In conversation with Pooja Agrawal

By Harriet Thorpe

“Cities are organisms, they’re always evolving and changing. You don’t want to pause a city, change is a positive thing.”

For polymath Pooja Agrawal, studying architecture equipped her with a breadth of skills central to her mission to create a more equal London. “You’re learning how to design at the largest scale possible,” she says. Yet her experience was coupled with frustration for an industry lacking in diversity and opportunities for making positive change. To truly scale her impact, she had to start by redesigning the system, enabling more diverse people passionate about social change into positions of influence – moves that made her scoop awards like AJ100 Contribution to the Profession, and now, the Design Innovation Medal.

Agrawal grew up in Mumbai, moved to London aged 16 and studied architecture at the University of Cambridge and the Bartlett, University of London. Interested in urban design and place-making, she gained experience at Publica and We Made That, before moving to the public sector to work at Homes England and the Greater London Authority (GLA). She dove into housing strategy, delivery of a community centre, policy on diversity and inclusion, and the Good Growth by Design programme, later to influence the Mayor’s 50 Design Advocates.

Working in places such as Kilburn, Ealing and Croydon, she began to understand the complexity of inequality in London and how the public sector could support positive change. It needed diverse people with design skill sets and ambitions for good; simultaneously, with the state of the industry, many jobs in architecture were unappealing to these types of people. Why not channel these disillusioned architects into the public sector?

Enter Public Practice, an organisation co-founded by Agrawal and Finn Williams in 2017. The ‘Teach First’- style learning programme equips two annual cohorts of 30 architects with the practical skills, confidence and network required to accelerate change in the public sector. They’ve placed almost 300 people to date and are going national this year with two new programmes in the north and southeast.

Agrawal is proud of the culture she and her team at Public Practice have created; it’s inclusive, transparent, collaborative and energetic. “It was about designing a system or a structure that enabled people to enter the public sector. It was a new way of thinking. But it was not new in how we were using the creative and analytical skills of architecture to design a wider framework,” she says.

This kind of dynamic thinking was at the core of Sound Advice, an activist platform tackling inclusivity in the design industry, established with former GLA colleague Joseph Henry. In the midst of lockdown, it communicated through graphics, music, an ‘online visual podcast’ and a sold-out book on big issues such as housing and the workplace. It captured frustration and channelled it into positive energy – which it has sustained, in a network of talented people who continue to harness that energy.

Networks and systems are Agrawal’s most powerful structures for change. She is the architect of many – thinking, designing and guiding, then supporting and trusting. Watching Public Practice cohorts rise in seniority with pride, as a trustee, mentor, teacher and as a fellow at the Institute of Innovation at Public Purpose at UCL and the Royal Society of Architects.

“Cities are organisms, they’re always evolving and changing,” she says. “You don’t want to pause a city, change is a positive thing. The worry is when change is causing consequences of extreme inequality. I hope London continues to be a very vibrant, diverse place where everyone has the right to own parts of the city.”