is the primary, I don’t know what I’m looking for… who are you catering to, who is your large population and what are their culture constraints, how do they use power in their own households? So yeah, the private realm pretty much mirrors the power dynamic of the public realm.
Blight: Right. Looking, too, at that diagram on the PPS site, about what makes a great place—access and linkages, users, activities, sociability—they seem to all go back to as you say, reflecting that culture. How long have these tenets been in play? When was this first devised with PPS?
Gulati: I want to say that it was more than two decades ago. Yes, the four… they’re very, very constant.
Blight: I’m curious too, on a national scale of course, but when you came to Portland this spring and we discussed the Green Loop and future city plans during the course of our meeting, what were your observations or insights locally? You mentioned that certainly we’re a lot better than some cities in how our public spaces are designed and used, but I’m wondering as to any insights you might have as a visitor.
Gulati: I think when we were at PNCA and Greg [Raisman, Portland Bureau of Transportation] and I actually took a walk down to the hotel where I was staying, so we actually went downtown from there which was a good, I want to say, like, 13-14 blocks that we walked along the park blocks so I think one of the things that was relatively stark to me is that all cities, all major cities have [problems with] homeless populations, all cities have the negative users for the lack of a better term, but it seems to be a little bit more of a scare in Portland. Like it’s, the unwanted or the undesirable in the public space is looked too much as an undesirable whereas if you look at cities across the country and across the world even, all populations sort of come together in public spaces, they have to be… and everything said and done, those populations are also a part of the city. So it’s all about providing positive uses for all of them including those people, so maybe it just comes down to open and clear, clean facilities, and somebody monitoring them, there’s some sort of a monitoring mechanism on restrooms or things like that but that is like a bare minimum necessity for those people to maybe be cleaner or be like, they own a part, they have a stake in the park as well. Maybe they’ll even be, maybe their behavior is going to improve and all those things. So it looked a little bit like Portland is too scared of its homeless, which is… I don’t think that it’s a hurdle that’s hard to cross, it’s very much possible to do that but it’s not quite there yet. Even if it’s here or where the Burnside Bridge is, that crosses over, close to Voodoo Doughnut and all that, where you see the lines of the homeless shelters in the morning, it’s just, there’s too much of a scare from the outsider or the undesirable and so actually tells a little bit for I think diversity in general. I know that Portland is getting more diverse by the day but it’s somehow, as you also mentioned in Pioneer Courthouse Square, it doesn’t come out as evidently, you don’t see the diversity in Portland’s public spaces.
Blight: That’s a key thing too, the homeless situation, and with skyrocketing rents and property values, a whole new class of homeless with the ensuing financial situations. Portland has always been not necessarily the most diverse place, especially in contrast with other areas of the country. The “scare” is very much the applicable word there in terms of how the homeless are looked at and addressed and how public spaces too, even addressing the block in front of PNCA—“If we put up concrete furniture, would it invite homeless people?” That sort of dialogue steeped in judgment about public space.
Gulati: Yeah, and it’s just that, it also depends on the whole definition of what’s desirable or what’s not. Isn’t a person using a bench in a better way, instead of just sleeping on a curb, isn’t that a better use, isn’t that a desirable use to begin with, so I guess it’s the whole definition of what’s right and what’s wrong in the public space which varies from cities, which varies from countries, like I said, it’s pretty much how the culture of the city is that would define how you’re gonna perceive public space…
Blight: Sure. Where do you see the future of placemaking in public spaces going, not only for PPS but with movements like Tactical Urbanism and the Congress for New Urbanism? How do you see the evolution of public space and how it’s addressed going? And on that note, with our global population too, with how that is evolving?
Gulati: I think no matter where you are, what country, what continent, cities are designed in very different ways. You know, one person is in charge of one thing, the other person’s in charge of the other thing, so it’s very segregated, it’s very siloed as we like to say here at PPS, so the role of placemaking is to actually kind of break these silos, to act as the unifier, because all of these disciplines are trying to do the same thing, they’re trying to improve the city but because they’re doing these things separately and because they’re not having the conversations with the other person who is designing the street right outside their door, it has become very segregated, it has become very single use, and very single-user driven, so there’s all this energy, there’s all this money, there are all these professionals trying to improve their cities that they’re not having all the dialogues that need to be had. So I think that placemaking is that dialogue, is that common connector of, “Okay, at the end of all this we’re looking for a very open and accessible, sociable public realm.” Which is everything combined, public realm, like I said, is everything that is outside of the four walls, because it all comes together, it fits in the public realm, so it is toward the public realm discussion instead of a street discussion or a park discussion or a plaza discussion. And that is common across the board no matter where you go. People are not having this conversation, maybe in the United States there are more departments than some of the other countries, maybe… For example, I haven’t, I didn’t know about that many city departments when I was in India but there were definitely fewer. But they’re still trying to do the same thing, everybody’s trying to take care of their own piece, everybody has their own pool of money to do that, and that is counterintuitive from a public space angle. It’s counter productive from a public realm angle.
Blight: So it must be considered as an ecosystem, from a much more holistic approach other than everyone fighting for their own parcel.
Gulati: Right. And the other thing is, that this is something that everybody has a stake in, so if you’re an architect and designing a building your façade is into the public realm, and if you’re a street designer your boundaries, your entire street entirely is public space, so everybody has their own piece in this puzzle—it’s just that they’re not collaborating to work on that piece.
Blight: Is that what you would say drives you, then, is finding that common ground instead of just the puzzle pieces?
Gulati: Absolutely. I think it’s totally that because having traveled 10,000 miles away from home I think what makes one city, one place different than the other for me is always the public realm. You never remember how large the lofts are in Miami as compared to Brooklyn, you remember the Brooklyn Bridge, you remember the streets, you remember how fast the lanes were or you remember how many bicyclists you saw. It’s always… Or you remember the arch in Washington Square Park. People’s image of cities always has to do with the public realm. For better or for worse, you think of L.A., you think of the freeways that crisscross all over the place, you think of the sprawl, you think of how wide it is, so it’s always the expression of the city comes down to the public realm, and I think having traveled so far away from home I want to feel attached and I won’t get emotional attachment unless I have something to identify myself with. And after having gone to school in Texas for two-and-a-half years I think I’m still trying to distinguish Houston from Dallas, from all the other major cities because two miles outside of the downtown they all kinda look the same.
Blight: That was certainly my experience, being born and raised in Central Florida and moving to Portland and noticing the functionality, relatively speaking, here.
Gulati: Exactly. There’s no way you can think about Portland and shake the image of TriMet [adding some lines]… It doesn’t happen. Or for the good reasons and for the bad reasons, Pioneer Courthouse Square; close your eyes and think Portland, you think of all these things. And you think of the Pearl District and you think what’s going on there, you think of the river, and the great, I can’t believe how many people were on the trails even during weekdays, it was fascinating. On the river, people walking, biking, it was just, those things stay with you even if you’re not a design professional, even if you’re not an urbanist, just how different the use angle is and you can only see that use angle in public spaces unless you’re a pervert, and you’re looking into people’s houses [laughing]. That is the information you can legally gather.