Amit Price Patel, AICP, AIA — Urban Designer, Planner, Architect
Amit Price Patel, AICP, AIA
I started off in architecture school at Washington University in St. Louis. The first few years were a bit difficult for me. I did not really care about making cool modernist designs for single-family houses on remote hillsides. I almost switched to a geology major, but two things kept me going: some professors who emphasized the community building role of design and the discovery of something called city planning. The confluence of design with social equity, economics, the natural environment, and history was so much more interesting to me that designing individual buildings.
After Wash U and several internships at St. Louis architecture firms, including a community design center, I decided to go to Johannesburg, South Africa, to work for a professor’s firm. This was just a few years after apartheid ended and Mandela came into power. It was fascinating to learn about the culture and history of South Africa and in real time see the transformation of the cities from racially segregated enclaves into a messy more integrated mix of urbanism.
The use of highways, railways, and zoning to separate races during the apartheid era [in South Africa] was clearly evident, sadly had many parallels to the U.S., and showed the power of planning when used to propagate evil.
While there, I was fortunate to work on a design competition for the nation’s first apartheid museum in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Based on the idea of “memory boxes” and inspired by an industrial aesthetic to commemorate the anti-apartheid labor union movement, the project has been a catalyst for a cultural/arts district.
The Architecture-Planning Interrelationship
Are you weighing careers in architecture or urban planning? In the video below, Amit Price Patel shares his experience and offers insights into how planners and architects approach problem-solving.
Comparing Planning and Urban Design
Can you expand on the differences between urban planning and urban design?
Urban design is the bridge between the higher scale thinking of urban planning and the specific details and synthesis of making a great place. Urban designers translate planning concepts and goals into implementable plans and work with diverse teams of public agencies, architects, landscape architects, engineers, artists, developers, and community groups to craft cities and neighborhoods.
For example, on SITELAB’s Pier 70 project, we worked with the developer, the Port of San Francisco, and a team of design and technical consultants to develop a mixed-use waterfront project that preserves and reuses historic industrial buildings and is stitched together by a series of varied public spaces. SITELAB helped build the story of Pier 70 by balancing community desires, development goals, and city policies and set the stage for individual designers to collaboratively create a great new place for San Francisco.
Looking forward into the future, what do you think will be important for planners to know?
We have to be much more nimble and collaborative. As we face big civilizational challenges like climate change and social inequality, we have to be responsive, but also have to be forward-thinking leaders. We have the imagination, ability, and responsibility to see beyond the immediate political and economic constraints and plan for the long term public good.
It’s also important to know that end of the planning process, the ultimate goals are to make places that are livable, allow people to work and learn, and support human connections.
Back in St. Louis, I began in earnest to work on affordable housing and decided to pursue this as a focus in graduate school. Without having ever been to Berkeley, I moved to California in 1999 and worked at a geodesic dome company making pre-fab components. Berkeley is very much a "choose your own adventure" school, and I decided to focus my time on urban design with an even split between planning and architecture. While at Cal, I received the Branner Traveling Fellowship, which allowed me to travel around the world to study the regeneration of modernist high-rise social housing. I visited projects in Brazil, New York and Boston, Europe and Asia and learned that high-rise buildings can work for any type of household, but — unlike the modernist vision of towers in the park — a mix of uses, a mix of building scale and a robust transportation system have to be in place to make them work.
In many parts of the world, high-rise housing is just the norm, whereas it's been vilified in the U.S. either as warehouses for the poor or condos for the rich. I think it is an important tool in densifying and creating sustainable cities, when thoughtfully designed and integrated into a neighborhood.
After graduate school, I worked in Boston for a few years doing urban design on HOPE VI public housing redevelopment projects and mixed-use master plans. I was interested in getting my architecture license, so shifted full time to designing buildings, including campus buildings and housing.
In my spare time, I worked on design competitions and won an affordable housing design competition for a site along San Francisco’s Octavia Boulevard, formerly an elevated freeway. That win helped me to move back to the Bay Area and work for David Baker Architects, a firm known for its innovative infill housing design. During my time there, I worked on several affordable and market-rate projects, including housing for formerly homeless individuals and families, and low-income seniors. I was the Urban Design Lead at the firm at DBA and used my knowledge of the building process to inform master planning for mixed-use and mixed-income neighborhoods.
I moved to SITELAB urban studio a few years ago to focus on urban design and have been immersed in really interesting and compelling projects ranging from a new resilient mixed-income neighborhood in the wildfire-affected area of Santa Rosa to a placemaking study for an arts organization, to an incubator innovation district for a local university.
Planning is about crafting a long-term vision for a place and I think there are a few essential characteristics for excellent planners:
- Constant curiosity and asking “what if”
- Being able to see multiple sides of any project but having a strong enough vision and compelling narrative that can bring others along
- Understanding and navigating power and being able to speak in simple direct terms that anyone can understand
How important is it for planners to understand the work of “neighboring “fields” (e.g., architecture, landscape architecture, urban design)?
These distinctions between fields are somewhat arbitrary and irrelevant. Yes, because of the complexity (and liability) of project implementation, specialist knowledge and responsibility is required, but planners need to understand the neighboring professions as much as possible to grasp critical decision drivers and to effectively collaborate or push back when needed.
It’s important to partner with these specialists with actual building experience to test and provide constructive criticism on planning policy ideas.
Equally important, planners need to clearly convey their goals and motivations to architects, landscape architects, and urban designers so they understand the big picture, long-term city building principles that extend beyond individual projects.
As a principal at SITELAB, every day is completely different and requires a lot of strategic thinking.
My primary role in our small firm is to help guide the design vision for the firm and projects, but also to run the business with my fellow principals and make sure there is a steady supply of new projects coming in that aligns with our mission. We try to give opportunities for staff to develop and grow, and mentorship is a big part our work.
We consider ourselves “radical pragmatists” and have to continually balance innovative imagination with hardheaded practicalities to get things done.
The best surprise so far has been that design is important, but it’s just one small part of how I can make change. When I was in Planning and Architecture school, I thought my days would be filled with doing challenging design work. As I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve found that design is the by far the easiest part of my job and one of many things I do on a daily basis.
The ability to communicate and deeply listen is the most important and useful skill any professional can have, and this holds especially true for planners, who have simultaneous responsibilities to both lead and represent the will of the people.
I’ve also learned that simplicity has power. Ideas don’t really have a lot of value if you can’t create a compelling, comprehensible story that everyone can understand and hopefully support.
I’ve had nothing but good fortune in my career so there’s not really much I would change, except spending more time exploring off-the-wall ideas with my professional colleagues. Also, traveling is the best education and I always wish I could make more time to see and learn from other places.
You’ve taken on projects from every corner of the design spectrum: campus planning, public projects, private development, senior housing and more. Do you have a favorite area to work in?
I’m interested in all of it. Each type of project and place has its fascinating complexities and charms. The hardest projects, when sometimes everything seems to go wrong, often end up being my favorites. But, my most rewarding projects over the years have been ones that have helped provide homes for people, whether through urban design or architecture.
Housing is a human right, the elemental basic building block of any city and it’s extremely gratifying to set the stage for thousands of new units being built or seeing low-income seniors or formerly homeless families move into safe, new affordable homes that build stability and hope in their lives.
Be a nimble generalist. Find some great mentors. Learn to draw fast. Work at a variety of places in different cities on a large project spectrum before you settle on an area of focus. Always be learning and at the very least (and sometimes a lot), work outside of your comfort zone to really grow.
Washington University in St. Louis, B.Arch
University of California, Berkeley, M.Arch, M.City Planning (Urban Design concentration)
First planning job:
Urban Designer at Goody Clancy in Boston
I read a lot about history and find that it really helps put things in perspective. Any issue or challenge I may be experiencing often pales in comparison with what others have had to go through. That gives me both a great sense of responsibility in helping contribute to the continuum of civilization and also a deep sense of humility.
I am currently reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals biography of Lincoln. While city planning was not his area of expertise, Lincoln’s ability to build consensus and bring along a broad coalition without losing sight of the larger humanistic goals is truly inspirational.
My favorite tools have always been paper and pencil, the most direct and efficient way to convey a concept and iterate quickly. Computers are great for information but too slow for thinking, in my estimation.
What do you do outside of work that helps you be successful?
I’m fortunate to live and work in the bustling Bay Area and get a chance to walk around on city streets every day. This allows me to be immersed in urbanity and carefully observe how a city functions.
I am always trying to learn from how people might use a public space, or how power is expressed through architecture, or the best size for a block, or the eclectic mix of uses in a neighborhood.
We as planners often forget that at the end of the day the only thing that matters is not the policy or how much something costs, but the experience of a place and whether people love it or not. Those are the only things that endure and create memories.
Any Influential People?
My parents. I think of them often when I am doing my work. They came to Toronto as poor rural immigrants from India and were able to find an affordable apartment in a high-rise building and blue-collar jobs that allowed them to improve their quality of life, as well as provide for me, my sister, and extended family.
Similarly, I moved from a small town to cities to both find educational and economic opportunities and to create a diverse community of friends and colleagues. Cities have been really good to me, so I feel a commitment to help make them as welcoming and open as possible to others too.