A Big Picture Approach to Living With Water

An “In Person” profile of Gautam Sundaram, Urban Design Practice Leader in our Boston studio. Originally published in Banker & Tradesman, by Steve Adams.

Name: Gautam Sundaram

Title: Urban Design Practice Leader

Industry experience: 20 years

Designing the perfect building means little if it’s unable to withstand the effects of climate change. As urban design practice leader in our Boston studio, Gautam Sundaram studies how projects from New England to Puerto Rico can fit into neighborhoods while standing the test of time. Over a two-decade career, he’s worked on academic, athletic, mixed-use and waterfront developments. With resiliency coming to the forefront of design considerations in Boston and other coastal cities, Sundaram is active in our resilience practice which studies how cities can survive and thrive on shrinking footprints of buildable land.

How did your career path lead to your current specialty?

My academic training is a bachelor’s in architecture and a master’s in landscape architecture. My first job actually was in Mumbai, working for a developer for a couple of years. That completely shredded my confidence for the profession. My role was basically working with the permitting agencies. Going outside and waiting for a chance to move papers from the next table to the next table was my life. I get it, but it made you want to get your head out of the sand and say, “There’s got to be something better than this.”

There were very few graduate schools in India at the time. I still believed in my profession and had a strong passion, so I decided to do my master’s in landscape architecture. Architecture is always building on a pedestal. I felt there had to be something that ties more into the context and the site. As a landscape architect, I felt I could do a better job.

So, I came to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and did a master’s with an overlap with regional planning. I moved to Boston in 1999 and my first job was with Geller Assoc., which has since been acquired by Stantec. It was a great experience.

What do you think of Boston’s climate change strategy, including an emphasis on shore-based defenses?

Resiliency planning is going to be our framework when we think about any planning effort. At Perkins+Will, this is something that really attracted me. The resiliency platform is a global alliance that the firm created with the MIT Risk Lab and other design firms.

It’s not just hydrology – we have to think about the social, environmental and economic standpoints. How can we look at operating through these three lenses?

The city of Boston is very much ahead in resiliency planning compared with other coastal American cities. I wish that these changes would not just be looking at creating a barrier out of fear. We’ve got to keep the water out. Can this be a Dutch model, living with water rather than blocking the water?

The second aspect is: How do we make sure as development happens we’re investing in the neighborhoods and making them resilient. Economically, we want to protect our assets, but not only think about the land but infrastructure that’s more resilient. They are doing all the right things.

What was the business plan when you were with DumontJanks?

To go to a startup mentality was very new. How do you build a practice? How do you build an entire firm and how do you think about your team and rebuild the relationships with the clients? That was a huge challenge, having the patience to market yourself. One of the things I learned that stood out for me when I met with people was my approach to planning and urban design. It was important to go back to a disciplinary practice, which was the reason I moved to the U.S. to begin with.

What’s the biggest assignment on your plate for 2019?

We’re pursuing a master plan in Providence, Rhode Island for the Wheeler School. They are looking at their long-term strategic growth.

The second is in the resiliency platform, ResilientSEE, as an initiative coming out of Hurricane Maria for Puerto Rico. Working with the MIT Urban Risk Lab, we’ve done an analysis of the entire island examining social and demographic issues. It’s not just about hurricanes and sea level rise. They are going to be facing tremendous climate change: drought and severe weather. How do we prepare for that?

We also zoomed into the communities. Now, as [the department of] Housing and Urban Development is starting to release funding to communities to rebuild, we want to make sure it’s effective. That’s the part I’m working on in the next few months. We’re going to make this a guiding framework, when the national consultants get introduced, they have access to the data and the issues.

HUD is going to release $9 billion in the first quarter. The idea is not to come out with a physical plan and say this goes here, but a series of principles we felt would help them. Our approach is: how do you invest in the future economy? How does that affect green infrastructure and resiliency? We outline the short-term and long-term principles and that’s what we hope will be picked up and be most helpful.

Gautam Sundaram (right), with panelists for the Urban Land Institute’s discussion on strategic recommendations to the municipality of Toa Baja, Puerto Rico.

Sundaram’s Five Favorite Sayings

  1. “Those of us who understand the complex concept of the environment have the burden to act. We must not tire, we must not give up, we must persist.”
  2. “Eighty-five percent of your financial success is due to your personality, and ability to lead, communicate and negotiate. Shockingly, only 15 percent is due to technical knowledge.”
  3. “One side is pride and the other side is an ego for recognition.”
  4. “A peacock that sits on its tail is just a turkey.”
  5. “Do you know which one is my favorite ring? It is the next one.”

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