MEET THE CIVITOTS: STUTI GANATRA

Today we’re kicking off a new series of Civithoughts posts called “Meet the Civitots!” We’re proud of the work we do and the big ideas that inspire us to work hard. But we like to think we’re a pretty fun and interesting group of people, too, so in this series we’ll introduce you to the people behind our projects. Maybe you’ll agree. 

Stuti Ganatra is one of our newest Civitots and yet she’s already making an impact. Coming to Denver from Mumbai via New York City and San Francisco, the interactions between people and cities are deeply embedded into her psyche, so Stuti thinks big, and is very thoughtful about the details of the way people and places affect each other. 

Meet Stuti:

WHAT HAS MOTIVATED YOUR CAREER PATH, AND YOUR PERSONAL APPROACH TO DESIGN?
From a young age, I knew I wanted to be a designer. In school we learn about many individual designers—“starchitects”—so that was the image I had in my head. I imagined that I’d design private residences and make a name for myself like they do. But working at the start of my career for an urban design firm, paired with my personal experiences growing up in Mumbai and witnessing the power of monsoons, helped me realize that we designers can have a bigger, more positive impact on the world when we work together rather than alone. 

After studying architecture and working in Mumbai for a couple years, I was keen to study in New York City where I could build on my first-hand knowledge of the challenges and opportunities of density, transit and climate change; so that led me to Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP). The combination of my experiences and education has shaped my design approach into one that is very sensitive to the context of each place. I love this learning process and applying it to design.

WHAT LED YOU TO CIVITAS?
After graduation, I moved across the U.S. to work in San Francisco, and yet was motivated by the pandemic to shift my attention to second- and third-tier cities. Civitas was on my list of firms that I admired and would love to work for. I was inspired by the diverse mix of impactful projects, the big ideas behind them, as well as the location in Denver—a different kind of city from those I’ve lived in before, and one that’s experiencing tremendous growth. When I saw a job opening at Civitas, I jumped at the chance. Since this all took place during the pandemic, I interviewed and was hired virtually, and I initially worked remote from San Francisco, but I’ve recently moved to Denver and am enjoying the chance to find my way around a new city. I really appreciate Civitas’ culture of learning, wandering, reading and exploring. It’s helping me continue to hone my design approach—not only sensitive to the context of each place but informed by diverse knowledge and experiences from around the world.

TELL US ABOUT A PROJECT YOU’RE CURRENTLY WORKING ON, AND WHY IT INTERESTS YOU.
One of the projects I’m currently working on is the Jones Center Campus in Springdale, Arkansas—a 52-acre public space with an existing community center at its core. We intend for our vision plan to activate the whole (currently underutilized) campus and create a place where people can gather, connect, play, and feel a sense of belonging. After working virtually on the project for a few months, I recently visited Springdale in person. It was so nice to see this site and feel the amazing opportunity it presents. I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that I’m in a new place trying to find my own sense of community. I immediately appreciated how important a place like the Jones Center is—how meaningful and necessary it is for Springdale’s diverse populations to have a place to find themselves, and find each other.

WHAT IS YOUR PROUDEST ACCOMPLISHMENT SO FAR?
As a member of Columbia’s class of 2020, I’m proud that I was able to push through the challenges of the pandemic to finish my final project and graduate, to simply survive in this atmosphere, and continue to move my career forward.

I’m also proud of my undergraduate thesis, which focused on the notion of finding and creating places where people can pause within big, bustling cities. Mumbai’s population is bigger than New York City, but its area is smaller, so I’m used to these extremely dense environments that are always “on.” It can be so hard to find time and space to be alone, but I feel that people really need that intangible third place that isn’t work, isn’t home, and isn’t focused on shopping, dining, or really “doing” much of anything. It’s a place to escape, even just for a moment, and is open to everyone but intended to help people find alone time. After my research and reflecting on my personal experience, I realized that time on the train commuting can often be that pause for most people in Mumbai. It can feel like a para space, even when you’re surrounded by so many other people. So, in the end, I reimagined an old cinema house in the heart of Mumbai as a station that was a part of the new underground metro line to create that kind of space. 

WHAT ACCOMPLISHMENTS DO YOU ASPIRE TO REACH IN THE FUTURE?
I hope to play a role in conservation. As cities become bigger and encroach on natural habitats, we have to figure out how we design responsibly and still address the need for density. Not building new places is not an option. But building at the cost of ecology is also not an option. The work that we do can change the minds of our clients, and more importantly, change individual behaviors and commercial operations. I am motivated to play a role in creating this kind of change.

WHAT DO YOU ENJOY DOING OUTSIDE OF WORK?
I loved dancing when I was younger and have recently resumed dancing in Denver. I also enjoy cooking to unwind. I like to experiment with new recipes but there’s also a traditional Indian recipe for a spinach bread called palak paratha that my mom would make back home in Mumbai, and I am obsessed with making it often to try to match her version. So far, I haven’t been able to replicate it exactly, but I will keep trying.

I also enjoy volunteering and am currently working with one of my former GSAPP professors for Asia Initiatives, through which we are reaching out to children—especially girls—in India who are learning English.

The Hindu new year, Diwali, is coming up very soon, and is my favorite time of year. It’s a time of celebration with prayer and food, especially sweets that we use to wish each other a prosperous new year. There’s also a tradition of using powdered rice to create colorful patterns, called Rangoli, on the floor in order to welcome the Goddess of wealth into our homes. This might be a fun tradition to introduce to my colleagues at Civitas during Diwali this year.

HOW WOULD OTHERS DESCRIBE YOU?
My friends and colleagues would probably tell you that I’m often quiet in the beginning but then very talkative as I get more comfortable with people and places. I tend to listen and observe before I act. But people will also tell you that I’m always up for trying something new, and I think my willingness to move to new places and seek new experiences is evidence of that.

WHAT’S THE MOST INTERESTING THING ON YOUR DESK RIGHT NOW?
My desk is typically filled with paper printouts and sketches on rolls of tracing paper, but the most interesting thing lately has been an Etch A Sketch borrowed from Craig Vickers. Its old-fashioned screen is a nice diversion from the computer.

WHAT’S THE ONE THING YOU NEVER LEAVE HOME WITHOUT?
I can’t go anywhere without Google Maps. I don’t drive (never have), nor do I ride a bike, so I love walking in the city to learn and explore and I rely on Google to help me understand where I am and where I’m going. When I first moved to Denver a few months ago, I felt a little challenged by the fact that it’s the smallest city I’ve lived in. It’s more spread out, which makes parts of it feel less accessible to me. But I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by the balanced lifestyle that so many Denverites embrace. They’re just as serious about getting outside and exploring as they are about working, and I didn’t feel that in New York and San Francisco. It makes me excited to get out and explore even more. 

Meet the whole Civitots crew here, and reach out!

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