Prof. Neema Kudva, city and regional planning, says perspective has been a reoccurring theme in her identity, research and teaching.
Kudva recalled a formative exercise as a student at the School of Architecture in Ahmedabad, India, where her professor asked the class to reproduce a mural in the building by imagining it in space.
“We had to reproduce it [the mural] at different scales, using different mediums … and we had to do whatever we wanted to tell the story we wanted to tell,” she said.
Kudva said she was fascinated by the wide range of results her classmates produced.
“When we put up our work for [critiques], you suddenly saw 30 different ways of making space, with 30 different kinds of influences,” she said. “The different ways in which we harnessed what was important to us, the different ways in which we expressed it … it was a stunning exercise.”
This exercise with perspective resonated with Kudva throughout her personal and professional life. Born in a small town on the southwestern coast of India, she spent much of her childhood moving to different places throughout the country, and has lived in over 11 cities.
“Every time we moved to these different towns, the state would change, the language would change, the cuisine, the smell, the trees — everything would change,” Kudva said.
“My family came from the south, and the language that we spoke at home was hardly ever spoken by anybody else, so there was always this sort of awareness of being different and somewhat outside,” she said. “My house smelled different, we spoke differently, we ate differently.”
She called it a transformative experience to live abroad in Zurich, Switzerland and Seville, Spain for a year.
“I am an upper caste, upper class, educated woman in India … and the minute I took that airplane, I became brown, oppressed, downtrodden, poor, someone who became invisible on a railway platform,” she said. “I think that experience in Spain … and traveling across Europe really brought up questions of construction of identity, and political construction.”
Upon returning from her trip, Kudva decided she wanted to expand her academic knowledge beyond the world of architecture.
After starting an architecture practice with her cousin in Bangalore — a two-woman practice, which was very unusual at the time — Kudva realized her professional aspirations were changing.
“I had to work in certain ways that I was not always comfortable with, and so I decided to start to study planning, which to me seemed like a field that bridged both what I liked about architecture and all these other interests that had developed while I was working on my thesis,” she said.
At Cornell, Kudva directs the International Studies in Planning program and is a leader for the Nilgiris Field Learning Center — a program that fosters a partnership with a community in southern India.
“We’re collaborating across disciplines, we’re collaborating across the academy and a world of practice, we’re collaborating across cultures, we’re collaborating across experience, across language,” she said.
Nilgiris allows both Cornell students and indigenous community members to develop research skills by exploring issues of land use, infrastructure, health, and community wellness, according to the University.
“It’s really allowed me to articulate a pedagogical structure, a curriculum that speaks to all these many many concerns … trying to understand various ways in which organizational practices and constructed difference shapes our participation in public life, and in the making of the place and space,” she said.
Kudva’s research focuses on how organizational practices shape planning, particularly in small cities, and on institutional structures for equitable development at the local level.
“Whether I’m looking at Fremont, California and trying to understand how city government there responded to becoming the first majority-minority city, or I’m looking at small cities in the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu where I now work to see how people generate waste and recycle, I’m always looking at how these different communities and people create certain practices in order to do so,” she said.
Kudva explained that she examines the way power and privilege influence planning, and how constructed social context difference plays a role in the way people build communities.
“There are questions of gender, and caste, and ethnicity, and race, and how they then shape these practices which in turn shape the places we live in and make,” she said.
Kudva explained that “all our theorizing is based on large cities — Chicago, Paris, Los Angeles, Mumbai, Calcutta,” she said.
“I’ve lived there, but I’ve also lived in … all these places that are tiny, tiny, tiny — where the bulk of people actually live. They don’t live in these big places, but our imaginations are captured by big things.”