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Pooja Agrawal: ‘I’m driven by making places that are equitable and vibrant’

Pooja Agrawal

Source:  Laura Pannack

The winner of this year’s AJ100 Contribution to the Profession award speaks to Flora Neville about Public Practice, the groundbreaking initiative she co-founded, which is raising the game of local authority placemaking

From her quiet north London home, clad in restful oak and earth-pink walls and strewn with children’s toys, Pooja Agrawal recalls growing up in a very different city. Life in Mumbai ‘made me who I am – at heart an urbanist’ says Agrawal, recipient of this year’s AJ100 Contribution to the Profession Award. She has been recognised by a majority vote of AJ100 practice employees for her work as co-founder and current chief executive of Public Practice, which improves built environment expertise within the planning system.

When she was three, the Agrawal family moved from America to the outskirts of Mumbai, where she lived in a seven-storey apartment block. All the children who lived there played in the communal car park by the beach, where the more affluent mixed with children from India’s largest slum. Against the backdrop of a hierarchical and stratified culture where rich and poor do not often mix, the beach was, she says, a place that could be equitable, as well as vibrant and full of life. ‘Equitable’ would become a key word that informed her career path.

Pooja and her older sister Roma made cityscapes in the sand. Roma is a renowned structural engineer. And Pooja? ‘I still call myself an architect,’ she says, though in truth her career history and current role at Public Practice make her harder to classify.


‘There is much more to be done to raise the quality of the everyday, public places – places that belong to the many, not the few, and that are not just a tool for gentrification’

Established in 2017, Public Practice’s motto is ‘Building the skills local authorities need, to shape the places we deserve’. It acts as a recruiter, inducting people from architectural careers in the private sector into the public sector through a learning and development programme. So far it has placed 296 experts in 78 local authorities around the country and recently received a £1 million grant from the Department for Levelling Up to trial the scheme across every local authority in England.

Agrawal came to the UK when she was 16, after her parents, an engineer and a computer scientist, saved up to send the sisters to chool in London – Pooja to Westminster. Arriving in the capital, Agrawal recalls feeling free, because she could move around the city so easily in comparison with Mumbai, where it often took an hour by car to get anywhere. But the school’s prestige and exclusivity felt uncomfortable, and Agrawal felt like an outsider. Nevertheless, the school opened doors and, after a last-minute decision to study architecture, Agrawal secured a place at Cambridge University.

Source:Laura Pannack

Pooja Agrawal

Cambridge was socially and intellectually liberating and Agrawal found a group of close friends, including the man she married, Artefact co-founder Daniel Marmot. For the first time, she says, she was taught to think critically, and her mind opened to philosophy, theory and history. ‘I found my voice through architecture,’ she says, while admitting: ‘I always struggled with design.’

At Cambridge, Agrawal knew she wanted to move away from ‘elitist’ architecture towards work on public spaces. She moved to New York for a year, where she worked for Gordon Kipping on some projects in Harlem, then back to the UK, where she became one of the first employees at urban design and public realm practice Publica. She completed her final two years at the Bartlett.

‘I don’t know how much I want to talk about the Bartlett,’ she says. The ‘toxic’ culture she encountered there encouraged, in her view, unhealthy competition between peers, and Agrawal experienced a deterioration in her own mental health and that of fellow students. Her tutors, Níall McLaughlin, Yeoryia Manolopoulou and Michiko Sumi, were redeeming influences. ‘They pushed me to become a confident designer,’ she says.


Source:Benoît Grogan-Avignon

Public Practice Spring 2023 cohort

Throughout school and university, the sense of being an outsider made Agrawal insecure, she says. But when she graduated and started working, she soon found she could turn it into a strength. ‘Seeing things from an outsider’s perspective,’ she says, ‘I can occupy a space on the edge of different sectors: from property, to planning and architecture. It means I can find opportunities to make changes and relationships across those sectors.’ Newly qualified, Agrawal started at We Made That, delivering regeneration projects for public sector clients including the Greater London Authority. ‘I was interested that the client was the City of London,’ she says, ‘and that they were setting the placemaking agenda.’ She appreciated the scale of impact available through working for the GLA, as well as the opportunity to ‘manage architects’. She knew a couple of people, in Eleanor Fawcett and Finn Williams, who had made the leap from architecture to the public sector, and Agrawal decided to do the same.

‘I loved working at the GLA,’ she recalls, and being part of a ‘big machine’ where people came from all sorts of backgrounds. ‘I realised I was driven by making places that are equitable and vibrant,’ she says. ‘I was never driven by making buildings.’ However, she still used many skills she learnt in her architectural education, to do with solving spatial problems and communicating complex ideas to everyone from Network Rail workers to community groups. Communication is critical to making great places, she says: ‘The hardest and also the most rewarding part of working for local government is to build a shared vision for a place.’

Her colleague Finn Williams first came up with the idea for Teach First for Planning, an approach that sought to answer the question: how do we bring more people with a built environment background into the public sector? From initial conversations, they set up a business case. Local government’s most acute and enduring challenge, Agrawal says, ‘is attracting the right people with the right skills’. Meanwhile, for architects specifically (though Public Practice recruits anyone with a built environment background), a public sector career offers the chance to ‘make a real difference … to be in the room when public policy around buildings is made’.

Source:Theo Wood

Pooja Agrawal

Williams and Agrawal started Public Practice while at the GLA, with funding from the authority, plus legal and financial advice. They also received funding from the private sector, and launched their first programme with a cohort of 18. Today, Public Practice runs two cohorts a year, each with around 30 participants. Local authorities pay their salaries and a fee to Public Practice to defray costs. The organisation has seen a 90 per cent retention rate in local authorities among its first four cohorts.

However, there is more work to do, Agrawal says, particularly around ‘pushing the boundaries’ of who does what. She believes we should see the skills of an architect, estate surveyor and a planner as multidisciplinary, and work to bring people ‘out of their silos to work across sectors’. Likewise, she wants to see the divide between public and private sectors dissolve, and concedes ‘there is much more to be done on that’.

Separately, Agrawal has worked on subverting the lack of diversity and racial inequality that blights the architectural profession. It began as a WhatsApp conversation between Agrawal and her GLA colleague Joseph Henry, when the two would laugh at the blunders and tactless remarks around race made in meetings. When George Floyd was killed in the USA in 2020 and firms and institutions posted a black screen on their social media accounts for Blackout Tuesday, the pair cracked: ‘This gesture rang a little hollow.’ In what would become a book called Sound Advice, they wrote it was: ‘too easy, too obvious, too temporary’.

They started a social media campaign of their own, reaching out to people of colour in the profession and giving them a platform to share their ‘sound advice’ with the titans of the industry – tips including ‘you are getting old; make space for young people’ and ‘don’t like looting? You will hate the British Museum’. It was designed to be humorous, provocative and to vent frustration. Agrawal says the project has brought together a community of young people who see the platform as support and that ultimately this community itself is a better outcome than trying to change people’s minds or views.

What’s next for Agrawal and Public Practice? ‘There is much more to be done to raise the quality of the everyday, public places,’ she says – places that belong to the many, not the few, and that are ‘not just a tool for gentrification’. The method is through the public sector, where there is power, money and influence to convene and deliver that vision. Agrawal says she has ‘the privilege of being in a role where I can make meaningful change on the ground’. Perhaps you will join her.

Flora Neville is a journalist and writer on architecture

Previous AJ100 Contribution to the Profession Award winners

2022 Neil Pinder
2021 Peter Barber
2020 Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara
2019 Sadie Morgan
2018 David Adjaye
2017 Alison Brooks
2016 Zaha Hadid
2015 Thomas Heatherwick
2014 Julia Peyton-Jones
2013 Richard Rogers

2012 David Chipperfield

2011 Michael Hopkins

2010 Laura Lee

2009 Ken Livingstone

AJ100 Contribution to the Profession is sponsored by

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