Designing cities is not about just ‘spatial design’; it is about people and their relationship with the spaces they inhabit !

Mriganka Saxena, our next pathbreaker, Urban Strategist & Policywriter, runs her own architecture and urban design / planning Studio, Habitat Tectonics Architecture & Urbanism (HTAU) with a focus on undertaking projects that would help envision and create better cities.

Mriganka talks to  Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her most memorable work as an in-house full time senior consultant with the Delhi Jal Board leading its initiative of restoring all the drains and water bodies in Delhi.

For students, try and work for the public sector if you can. It may not be as well paying, as glamorous or as comfortable a work environment as working for a private company but you get a chance to bring about and deliver real positive change on the ground. 

Mriganka, Your background?

My initial years were spent in Patna, living with my maternal uncle and his family. My parents were in the tea estates of Assam and finding a good school there in the early 80s was a huge challenge. So, I moved to Patna at the age of 6 to study at Notre Dame Academy. It was a fantastic school and I thoroughly enjoyed learning about everyday things. Geography, Physics and Mathematics, therefore, became favorites. I would also enjoy reading and from there went on to enjoy writing as well. Fortunately, I was creative, good in ideation and with craft. That’s what made everyone around me encourage me into thinking about Architecture. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I studied Architecture which is a 5-year bachelor’s programme. During the later years at Architecture school, I realized I was more inclined to working at larger scales i.e., scales larger than a building. So, in 2002, I went on to do a Master’s in City Design and Social Science, a one-year programme at the London School of Economics after which I could practice as an Urban Designer.

The course at the LSE was phenomenal! Most interestingly, it was housed within the Department of Sociology (and not Planning or Design), sending the clear message that designing cities is not about just ‘spatial design’; it is about people. I could relate to that. Additionally, it was a course that took students with varied backgrounds, not just architecture. This was another unique point about the course. Transforming cities requires a whole set of multidisciplinary skills. It is important to start these conversations in an academic environment. So, in my course of 22, I had people from 19 different nations and only 4 were architects! My peers were urban psychologists, geographers, sociologists, economists etc. It was fascinating!

What were the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

As I’d mentioned earlier, the transition from Architecture to Urban Design was really based on a natural inclination. Becoming an urban strategist and policy writer now has really been a journey. A few people have unconsciously guided me along the way. My first boss, Roger Evans, of Studio REAL in Oxford, UK was my earliest and biggest influence. He taught me the importance of a process-based approach to urban design and gave me the platform to develop my own priorities as a professional. Coming back to India in 2010, I had a choice to either work for a large UK-based urban design and planning firm or the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), which was then revising the Master Plan of Delhi, a planning document that sets out how the city should develop over the next 20 years. With my husband’s support, who is also an architect, I went for the latter. I feel that was the most important decision of my life in getting me where I am today. I also met some of the most passionate and driven urban practitioners of India during that phase.  

Can you tell us about your career path? 

Over the past twenty years, I have worked in two urban design practices in the UK (up until 2009), and then co-founded our own Architecture and Urban Design Studio, Habitat Tectonics Architecture & Urbanism (HTAU) in Delhi / Gurgaon, and simultaneously worked with multiple public sector agencies across states and cities and international funding agencies such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank(WB) as a consultant. 

While in the UK, I managed and ran large master planning projects, prepared design guidelines and codes and eventually led small teams to undertake such jobs.

At my first job in the UK, my projects mostly included large-scale residential master plans. These could be 200 – 400 ha (hectare) sites that would be planned to ensure sustainable living with high quality of amenities and facilities. I also worked on a number of design guidelines and design code projects for the public sector agencies where through such regulatory tools the agencies were attempting to enhance the quality of their town centres. In both cases, the emphasis was on the setting the right principles, approach and strategies in place. 

The project dearest to me, however, was being a co-author and technical coordinator for the best practices publication Urban Design Compendium II – Delivering quality places. It was fascinating to research and write about how large scale projects need to be implemented. Of course, here the issues were very different from India. The acceptance of the importance of good design in city (re)building was there! Here, we are still pushing that agenda. 

In my next firm LDA Design, one of my key projects was preparing a masterplan for a Zero Carbon City with a new railway station. Spread across over 400 hectares, the project imbibed principles of close-looped management of resources i.e., we produce what we need and we consume whatever waste we generate. It was quite future-looking at the time!

In India, as a Co-Founder, my role has been extremely varied. 

I think the one key thing that defined my steps to getting where I am today is going after practices or firms that I would enjoy working with. I have never made career choices based on remuneration or designation. Similarly, when taking up projects in HTAU, we try really hard to take up only those that would be of interest, where we can push ourselves and can simultaneously push the larger agenda of bringing about positive urban change forward. 

Having worked in the industry for two decades, in hindsight I can confidently say that that was the right approach. I have also never been too hung up on getting multiple degrees beyond the necessary. I believe that learning on the job and having a ‘hands on’ approach to everything one does makes you learn in ways any academic environment can’t teach. It is equally important to not define your work based on your designation or qualification. If a job needs doing, always do whatever it takes to complete it to the highest quality. 

UTTIPEC (Unified Traffic and Transportation Infrastructure Planning and Engineering Centre) was the cell within which I worked in the DDA. It is responsible for all traffic and transport related matters of the city and was headed by the Hon’ble LG of Delhi. We were a small team of in-house consultants and together we did some fascinating work. We wrote the first ever policy on Transit Oriented Development (TOD) in the country. The same informed the National TOD Policy and since then multiple cities and states have come up with their own versions. We also revised the Transport Policy for Delhi, bringing about a strategic shift towards low carbon modes. Other initiatives included pushing for walking/cycling infrastructure, women safety guidelines etc. 

CityAnalytics (CA) is another initiative founded as part of HTAU where we look at data across scales to understand trends and draw conclusions. During the first phase of the pandemic we (HTAU and CA) did a lot of research to map containment zones in the major cities. Our research revealed that our urban condition had an impact on the spread. The denser areas were more prone to the spread. We then prepared an Implementation Framework for Containment Plan for COVID-19 for Indian Towns & Cities and shared it with states and cities as widely as we could. We were happy to find that many of our recommendations (designating green-yellow-red zones, instituting local clinics, food distribution nodes etc.) were included in national / state level directives. 

Other than that, making unconventional choices has also paid off for me in the long term. I say this specifically with respect to the public sector agencies I worked with on a full-time basis, leaving HTAU for a few years at a time; be it a 3-year stint at the Delhi Development Authority or the 2 years with the Delhi Jal Board. 

How did you get your first break?

My first break in the UK was in response to an advertisement for the position of an Urban Designer at a small but brilliant urban design practice called Roger Evans Associates Ltd (now called Studio REAL) in Oxford. I went through three rounds of interviews before getting selected. My most important break, however, was my job in the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). In this case it really was a friend who told me about a possible opportunity to work as a Senior Consultant in UTTIPPEC, DDA on revising the Masterplan, particularly focusing on sustainable transport and development along the Metro. I went through several informal and formal meetings and interviews before finally being given a go ahead from the office of the Honorable Lieutenant Governor of Delhi (the chairman of the DDA).  This time it was really about persistence (mine and of a lot of people around me) and about being confident about what I could bring to the table as a professional. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

The key challenge of working in the public sector was the physical environment i.e., the quality of workspace and infrastructure available as well as the lethargy in the system. One would have to work four times harder to achieve anything at all. Women were also not treated with much respect. The best way was to ignore the ‘white noise’ and just carry on.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

My husband and I run our own architecture and urban design / planning Studio, Habitat Tectonics Architecture & Urbanism (HTAU) in Gurgaon which we founded in 2010. I now focus on creating urban strategies and statutory, regulatory, and administrative enabling frameworks for cities to undertake projects that would help create better cities. So, what does that really mean?? In essence, I work with public sector agencies like metro companies, municipal corporations, planning authorities etc., to help create new or enhance existing policies, plans, institutions, initiatives, and projects to help move towards sustainable development and sustainable mobility. 

For this, I mostly focus on three urban domains: 

1. Urban development – how should cities grow; how can India’s massive wave of urbanization (i.e. people moving to urban centres) be managed sustainably; how do you ensure that our cities are more equitable, inclusive and just.

2. Urban Mobility – how do you ensure the use of lower carbon transport modes such as walking, cycling, public transport over private vehicles; how do you ensure public transport can be affordable, accessible, safe, and convenient for all users – women, elderly, differently-abled, children, trans-communities; how can we make moving around in our cities pleasurable and easy such that not only places but also opportunities are accessible to all. 

3. Urban Water – how can water (natural resources like rivers, lakes, drains; drinking water; underground water; sewage etc.) be managed sustainably such that our cities do not run out of ground water, how do we manage recurring issues of drought as well as urban flooding, ensure that we don’t squander away our natural assets and jeopardize basic rights to clean water for marginalized communities. Overall, the aim is to help cities deliver a better quality of life for its citizens so that each one of us has a choice to live where and how we want, travel as we want, use parks and facilities as we want; so that each one of us eventually has access to better opportunities.    

What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?

I believe I currently work as an urban practitioner, straddling realms of urban design, urban planning, and transport planning, although I am trained as an urban designer. The urban domain is large and with multiple aspects. One can contribute as an urban designer, urban planner, transport planner, housing specialist, etc. But, it’s important to blur these boundaries, specifically in the Indian context today. While getting an appropriate degree is a prerequisite, to a large extent one learns the necessary skills on the job. I have primarily gained my skills working with public sector organizations. 

What’s a typical day like?

My typical day! Frankly, each day is different. It depends on which hat I am wearing. For example, currently a lot of my time is focused on a sustainable urban development and mobility project in Bengaluru wherein I am working as a TOD, Urban Design and Mobility Expert with the ADB (Asian Development Bank), advising public sector agencies on multiple aspects. Here, I mostly look at aligning Policies, Acts, Regulations to help deliver sustainable development and mobility, help in sensitizing and building capacities of these agencies with regards to urban issues, coordinate multiple players and stakeholders working on the project etc. On other days, I could be working to create a sustainable stormwater management strategy for one of our sites in Uttarakhand to ensure flood events do not occur. 

I love being able to strategize to solve large urban challenges; real issues plaguing real people! There is so much that needs doing in our cities! I thrive on being able to create an eco-system wherein projects and programmes for creating better cities can happen. While the process is long and frustrating at times, if one does manage to bring about a change, no matter how small, one can impact the lives of many people.

How does your work benefit society? 

As mentioned earlier, my work is mostly focused on improving cities to improve the quality of life of its citizens.  

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

One of the phases of my professional work that I have enjoyed thoroughly was when I worked as an in-house full time Senior Consultant with the Delhi Jal Board leading its initiative of restoring all the drains and water bodies in Delhi. Delhi has over 1000 water bodies and over 750 km of drains. It was really a one-of-a-kind initiative. I was allowed by the leadership to put in place, with a small team, the overall strategy, the approach, and methodology for the project and initiate smaller pilot projects. It was really heartening to get approval from the National Green Tribunal (the highest court of law for environmental issues) on our approach to the restoration of water bodies! The city is now restoring 250 water bodies on the same principles. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Try and work for the public sector if you can. It may not be as well paying, as glamorous or as comfortable a work environment as working for a private company but you get a chance to bring about and deliver real positive change on the ground. 

Future Plans?

I want to continue working with cities for as long as I can. And, simultaneously, I want to ensure that these learnings and experiences are shared and replicated across the country, helping many other cities transform.