For most of us, the common city street is a convenience — it’s how we get to work or school or the store. For a city planner, the way streets are laid out throughout town can be an art form.
Terre Haute’s new city planner, Maitri Desai, got her masters in community planning at the University of Cincinnati after getting her undergraduate degree in architecture. Her masters thesis concerned the “complete streets” policy, and it earned the attention of city engineer Marcus Maurer.
Complete streets is a holistic approach to planning, designing, building, employing and maintaining streets. It ensures safe access for all who need to use them — from motorists to pedestrians, from bicyclists to transit riders of all ages and abilities.
“I was always passionate about how the building is connected to the site and the site is connected to the road, and the road is connected to the city,” said Desai, who started her new job at the beginning of the new year. “Urban design and planning is always the field I truly enjoy.”
She added, “The street is not just used to go from point A to point B. Streets can cater to more than that. There is more potential — it could be the place to showcase history.
“Streets play a vital role, just for the visual connectivity,” she continued. “As you’re passing from a certain neighborhood, you feel the personality of the neighborhood.”
“We got carried away talking about planning stuff and I could tell she was really excited about it,” Maurer recalled.
“One thing we looked at with her complete streets background — what’s going to help us to plan more complete street projects, find ways to tie things together better,” he added. “I think she’s going to play a big role in helping us to move forward on projects that will benefit us on multiple levels.”
“We didn’t have that type of expertise on staff,” Mayor Duke Bennett added. “She brings a different skill set to the table that we’re excited about. Being able to accomplish a lot of goals with this position is what we’re trying to do.
“Good things are ahead here as we plan out the future of the community,” he continued. “She’s on board now and hit the ground running.”
Bennett said Desai’s focus will initially be on transportation, parks and trails.
Terre Haute hasn’t had an official city planner for years. Pat Martin left the position in 2016 to serve as transportation planner in Bloomington.
“It’s a tough spot to fill,” Maurer said. “We were happy to find somebody here in our community who possessed the experience and education needed to move forward with that.”
Desai moved to Terre Haute in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, to be closer to family. (Her cousin, Amy Sanghavi, also began her new job as executive director of the Human Relations Commission the first week of 2023.) She has spent the time since learning about Terre Haute.
“Terre Haute is a wonderful, family-oriented community and it has a lot of potential,” Desai said. “I do want to understand the community, the people and their needs. I’m here to contribute my design skill and knowledge for all the planning the city has.”
Maurer has always received tips from the community regarding the city’s needs, and he and Desai anticipate hearing more from residents.
“What does the community need?” Desai said. “We’re here to provide what they need and what’s best for them. It’s a process. I’m just looking forward to working with this engineering department, the mayor and the community.”