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Anuj Gupta on the power of the ‘common denominator’ public space

June 21, 2019 Category: FeaturedMediumPeople
Anuj Gupta was just named a Public Spaces Fellow by the Knight Foundation, and what that means is he’ll have $150,000 to do with … well, whatever he wants.

That’s because the flexible funding awarded to each of the fellows is intended to give them the freedom to “unleash their creativity.”

Identified through a national call for nominations that launched in February (which could include self-nominations), Gupta and six other fellows — including Commissioner of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Kathryn Ott Lovell — were selected by Knight staff, in consultation with experts and leaders in the field, from a field of more than 2,000 nominees.

Gupta and Lovell, along with Robert Hammond, Walter Hood, Eric Klinenberg, Chelina Odbert and Erin Salazar were named as fellows at the inaugural Knight Public Spaces Forum June 19 in Philadelphia.

“These rare people see something different when they look at streets, parks and sidewalks — they see a vision of how our communities could look, feel and be different,” said Sam Gill, Knight Foundation vice president for communities and impact, when announcing the fellows. “We hope this recognition accelerates their visionary work and invites others to challenge the way we think about and use public space.”

Gupta, the general manager of Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, was recognized by the Knight Foundation as having “brought new and innovative distribution and engagement models to the market. In particular, he has spearheaded engagement initiatives focused on connecting cultures and bringing people of different backgrounds together around food.”

Generocity caught up with Gupta June 20 for a brief Q&A.

Generocity: In what way will you use the $150,000 you are to receive from Knight?

Gupta: I really am not sure yet. One idea I have had is to see if I can extend the model we have developed through our Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers series and use it to bring children of different backgrounds throughout Philadelphia together. Children essentially learn what we teach them and, if they learn through food, that they have far more in common with one another than they may otherwise believe, that can create a foundation for how they approach community relationships as adults.

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This is very high level thinking however, and it is just one idea that I am kicking around.

Fortunately, Knight is providing us with a great deal of latitude and time to figure out how best to utilize the funding.

Generocity: Do you have a “public spaces” philosophy? When you think of your past/present/future projects, what is your primary concern and/or area of exploration?

Gupta: I believe an effective public space is one that utilizes the power of what I refer to as a “common denominator.” We increasingly have few of these. Common denominators are experiences that are accessible and shared irrespective of one’s background, culture, income, etc.

The Reading Terminal Market is an example of how powerful a common denominator — in our case it is food — can be. We are arguably the most diverse public space in Philadelphia and one of the nation’s most diverse public spaces, with everyone using it in the same way, at the same time, because people still share a need/desire/interest in quality food.

The Market offers such a wide breadth of fresh and prepared food that it appeals to folks of seemingly every background.  The forum then permits a level of interaction, between strangers and across boundaries, that simply does not happen in other places.

Generocity: How do you define community and how does that inform your work?

I define community very broadly — essentially it is the group of stakeholders (in a project, in a decision, etc.) that would feel the change/impact, etc. of any particular decision or project.

This framework guides my work as I strive to ensure that I have listened as much as possible to the community before I make any major decision.

At the Market for example, the merchants are an essential part of our community. Rarely do I make any significant decision on behalf of the Market without first consulting with the merchants and gaining their feedback.

Generocity: Did you nominate yourself or were you nominated by someone? Were you surprised?

Gupta: I was nominated by Liz Dow who is the executive director of Leadership Philadelphia. I am very grateful to her for considering my name/work to propose for this. And yes — ultimately I was surprised.

There are amazing men and women across the nation who are doing phenomenal work in creating the types of public spaces that everyone should have access to. And through this fellowship, I now have the opportunity to learn from six of the best!

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