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Radhika Nair was appointed by Seattle City Council to the Seattle Planning Commission in 2010.
Can you tell us about your background?
Born in Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) a 3000-year old city in Kerala state, in tropical southwest India, you might wonder, as I did, how Radhika Nair found herself in Seattle. It’s a tale worth hearing, for it helps one see what a gift it is to have her as a planning commissioner in Seattle. Incidentally known as the Evergreen City of India, Trivandrum was the first democratic state in India and is also known as an intellectual center with strong cultural preferences for careers in engineering and medicine.
What did you study? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
Radhika followed her interest in places and drawing into the study of architecture, earning her B.Arch degree at University of Kerala and going straight to work for an architect on her thesis defense panel. The non-profit design firm she worked for focused on using traditional building designs to inform sustainable, cost-conscious housing patterns. They developed and built housing developments that provide affordable alternatives in the rapidly growing cities of India. With a growing preference for sustainable development, their success also attracted wealthy and well-intentioned clients who commissioned designs for custom homes. Radhika soon realized that she was not cut out for serving finicky clients and preferred the larger scale projects dealing with larger social and environmental issues.
Radhika began considering a return to school to focus on urban design and planning, but found the offerings in India limited. The two best schools are in the far north, but her father, a university professor himself, thought she should consider a school in the United States, a path her brother had taken to the University of Texas at Austin. Her developing interest in her brother’s friend and roommate helped seal the deal and she began the process of applying to UT Austin. The events of September 11, 2001 intervened, however, and she found it impossible to get a student visa to the United States for two more years. She had by that time married the roommate, and was able to join him in Boston where he was continuing his studies.
Boston, or more properly, suburban Boston, was a shock to her. Having always lived in places where walking was the primary means of travel for daily needs, she had never imagined America was anything like the car-dependent place she found herself in. Boston did have a few good schools and she picked Harvard because the planning program was part of the design school, and that fit best with her outlook on how design and planning should work. She did studios on a light rail station area in Somerville, a neighboring city to Cambridge and Harvard; an industrial area of Providence, Rhode Island; and an area of Manhattan where Columbia University was expanding into the cultural center of Harlem. She learned among other things, that the public can be finicky, too.
What was your career path after graduation?
When she and her husband finished their studies, they visited her brother in San Francisco and found the West Coast inviting. Her husband, a software engineer, was offered a job at Amazon.com and they took the leap.
Radhika quickly found work at the City of Bellevue, planning for the redevelopment of the Bel-Red industrial area and East Link Light Rail. There she found great mentors and befriended transportation planner Kevin McDonald, one of our planning commissioners. Researching industrial land use policy, she came across the Seattle Planning Commission report on industrial lands, and that planted the seeds for her interest in the commission.
Asked where she would live if she could live anywhere, even if for a limited time, she said she would like to live in the place where her recently departed father grew up, a smaller community where her family has a long history, and an old house. She and her father had talked of renovating the old house and opening a bed-and-breakfast.
Radhika says she would be happy if she can bring new perspectives to the Seattle Planning Commission. She knows the importance of being able to integrate into a new place, and the value of an old place. I suspect we’ll see the city in a new light through her eyes.