Profiles in design: Urban planner Margaret Newman
February 1, 2017
Starchitects aside, we hear little about the individuals whose cumulative decisions shape the built environment. To peer behind the curtain of today’s design field, we’re asking engineers, architects, policymakers, and others about their personal experiences and opinions.
Margaret Newman joined Arup’s planning department after running her own architecture practice, serving as chief of staff to Janette Sadik-Khan at New York City’s Department of Transportation, and leading the Municipal Art Society, a prominent urban advocacy organization. I caught up with Margaret to learn more about her path to urban planning and the varied but essential role that creativity plays in her life.
You studied painting in school. Did you envision yourself spending your career in art? How did you end up in urban planning?
Getting into art was easy. When I was really young I always liked to make things, to draw. I did art in school, but also a lot of math and science. My father was a physicist and I thought I might want to be premed in college, but then I had this art teacher my senior year who was amazing and all that changed.
I went to Bennington College, which was a place that took making art very seriously. It was fabulous — a really intense environment for actually thinking about what it means to be an artist and what it means to have a creative life.
After Bennington I ended up with a scholarship to go to graduate school in Albuquerque at the University of New Mexico. I was studying painting, but I seemed drawn to people who were in architecture. I was doing these wall-sized geometric paintings that dealt with three-dimensional forms. It started to occur to me that I was more interested in the object-ness of the paintings and the cohesion of the room than the paintings themselves.
So for the second time in my life I changed direction, although not as drastically this time. I applied to architecture school, actually just using my painting portfolio. Luckily they saw potential there, and I got in.
I’m married to an architect, and he was one of those people who knew he wanted to be an architect when he was eight years old. Me? I don’t know exactly how I got there. We had a practice together, and when I left architecture for public policy work and planning with the Department of Transportation, he kept it. I think he was a bit mystified by that transition. He was actually very mystified by the move from painting into architecture as well. That took him years to get his head around — he thought he was with an artist. You can’t predict where your sense of creativity will take you.
What does creativity mean to you today?
I find that it’s possible to make almost any kind of activity a creative act. It really depends on what you bring to the table and how open you are to thinking about things in a different way.
For instance, when I worked with Janette Sadik-Khan during her term as commissioner of the Department of Transportation under Bloomberg, I think I contributed skills that no one would have anticipated would be useful. If I had applied for that job, I never would have gotten it in a million years. On paper I didn’t have the credentials. But I’d worked with Janette before in other capacities, and she knew my abilities. She also knew what she needed. She had a very open mind about how to progress things. She wanted me to do what I was good at doing: managing projects and people, but also bringing a design eye to things that you wouldn’t normally think of as design opportunities. So there was a real opportunity for creativity working for the government.
You’ve made a lot of transitions in your life, both physically moving to different places and starting out in new fields. What qualities do you think have helped you navigate them?
One of the things I’ve always been very curious about is the cultural landscape of a given place, and paying attention to that has made it a lot easier for me to make some of these changes. I think people sometimes underestimate the importance of paying attention to the broader context, trying to understand how others think and why they do what they do. People can get very caught up in their own ideas and perceptions. But there’s so much information around us and it makes life so much easier to navigate when you can say, “I get that. I get what makes that person who they are, I get what makes them tick.”
I think that was as true for me in elementary school as it is now, in my professional life. My father was in the aerospace industry; he was literally a rocket scientist. He did some government work, but he also worked for companies like GE and Hughes. So I moved around a lot as a child, and the appreciation for different people and places, for different perspectives, that I had then has continued.
In my senior year of Bennington College I proposed this pilgrimage through Europe, mostly to Italy, to look at major paintings and frescos. I really was very interested in early Italian painting, and a lot of it is in these little churches and towns, so for several months I lived there and immersed myself in different local cultures. Then I lived in Mexico for almost a year, and later in the Southwest, which is an area and culture that I have a lot of affection for.
I’ve specifically traveled to places where there’s a tie between the physical relationship of the site and the larger universe. That sounds dumb and fairly obvious, but take Stonehenge. I just visited there recently, which was a bit of a pilgrimage for me. I’ve always been interested in the idea of finding your way using stars and the alignment of planets. Some of my paintings were named after star configurations and discoveries. They were part of the narrative tradition that you can find throughout human history: as different scientific discoveries are made, people tell stories around them. But for ancient cultures, there’s no written record of these stories, so all you have is the physical evidence of sites. I find that fascinating.
And now I live in New York. My feeling about New York is that living here is like living in the whole world because you can find any piece of the world somewhere in New York in a very genuine way. So I haven’t moved physically since I moved to New York, but I’ve moved professionally, which feeds that desire to try something new and explore. I’ve always tried to feed that willingness to just jump in, even when I don’t really know where something is going to lead. Not all things play out the way you think, and that’s really exciting.
But the important thing for me is that you can’t do anything half-assed. You have to commit, whether it’s to a place or a job or the creative process. You have to put yourself fully into things.
Do you have a philosophy of design?
I wouldn’t say I have a philosophy of design, but the notion that what you make should be of good quality is really important. And getting to a high-quality experience often comes down to process.
It’s hard to put this into words, but I’m going to try. My experience of working with the City has given me what I can only describe as a four-dimensional understanding of New York. It’s not just how it’s physically laid out — it’s the entire space that the city is contained in; it’s the layout of buildings, the geography of rivers, the underground, and the airspace.
But it only becomes whole when you add in the people, which is an element you can’t control or contain. And so there are a lot of unknowns, a lot of frustrations. There always seem to be more and more people to answer to and provide for; there are big changes and big challenges and limited resources.
But with any solution, there is an element of time. For me, it’s never an instant “Oh, we should do this” — that’s rarely workable. You have to work at it and get to that point of extracting quality. It’s an iterative process where you test something and you move toward a big solution.