HOW URBAN DESIGNER UTTARA RAMAKRISHNAN COMBINES DESIGN WITH INCLUSIVE SOCIAL ADVANCES AND RADICAL CHANGE
“If we opened people up, we would find a landscape,” said French-film director Agnes Varda in her documentary “Beaches of Agnes.” The filmmaker was setting up on her childhood beach various objects that represented her own inner landscape. Our environments shape us into who we are, who we were, and who we will become — literally from the inside out and vice versa. Urban designers have a great responsibility — they contribute to the narratives of a city and its people through the medium of design, make cities resilient and also preserve elements of the past while designing the present and future of society at large. A sharp mind that can consider beautiful design and experiences, population growth as well as budget constraints, and the needs of our communities, those are the qualities of a good urban designer. Uttara Ramakrishnan is one of them. Uttara always had a mind that paired excellence with logic, imagination, and dedication.
Born in Mumbai, India, Uttara was an imaginative child who got lost in fantasy worlds. She recalls enjoying Italo Calvino and George Orwell’s work: “I was fascinated by all sorts of books that imagined alternate realities — science-fiction, fantasy; but also interested in the spatial details of these imaginations.” From a young age, Uttara was drawn towards new possibilities. “Growing up in Mumbai has made me conscious of the social and spatial disparities that can prevail in an urban fabric,” she adds. With a willingness to foster change for communities and a desire to observe what could be done in architecture and the allied fields, it was only natural that Uttara would grow up to become an urban designer. Her background is rich and exciting. It started with architecture school, which led her “to a new world of philosophy, literature and design theories,” she explains. As an explorer of urban narratives, Uttara’s big project was an urban graphic novel that she created with the School of Environment and Architecture, where she was a researcher. “Of trips and obsessions” was a “rigorous study of the grand networks of an electronic market cluster in Mumbai,” she says. The drawings from the book were eventually presented at the Un-Box design festival in New Delhi.
This project led Uttara to attend a course at Jnanapravaha in Mumbai entitled “Art Theory and Criticism.” It explored concepts such as “space, memory, symbols, and the notion that experience can be expressed paralleled with an overview of the production of knowledge through culture, gender, and subaltern studies,” she recalls. As a researcher, activism is at the core of Uttara’s work, having directly engaged with questions of unequal power relations. She mentions one key project that stood out: ‘“Building Inclusive Urban Communities” at K.R.V.I.A. (the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture and Environmental Studies) was a research project where I co-authored a paper titled ‘City Profile Mumbai.’ It illustrated policies and historical events that led to the proliferation of informal settlements in the city. It provided a critical-historical perspective on the social and spatial evolution of Mumbai, with an emphasis on the highly contested process of spatial production, and the centrality of relations of power and politics in shaping the city”. While in India, Uttara participated in other projects driven by social justice. She submitted a public review report to preserve the riverbank where the Koliwadas are, the traditional fishing settlements in Mumbai, and prevent them from being turned into a promenade and jogging class for the middle-class. She also worked with the “Gender Group” in Mumbai, where she participated in the implementation of amenities (toilets, housing, skill development centers, daycare centers) for anyone who identified as a woman across the city (street vendors, transgender people, residing in informal settlements, waste pickers, daily wage workers and others). “This made me realize that issues of gender could be tackled effectively only by taking into consideration class, caste, socio-economic factors,” she mentions.
Uttara’s groundbreaking initiatives did not stop there. Let’s start with a historical first: in 2016, Uttara and a team of researchers were commissioned by the Akshara Center –an NGO for Women and Children- and presented a report with gender-inclusive suggestions for the Mumbai Development Plan of 2034. The report was successful, and for the first time in history, the City Development Plan included a chapter on gender inclusivity.
However, Uttara’s work and pioneer spirit did not stop there., she was appointed as the Researcher and Auditing Architect by the Collective for Spatial Alternatives and the Indian Center for Human Rights and Law for the High Court of Mumbai to present a report which offered an assessment on the accessibility for disabled people of the Mumbai suburban railway stations. As a result, thanks to her outstanding work, the High Court of Mumbai adopted the newly presented measures to modify the stations and make them more accessible and user-friendly for people with disabilities.
“Participating in these efforts propelled me to pursue a career in Urban Design — wanting to combine my love for designing beautiful spaces and spatial narratives along with a drive to ensure just development where everyone has a right to their city,” she says. Today, Uttara is a thriving urban designer who places the well-being of communities and inclusion at the heart of her topography.
Her very prolific career involves working for various prestigious firms, both in India and the United States. She previously worked in India for Ranjit Sinh Associates Architects, a firm specializing in sustainable practices in architecture and urban design. She has also collaborated with the architecture, urban design, and landscape design firm MAD(E) in Mumbai. The firm focuses on out-of-the-box thinking and solution-oriented urban design — no wonder Uttara was a perfect match for them. In the United States, Uttara has worked for various firms and agencies all over the country. With Perkins&Will, she worked on a multitude of projects focusing on various fields in urban design such as strategic planning and development of cities, campus planning, innovation districts, community engagements, branding, and storytelling. The firm’s mission is to “Collaborate with clients all over the world to create healthy, sustainable places to live, learn, work, play, and heal.” During her time at Perkins&Will, Uttara has worked for the Oklahoma City Innovation District, Capitol Environs, and Development Plan: with a focus on economic mobility, inclusivity, and affordability, this strategic development plan was presented to be developed in Oklahoma City. Another win for Uttara and her team as the project was approved and is being implemented. In Florida, Uttara and her team from Perkins&Will worked with the Osceola County Office and the city of Kissimmee to design an innovation hub township and an urban waterfront. In Texas, Uttara worked on the City of Cedar Park Redevelopment and the Facility Expansion Plan for the George Washington Carver Museum.
An expert in Urban Design, Uttara’s knowledge is sought after. As an ever-changing and constantly evolving field, research is a core aspect of the discipline. Many institutions benefitted from Uttara’s expertise, first in India and now in the United States. Due to her expertise in Urban Design, she has been invited to conduct research for distinguished institutions like theSchool of Environment and Architecture, Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture & Environmental Studies (or Mumbai University), and the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture. . Impressive? Well, Uttara did not stop here! The Urban Designer, who is also a member of the Council of Architecture in India, has received in 2018 the Tau Sigma Delta Honors Society (2018), the only national honor society for architecture and design majors that the Association of College Honors Societies accredits.
She was also a presenter at the American Institute of Architects Austin in Texas on the Urban Design Committee, where she talked about gender rights, equality, and planning as well as her project Gender Equity in Mumbai’s Development Plan. Still, in Austin, Texas, Uttara is also part of the Board of Directors at People United for Mobility Action (PUMA), a mobility planning organization that works with leaders to facilitate accessibility for local residents.
Her significant achievements have not tarnished Uttara’s humility. She remains grounded and true to her goal: “Designing beautiful spaces and narratives that enable social equity & social justice.” This is not without challenges, she specifies: “Unfortunately the de facto in our field is imposed ideas in new development which often leads to displacement and erasure of marginalized communities. As urban designers, it is our responsibility also to consider social sustainability and equity in our projects.” More than ever, a more inclusive viewpoint is needed, something Uttara places at the core of her work. She keeps reminding herself to listen to the people living in the spaces and cities she works for; they always know better. According to her, the key to being a successful urban designer is to “Actively getting involved with organizations that work with communities in the city and build a network of trusted friends and colleagues who can be your mentors and guides.” As always, learning, and unlearning work simultaneously for Uttara. Challenging herself to keep up with trends, city codes, and the demands and needs of communities while also deconstructing, never assuming, and keeping an open heart and mind. Uttara’s dedication to her craft and strong work ethic allows her to excel at what she does and improve the lives of so many communities. We cannot wait to see what future projects she develops.