Designing a Better Future
Geeta Mehta helps create buildings and urban areas that are good for communities and the environment.
For Geeta Mehta, the twin disciplines of architecture and urban design are about far more than buildings, parks and street corners. Rather, they represent the opportunity to transform the way we live.
Mehta is an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation in New York City. She is a partner in the interior design firm Braden & Mehta, and a founding force behind nonprofit organizations URBZ and Asia Initiatives. Through these, she tries to use her design skills to make life better for those who occupy the buildings and urban areas she helps create. And that process begins from the ground up.
“An urban designer represents the interest of the general public in designing parts of a city or a project,” she describes. “While architects may design a building for a specific client, an urban designer considers how that building would impact the city as a whole.”
From Mehta’s point of view as an urban designer, a good building is one that, if combined with others like it, would help create a great city. “An urban designer considers the physical and social infrastructure in design, including public spaces, streets for pedestrians and cycles, transportation, utilities and public services,” she says. “Good urban design can put all these together and create very special and memorable places that people can love and live in.”
When it comes to creating those special and memorable places, Mehta always keeps the environment in mind. “Cities are one of the major generators of greenhouse gases, so ecological concerns are central to the work of architects and urban designers,” she says. “However, green buildings with a low carbon footprint are not enough.”
Environment-friendly buildings need to be placed intelligently, she says, to reduce the need for people to travel long distances every day, while making travel as a whole easier and more sustainable. “I am a big fan of dense cities,” she says. “While urban sprawl is not only bad from an environmental point of view, it also isolates people and breaks down their social capital.”
Mehta believes that the everyday experiences of residents constitute an essential knowledge for architecture, planning, urban development and policymaking. “I co-founded ‘URBZ: User Generated Cities’ with Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava [co-directors of the Institute of Urbanology], to work with under-served communities as they transform their neighborhoods through their own strengths,” she says. The diverse team of architects, designers, urban planners, anthropologists, economists and policymakers help shape projects from many perspectives.
Throughout her career, Mehta describes herself as lucky to have never encountered gender-based discrimination, or run up against a “glass ceiling.” “However, I did make choices in my career path because I am a woman,” she says. Mehta stopped work for a number of years to care for her young sons, and juggled part-time work and studying for her Ph.D., along with parenting duties, as her children became older. “So, my career path has woven through my family responsibilities. But I happily embraced them and, in retrospect, I am very pleased I made those choices.”
In general, Mehta sees workplace environments and opportunities improving for women, including those who want to raise families. “Since so much work can now be done long-distance, the ability of women to hold full-time jobs and do part of the work at home is also increasing, as are the possibilities of starting their own practices and competing with bigger firms,” says Mehta.
For young people who want to follow in Mehta’s footsteps, the architect and designer advises traveling as much as possible. “While most information is now available on the Internet, the reason for young people to go to college is not to learn facts, but to learn different ways of thinking, so as to decide what they want to do with their lives,” she says. “Traveling and reading intensively expose people to ideas that they can develop about who they want to be.”
Today’s world offers great opportunities for intrepid and creative young people to try new things, Mehta continues. “I would advise young people to be bold,” she says, “and not worry about failures, but consider each failure a part of learning on the way to accomplishing big things.”
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.