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Meet our episode 39 guest Nidhi Gulati

Nidhi Gulati’s work at Project for Public Spaces ensures that the needs of vulnerable populations like women, immigrants, and children are prioritized in how we design our cities and their systems, improving life for everyone.

Check out our NACTO recap to get a glimpse of how Toronto is turning its city streets from public spaces into public places for art, culture and more. 

Episode Transcript

Cohen: Josh Cohen
Gulati: Nidhi Gulati

Cohen: After today’s episode with Nidhi Gulati of Project for Public Spaces, I imagine you won’t look at the sidewalk, a playground, public meeting, or bus stop the same way again. I can’t wait for you to find out why. Let’s go.
F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future. To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real. Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.

Cohen: My guest today is Nidhi Gulati, the program manager for transportation at Project for Public Spaces. Trained as an architect, prior to joining Project for Public Spaces she headed up an effort to connect 17 municipalities in the Boston area with greenways at the LivableStreets Alliance. Welcome to The Movement, Nidhi.

Gulati: Thank you. Happy to be here.

Cohen: Well, let’s start with an introduction to Project for Public Spaces as well as Portals to Places.

Gulati: Sounds good. So Project for Public Spaces, we are a nonprofit, planning and design organization based in New York City. We were founded in 1975, and since that time we have been dedicated to advancing the comfort and attractiveness as well as sort of the social, cultural, and economic vitality of public spaces around the world. So public spaces is our primary shop, and we work on a daily basis to improve them for the most people possible around the world, especially those with the least amount of access to great public spaces.

So we believe that these public spaces strengthen communities, and we do this work using our pioneering placemaking approach. We’ve applied that in more than 3,500 communities around the world, and we’ve brought those public spaces to life by planning and designing them with and for the people that use it every day. And through this process we also equip the people with tools so they can continue to sort of make sure that these places last the way they were intended to be, continue to evolve with the time, and continue to thrive.

And we do a lot of nonprofit program work; we do meetings and conferences; we also do a lot of fee-for-service project work where we go into a community and provide technical assistance on the ground. We do International Public Markets Conference, which is very popular. We do Placemaking Weeks and placemaking conferences. We do Walk Bike Places conferences every two years, and we write a lot of—

Cohen: Oh, yeah.

Gulati: Yeah—write a lot of books too. We recently released, actually, the second edition of one of our most popular publications and probably the first. It’s called How to Turn a Place Around. And transportation specific we have a Great Corridors book; we have Streets as Places; we have citizen’s guide to better public spaces and better streets. So we have lots of publications, and there will be more in the future. So the program that I am the head of, it’s called our streets and transportation program. So that particular program is designed to transform transportation policy and practice to create streets that become thriving front yards of their communities.

Cohen: Hmm.

Gulati: You know, as you, I’m sure, are very aware that our streets are by far the largest segment of public space in almost any city in the world, any town in the world. Our streets are the largest segment of the public space. And the problem is that most of us don’t even understand that they are for something other than moving automobiles, streets are for anything other than that primary function of moving things.

So we are staunch advocates of multifunctionality. We advocate for shared mobility beyond the automobile, and we advocate for community expression on streets. And these streets, in our opinion, are much better outcomes than those that disrupt the public life and serve as just mere conduit, conduits of automobiles. So that’s the larger streets-and-transportation program. And we have two key initiatives under this program. One is called Streets as Places, and the other is called Portals to Places as of a month and a half ago as we launched at Rail~Volution. So that’s where we kind of are.

Cohen: Before you jump into those I want to just kind of go just a little bit deeper on placemaking real quick. So when you talk about the importance of these public spaces can you maybe give an example or two on how you’re bringing those streets to life or bringing those public spaces to life?

Gulati: Right. So let me begin by tackling that placemaking, the terminology for a second. And it’s something that is very sort of personal, and it changes from practitioner to practitioner. So the difference between space and place, I actually studied this as part of master’s. I’m a, you know, an academic place-maker almost. So the difference between space and place is that space is a geographic, architectural entity. It’s a thing. And what makes a space into a place is when you attach some sort of a qualifier or a meaning or an adjective to it.

Cohen: Hmm.

Gulati: So you think about every time you use the word “place” you tend to use words like, “Well, that’s a great place,” or, “That’s a shitty place,” or, “That’s an attractive place,” or, “That’s a bustling place,” and things like that. The word “place” has some qualifier or an adjective added to it, and that is what differentiates it from the geographic, geometric entity that is a space.

Cohen: Hmm.

Gulati: Does that make sense?

Cohen: Yeah, totally. I’ve never heard that.

Gulati: It’s like an environmental, psychological, social, cultural construct.

Cohen: Yeah.

Gulati: It’s not necessarily even physical, because place can exist in your mind. Place can exist virtually in all these other ways because it’s psychological. It’s social-psychological, social-cultural. So that is what differentiates a space from a place, that it has a theme to it, it has a soul to it, it has a meaning to it. So the term “placemaking” then is all about how do you create a positive meaning for a space, for that architectural, geometric thing; how do you create positive meaning? And because meanings are so personal to a person, you know, the way I interact with a space is very different from the way you interact with a space.

Cohen: Sure.

Gulati: So my meaning for it is going to be very different from yours, which is why our work is thoroughly rooted into a community. So the people who are going to use a particular space have to be able to attach a positive meaning to it for it to become a place.

Cohen: Yeah.

Gulati: So we go work with that community, try to extract their thoughts, ideas, visions, needs, desires out of them and create recommendations directly out of what those people wanted, because at the end of the day you and I are going to be gone after working on a particular area. It’s those people, the end users, who are going to be attaching all those meanings to that geographic area. So we work with them so they can tell us exactly how they will interact with it positively, they will become excited about it, they would find it attractive. And eventually it will become a part of their own identity. It will become a part of who they are, what their neighborhood is where they live, and so on and so forth. So that’s kind of the approach.

Cohen: So let me maybe dig into that a little bit. So what I’m hearing you say then is that placemaking, because it’s driven by the community, it’s going to look different in different places. Correct?

Gulati: Absolutely.

Cohen: Okay.

Gulati: Absolutely.

Cohen: So how do you find this right balance between a community expression of that place and also what I’d call best practices that you know kind of work in general? Like, how do you find that right balance between those? Because those sometimes seem like they could potentially be at odds. Right?

Gulati: They can sometimes be at odds, because thinking in the construct of transportation, if you go into a community and you talk about a street and that street needs to transform, the first thing you hear from people is, “Oh, we need more parking,” or, you know, “We need another lane. This is too congested here, and I never find enough parking space,” and all of that. So people tend to sort of jump immediately to solutions instead of telling you what the actual problem is, what it is that they are facing.

So for example somebody telling you, “We need another lane on our street,” is probably trying to tell you that the way the traffic is flowing is not really working for them or the fact that they spend way too much time on one particular street stuck in traffic and things like that. You want to understand what their actual challenge is. Instead of letting them tell you what the solution are, you want to understand what the problem is.

Cohen: Sure.

Gulati: And that’s where some of the best practices come in, because as a practitioner in the field, you know that that problem can be solved in 50 different ways. If you’re having trouble getting from point A to point B, it’s not always that, “Let’s create the fastest path between A and B.” It could also mean that let’s create multiple opportunities, add multiple modes, maybe multiple pathways to get between A and B, not necessarily create that giant conduit.

So the way we do our work is we try to get to the heart of what it is that people have an issue with and what it is that is sort of worth preserving, so unique about that place so we can kind of reconcile those two with the best practices instead of letting people just, like, jump to tell you, “Oh, I think we just need more parking,” because trust me; people always need more parking. [LAUGHTER] So the best practices are still very, very important, but I guess you don’t go into a community telling them, “Oh, we’re thinking of adding a bike lane.”

Cohen: Yeah.

Gulati: You go into a community asking, “How do you think the street is performing? What do you think your biggest challenge is here? And how could your life be a little bit better?” What is that issue? Try to get to the heart of the matter instead of telling them, “Oh, I’m going to put a bike lane here. Yay or nay?” That’s—again, then you are taking the solution approach instead of actually getting to the heart of what the community needs.

Cohen: Yeah, definitely. So how does that approach get—how is that being realized in this new initiative that you announced a month and a half ago with Portals to Places? How is that kind of being expressed?

Gulati: Right. So Portals to Places, as I said, the initiative will focus on creating transit facilities that support communities. So think about these transit stations and stops as being well integrated into the communities they serve at the local and the regional level. And think about them meeting the needs of the passengers on a daily basis through useful amenities, active and accessible and social uses, and comfortable public spaces. Like, think about going to your transit stop every day and on your way finding your drycleaner, your coffee shop, your daycare, your whatever you need on a daily basis between you and the transit stop.

Cohen: Right.

Gulati: And then when you get to the transit stop—let’s say the bus or the train is 10 minutes out—imagine having a nice place to sit; imagine having a parklet; imagine having the exact information to tell you that the next bus is 10 minutes away. Imagine having a shelter and comfortably being able to sit there enjoying that cup of coffee that you just picked up, and then imagine having a trashcan where you can throw it out and things like that.

So imagine a train station or a bus stop that is fully integrated on how you live your daily life, and imagine your daily destinations that you need to frequent to just live your life being clustered around that. How important does public transit become in your life then? You may even go to that place even if you weren’t taking the bus or you weren’t taking the train.

Cohen: Hmm. Yeah.

Gulati: But it gives public transit the dignity that it deserves of our primary mode, which we want it to become in the future if we are to combat greenhouse emissions, if we are to combat climate change. We’re going to have to rely on sharing of modes; we are going to have to rely on mass transit over single-person transit. So if we have to get there we have to start changing the perception of these anchors that root them to place. And as a public-space placemaking organization we are focusing our energy on those transit stations and stops.

And, granted, not every stop is going to become this thriving destination, but chances are that five or six on a bus line or almost every train station, as we know in New York City—like, each one of these can stand to be improved into this community hub. You’ve got the 40,000 stops or whatever in a city, but it’s the key stops where two lines come together or where a bunch of lines initiate or where the train interacts with the bus and things like that. So those are kind of the focal point areas that we are looking at. And in terms of the community’s needs playing a role in that, in terms of placemaking playing a role in that, we would never know what those daily needs, daily destinations of a community are until we went to talk to them.

Cohen: Yeah.

Gulati: The ones I just listed are, like, off the top of my head. I said daycare, but I don’t have a child. I know from my friends that that’s sort of a necessary, everyday stop that they need to make, but we are going to want to talk to those communities to understand all those cultural and income and all these other layers that play a role into what is their daily life look like and how can we actually create these great destinations for them so they don’t have to require a car to go get a gallon of milk.

Cohen: Right.

Gulati: Or if you are a single mother working three jobs you don’t have to do multiple trips. We’ve consolidated your trips around your station or your stop, so your quality of life improves.

Cohen: It seems like what’s necessary there is to take a little bit more of this systems-approach of thinking. So it’s not that, say—if the MTA in New York City is building a subway station, it’s not that they just provide the tracks and the so forth, but they really think holistically about kind of the community needs. And I guess my question to you is how common is that right now to think in that way, or is that part of what you’re trying to really help tackle with this initiative, to help these, say, transit agencies or cities to start to think in that way?

Gulati: It’s not very common, unfortunately. And I think as a nonprofit and running a nonprofit program that is built around sort of advocating for a different approach, this is a gap that we are trying to fill. You know, public transit advocacy has really, really taken off especially in North America in the past decade. There are lots of nonprofits and advocacies that are really critically thinking about public transit access and public transit system design. We think that this is a great opportunity for us to really bring the public-space thinking together with the public transit system, because, as you said, it’s a systems approach.

Cohen: Yeah.

Gulati: Right? When the transit agency is thinking about putting a new stop, you know, in the right community, through all the efforts that the advocates have put into it, that this community needs a stop, we are seeing now that we’ve done all this advocacy, now that we’re thinking about the stop, let’s go a step further and think about where are people’s daily destinations. Is there a grocery store nearby? Can we move the stop closer to potentially that destination?

Or is there a school or what other things are there? Can we cluster them all together? Is there potentially a rezoning effort afoot? Can we align this better with that? Or what is the economic development agency thinking right now? If there is a small business association, what are they thinking about right now, and how can we sort of create a joint, collaborative advocacy initiative that would result in a station or a stop that is a place?

Cohen: Yeah.

Gulati: So this is all sort of pushing that thinking even further because none of these wins come easy. Every advocacy effort is years and years. So if none of this comes easy, let’s not have five different initiatives. Let’s try to consolidate them into a more comprehensive whole.

Cohen: You mentioned childcare earlier. And I know an area of your career and research that really interests you is kind of how the built environment and transit and infrastructure, so forth, impacts women and children and immigrants. Obviously a lot of those folks use public transit as well. Help me understand a little bit more about what’s needed to really address some of the gaps in taking care of some of these populations, some of which are vulnerable.

Gulati: Absolutely. So this work is very close to my heart. And this is going to be a long answer, because I’m going to try to sort of tie the ends together into the argument that I’m about to make. So I approach the work that I do from an equity and representation point of view and representation for groups that are often on the sidelines and can have much to lose or gain from the changes to their built environment, if not, you know, more than anybody else. You know, let’s talk about those groups that get left on the sidelines.

So let’s begin by sort of gender representation for a second. There’s tons of research out there that documents how women and therefore women’s needs are not represented in our built environment. You should look at Caroline Criado-Perez’s work and the book she’s written. It’s called Invisible Women. And it distills all the ways in which women are sort of the missing or the invisible demographic in all the research that drives our life in our built environment.

Cohen: Wow.

Gulati: So to sort of bring that data and perspective to transportation, we know that during sort of the typical morning rush hour women often aren’t doing a linear home-to-work kind of trip. So, you know, primary caregivers in a household, a role that for better or for worse continues to be tied to our gender identities, those caregivers do many more nonlinear trips where they’re dropping kids to school, where they’re running errands, where they’re doing other stops between the home and work.

Cohen: Sure.

Gulati: And there’s no recognition of that in the way we design our transportation systems, not even our public transit systems. Nothing acknowledges that the caregiver is doing, you know, six stops on this trip between home and work. So the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, ITDP, which is a global nonprofit, has done tons of research about this as well, how caregiver trips which tend to be primarily female are very sort of nonlinear, and there’s no recognition of that in the way we design our systems.

So, you know, coming to time, like, 2019 in North American and several other continents, women are actually more than 50% of the population. And I know that that statistic is—it’s inherently biased, especially in places where it’s documented for you and it doesn’t account for sort of the preferred identities of people.

Cohen: Sure.

Gulati: But even still the fact is that close to 50% of the population has far fewer representation and decision-making, and all you’ve got to do is, like, look at New York City’s city council where we definitely have more than 50% population women that’s not represented in our city council.

Cohen: Sure.

Gulati: So this is especially hard to change because there are so few mandates to actually promote representation. Some places like Barcelona, Iceland, and Vienna are proactively trying to sort of undo centuries of non-representation and data bias by actually mandating that women be represented and other gender groups be represented. But we have far too long to go; we’re nowhere there.

Cohen: Yeah.

Gulati: So with that I’m going to add the second layer. The second group that I care about a lot is immigrants. So if you talk to anybody who’s ever run a public meeting and ask them, “Do immigrants show up at your public meetings?” or, “Have you ever had a public meeting where no immigrants showed up?” and this was maybe an immigrant majority area or, you know, some substantial percentage of immigrants. And you’ll see the hands go up, like, people who have never seen somebody from an immigrant community show up. And as an immigrant myself I can tell you that the idea of community input and whether or not my voice matters is tied very closely to my status in a country.

Cohen: Hmm.

Gulati: So if I don’t have the right to vote, my perception is that my voice doesn’t matter.

Cohen: Wow.

Gulati: Now, we know that that’s not true.

Cohen: Right.

Gulati: Plus, as I said before, you know, immigrants have just as much to gain or lose as their built environment shifts. And I would argue that they have much more at stake, because if their voices aren’t represented, then their cultural and social patterns and their habits and their needs that are so tied to their social-cultural mix get lost in translation. And those needs that they had, that we have, remain largely unmet. So, you know, this is kind of the antithesis of inclusion and equity.

Cohen: Yeah.

Gulati: So it’s important to sort of consider that. And we all have very, very different ideas about what public space means and what it’s for. You know, not all of us believe that every adult in a household should have a car, or not each one of us unanimously agrees that a back yard is preferred over a shared public park in your front yard. So, you know, but those things, low car use and preference for transit and parks over backyards all are great for the environment by the way, but we aren’t developing cities like we used to a 100 years ago.

You know, we’re not organically shaping our cities by being here, even in an immigrant national as the United States. We’re not doing that. The permitting and legislative processes are far too structured to allow for that organic development. And unless we make a much stronger attempt to represent the unique needs of immigrants, their culture will continue to fall by the wayside and worse. You know, decision makers and those that actually get representation will never even get to witness other cultures in action and know that at the heart of it, you know, we’re all humans and we’re all mostly good people, because, you know, those desires weren’t represented, weren’t heard, and that’s why they don’t get represented in our built environment.

Cohen: Sure.

Gulati: And the third piece of that—this is sort of the closing, final piece.

Cohen: Yeah.

Gulati: The third group that then I care about a lot is children. They have the most to lose, because we’re creating a world for them. The intentions behind most policies and, you know, the day-to-day decisions that we make come from the right place. You know, every decision, everybody is trying to ensure children’s safety, but sometimes in that we lose sight of what is good for kids and their development.

So in the transportation context, again, you only need to look at the work of Bruce and Donald Appleyard, you know, the father-son duo researcher to know that children who are driven tend to lose out on the cognitive development benefits of walking around or, you know, as in other parts of the world in the Netherlands and other places where they’re going by cycle. So, you know, the cognitive development benefits of cycling and walking are great. And if you’re driven everywhere you get to lose out on those brain development benefits.

Cohen: Hmm. Yeah.

Gulati: And this is big stuff. I would also argue that an environment that sort of allows for autonomous movement for children and interaction amongst each other, it actually assists their transition from totally dependent living beings to independent, living beings.

Cohen: Of course, yeah. It has to.

Gulati: It has to. And since we are talking in an increasingly divided world and nation in 2019, an environment that supports communal facilities, mixing of people from different walks of life, and sharing of resources is great to build social-cultural awareness and tolerance.

Cohen: Totally.

Gulati: So this unicorn environment that I’ve created for you in your mind, you know, where all this social-cultural mixing happens and people from all different walks of life sort of come together, these are extremely hard to create. And they’re almost anomalies if you follow your standard codes and development policies. So the people who are able to create these unicorn places tend to be wealthy, and the people who can afford to live there are also wealthy. And we know the social-cultural undertones of who tends to be wealthy.

So these unicorn neighborhoods that are more important for immigrants and low-income communities also tend to be the furthest beyond the reach of lower-income communities and communities of color and immigrants and female head of household and single mothers, the people who have the most to lose, which is why—yeah, that’s why this work is so close to my heart. And it’s so important, but in legislation and policy and planning documents we have to systemically focus on more vulnerable populations if we want to get anywhere.

Cohen: Well, I love it. And I think that really ties so well back to the Portals to Places. Right? Because that really just talks about how you need to make those critical aspects of transportation, the transportation network into and welcoming to all of those communities that you just talked about. It turns them from just being this kind of very pragmatic thing, which is how do you give access to the transportation grid, if you will—

Gulati: Mm-hmm. Right.

Cohen: —and it turns it actually into kind of a cultural touchstone, which I think is certainly what’s missing in a lot of these places.

Gulati: Absolutely.

Cohen: So I really appreciate you sharing that, because I think that’s a really compelling vision that you have and, I think, a really exciting place that you want to take that. So I want to kind of build on that a little bit. And, you know, when I think of children, especially children in the city, you know, what I tend to think of is laughter. And I think of playgrounds and joy and playfulness. And I was lucky enough to take my family to London last spring break, and right there on the South Bank near the London Eye there’s this huge playground. And there’s tons of kids playing, and it was just kids of all colors and backgrounds, ages.

It was really, really neat to see. And it just kind of makes me think that those are elements that—kind of this joy and this laughter and this playfulness that I feel like we don’t really—you know, maybe you do because you’re a professional. I’m a little bit outside of your sphere here. I’m approximate here, but it feels like this is something that we don’t necessarily always appreciate enough in our public spaces and maybe many people, maybe on the public, elected-official or the government-official side kind of see as frivolous or unnecessary. And so I’d love to maybe see if you have any thoughts on that, especially as you kind of just relate that to your perspective just talking about children there.

Gulati: I think what you pointed out is really great. You know, where you see the joy really play out in a city is watching little kids play in a playground. I would say that we need to think much bigger than that. How do we create a city that mimics what that little playground shows?

Cohen: Oh, yeah.

Gulati: How do you create a city where you not only get to sort of play together on a playground but where you actually might brush shoulders with somebody walking on the sidewalk who looks so different from you? I for one can actually attest that since moving to New York City I met my co-matron of honor in a train station. And she dropped her wallet; I picked it up; I found her. Long story short, she was my co-matron of honor with my own sister.

Cohen: Wow.

Gulati: And another one of my bridesmaids also through on the MTA, on a subway train. So, like, how do we create those moments of joy and interaction in the entire city and think of that city as a playground? So just for kids, thinking of their play and their joy outside of the playground how about the rest of the city? How do we make the rest of the city approachable, independent for them? And for adults, how do we think about play more directly? Does that make sense?

Cohen: Sure. Yeah, totally.

Gulati: Because every time you think about kids, you think about play. So how do we think about kids in a city beyond play? And every time you think of adults, you think about everything but play. So how do we think about play for adults?

Cohen: Right.

Gulati: Because life is getting more and more stressful, and joy is equally important at every phase in our life. So how can we make almost anything playable and therefore important in your life, therefore joyful in your life? So we have to sort of retool our brains as planners and urban designers and urbanists in general to think about playfulness for everybody because play and joy helps build resilience, not just sort of good for your brain but social resilience as well. You think better about your neighbors; you know your neighbors better and things like that. So that’s really important. And you can layer that; you can layer playability in almost anything if you were intentional, almost anything that you do professionally. How do we make this bus stop more playable if I have to wait there?

Cohen: Yeah.

Gulati: How about draw a tic-tac-toe or whatever on the sidewalk and make that sidewalk experience more playable? How do I add colors and music to transportation infrastructure? How do we make everything just a little bit more playable, because all of us could use a little bit more play in our lives?

Cohen: So I think the keyword that you used there was “intentional,” you know, that this isn’t going to happen maybe organically. Right? I mean, I can imagine a government official that’s got a lot of challenges to navigate. Right?

Gulati: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: And so one of them may be cost; one of them may be legal concerns potentially. And so are there some specific things that you could recommend that people could either try or use to kind of move down this kind of continuum of playfulness maybe in a way that is either inexpensive or doesn’t expose the city or community to more legal liability or anything like that? Is there anything, you know, maybe any best practices or any thoughts kind of coming to mind that maybe might be interesting to try?

Gulati: Right. I think the community engagement aspect of it is really important, because community engagement is key to public spaces and placemaking. We shouldn’t expect every city official to sort of even think about this or have all the answers. But if we can retool our public meetings and community engagement processes in a way that we solicit some of these ideas from people, like, quick play—what would make this place more youthful and playable instead of, like, making it sound like playgrounds?

Cohen: Right.

Gulati: If we can make that question a part of our standard community engagement packet—

Cohen: Got it. Okay.

Gulati: —we can solicit some of those ideas from the community.

Cohen: Yeah.

Gulati: We can even think about making these meetings a little bit more playful. You know, we know we have to spend X number of hours there, X number of dollars to have a public meeting, and they are mandated in most cities as we know it. So how do we slowly start to change? Maybe that meeting can happen on a Saturday afternoon instead of Wednesday evening.

Cohen: Right.

Gulati: What if this meeting could actually happen outdoors in a park?

Cohen: Right.

Gulati: And what if instead of just providing for childcare for families who might want to bring their kids, can we have an interactive exhibit where kids can provide their input? Can we add in play and engagement for them so they can tell you what they want from that park and how they want their neighborhood to change and things like that?

And at a different level even with the kinds of materials that we use—so most cities have prescribed material palettes, asphalt for this, concrete for this, pavers for this, blah, blah, blah. So if we can have a little bit more flexibility, that can at least allow you to add a little bit more color. That would be great. Like, why couldn’t the sidewalk be orange? Why? Does it have to be gray?

Cohen: Right.

Gulati: And things like that. Like, adding flexibility to our palettes where it’s innocuous, where it’s—we’re not saying, “Let’s put spikes on the sidewalk.” We’re saying, “Let’s choose the color and make it a little bit more attractive and playable.” Those things are relatively easier to achieve, and maybe that’s where we can start. Talking to the community, our existing community-engagement processes, the existing public meetings that we have to do, the existing materials palette that we have, let’s start to slowly change them so at the time that we’re changing them we’re also very subtly changing policy so that somebody five years down the line wouldn’t have to do the whole thing all over again.

Cohen: Yeah, that’s good. I like that. That’s a really tactical thing and a really easy lift, if you will. So I want to maybe build on your experience as a nonprofit consultant and advocate and practitioner to challenge you to think about who out there do you see doing really great work to help build those—you know, you called them unicorn communities before, but kind of building that green and accessible and equitable future that we all want to live in? Who is out there doing that kind of work and what specifically are they doing to help make that a reality.

Gulati: So from the perspective of child friendly cities and cities for kids, I personally look a lot at the work that the UN is doing. There is a whole Child Friendly Cities Initiative that came about in the early 2000s, I want to say. And it was initially an effort of UNICEF alone, but now it’s a UN-CFC initiative. So they are talking a lot about—you know, they’re sharing best practices from around the world about cities that are doing some of these things, changing policy, legislation, representation for children, and things like that.

At the same time, they’re also writing books and guidebooks that anybody around the world can pick up and find something that they can relate to. So I would say that digging deeper into that initiative can show you who on the grassroots level is doing that work, because they are kind of serving as the central point of that information. So I would continue to look at that. For representation for women I would give a shout-out to my friends. Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman, she was just named in the BBC 100 Women. I’m very proud of her. And she started this initiative called Women Led Cities in which she is making the argument of why our cities need to be women led to be human and to serve everybody better.

Cohen: Yeah.

Gulati: And then especially, again, 50% of the world that has largely been ignored and not represented, so how about we shift the balance a little bit to actually change all the things we’ve done in the years and years past? I know that—again, staying with the higher-level organizations, I know the World Bank group does a lot of really great work, especially with their focus on the Global South. From an increased focus on community engagement and placemaking, they are also tackling, like, economic development at city levels and doing systemic change.

So to steer that you kind of need some of these giant organizations like the UN and World Bank to do some of the work. For transportation particularly I really appreciate the work that ITDP is doing that I mentioned earlier as well, you know, where they’re documenting how women are doing nonlinear journeys and things like that.

Cohen: Yeah.

Gulati: And because they’re a global nonprofit, to somebody like me who is born-and-raised Indian sitting in the United States doing this work, I appreciate their work because they’re trying to create a more robust connection between sort of the mistakes of some of the North American development and how can we not do that in the Global South. Or the things that have been done better in South America or Europe and things like that, how do we make sure that those lessons get spread wider? So I really appreciate their work as well. WRI, World Resources Institute.

Cohen: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

Gulati: Yeah. So WRI, their transportation program and their cities program is really great. And they’re talking about key things that need to be shared widely around the world, but I also know that they do technical assistance to some of their other-country offices. So they are not only sharing best practices; they’re also doing on-the-ground, hands-on kind of work. So that’s really important.

For building play and playability for everybody I want to really ask everybody to think about what KaBOOM! is doing. Their initiative, I mean, it’s great. The mission of that organization is to build a playground for every child in low-income communities, everybody who doesn’t have access to playground. Let’s build it for them. And that sort of laser focus on communities of lower means and communities of color, that’s really, really important. I would also say to look into the work that Bernard van Leer Foundation is doing. They’re based in the Netherlands, and their whole focus is early childhood development, because to change behavior, we have to change it when our behaviors are being formed.

Cohen: Yeah.

Gulati: And they’re all about the early childhood, under 95 centimeter as their primary audience. So when the brain is the most malleable and the brain is forming at the fastest speed, how do we start to change behavior for better behavior, and how do we also start to think about representation at that very early age? And how do we sort of make adults who are above 95 centimeters see a world at 95 and see what it’s like to be, you know, less than five years old and move through this world that we’re creating for them?

Cohen: Yeah.

Gulati: So they’re really fantastic. And I appreciate the work that IDEO is doing, IDEO org—

Cohen: Oh, sure.

Gulati: —and their human centered design approach and the toolkits that they’re creating, because what they are saying is, “How do you do anything, anything, drive any solution from a human centered perspective?” Like, how do you solve some of the world’s biggest problems? By going to that community, talking to them, spending time with them and distilling some of the lessons and solutions and prototypes out of that engagement. So these are just some of the people; hat tip to all of them.

Cohen: Yeah. That’s fantastic. That’s fantastic. Where can people learn more about either you or the work you’re doing there with Project for Public Spaces?

Gulati: So our website is filled with great information. We have our staff listed in the about page. I am listed right there as the program manager for streets and transportation. You can find me there. My Twitter handle is @GulatiNidhi, so last name, first name. And I have a building hashtag and sort of some best practices going around with hashtag #CitiesForKids because I hope to develop more and more resources, spend more and more of my life and my time thinking about that correlation that I made from women to immigrants to kids and why it’s important to think about kids. And if I were to think about, like, one key audience, I would say the girl child in a low-income community.

Cohen: Yeah.

Gulati: How do we create a world that lets her thrive and be her best self? And that is the world I’m hoping to create. So hopefully through that hashtag, #CitiesForKids, one day I’ll get to doing that more and more and develop enough expertise that people will be able to take it, use it, share it, all of that. And I’m also on LinkedIn. My name, Project for Public Spaces, I should pull up. I’m more than happy to be connected, continue this conversation with anybody and everybody who is interested, because the impact is greater when people join forces. So, you know, instead of us trying to do our thing in different parts of the world, it’s always better if we come together. So anybody who is interested is more than welcome to get connected through one or all of the means I just talked about.

Cohen: Wow. Well, what a great way to wrap this up? I really appreciate you taking the time to share with our audience about the work you’re doing to bring more of these pragmatic ways that we look at transportation and really turn them into these unicorn communities, if you will, that can bring everyone together and serve the needs of all of us, especially the most vulnerable. So thank you so much, Nidhi.

Gulati: Thank you for giving me the platform, Josh. I really, really appreciate it.

F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.


Check out our NACTO 2019 recap to get a glimpse of how Toronto is turning its city streets from public spaces into public places for art, culture and more.