Q&A: Nidhi Gulati, Project for Public Spaces

By Amanda Schurr

Nidhi Gulati is a Project Associate with the Project for Public Spaces, a national planning, design, and educational non-profit founded in 1975 and dedicated to helping people build stronger communities through placemaking.

Blight Magazine: How did you first get interested in public space?

Nidhi Gulati: I’m a born and raised Indian. Throughout my life I just enjoyed spending more time outside, but I also come from a place where, being a woman, being comfortable in public spaces is not a given, so it was always sort of a challenge. I started in landscape architecture at Texas A&M but it was not exactly what I was looking for. It was not going to help me enough in understanding urban environments and access to public spaces, so I ended up transferring to an environmental psychology-based master’s program in the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences. That switch was my “aha” moment. 

Blight: How has that more human-centered approach informed your work?

Gulati: First of all, people will only spend their residual time in public spaces. 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 optional for somebody to go into public space—it’s a hard audience to capture in the first place. Second, the same applies for the funds that are available for public space improvements. It’s public infrastructure and it’s a very limited pool, so there are too many constraints that people are often working with, and they take what they can get. 

It’s not always part of the process that you can 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—this should be a part of the norm, but it’s not quite there yet.

Blight: You mentioned your upbringing. What are your takeaways as you’ve explored public spaces globally?

Gulati: The one thing that is common across the board is that public spaces provide a mirror of the culture where you are located. For example, when I go to India and I still—I walk the streets, I prefer to take public transit, I do not drive a car—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. I think those cultural issues very quickly manifest into public spaces as well.

Blight: What is PPS’ role in the future of public space?

Gulati: No matter where you are—what country, what continent—cities are designed in very different ways. It’s very siloed, as we like to say at PPS. The role of placemaking is to break these silos, to act as the unifier, because all of these disciplines, these professionals, 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, very single use, and very single-user driven. I think placemaking is that dialogue, that common connector of everything that is outside of the four walls.

Blight: Why are those four walls so critical to your definition of public space?

Gulati: Having traveled 10,000 miles away from home, 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 many bicyclists you saw. [During my visit to Portland], I can’t believe how many people were on the trails even during weekdays—walking, biking—it was fascinating. 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. 

It’s always that the expression of the city comes down to the public realm—I want to feel attached, and I won’t get emotional attachment unless I have something to identify myself with.

We spoke with Gulati at length—you can read the unedited transcript of our interview by clicking here.