Behind the Mic: Get to Know Inhabit Podcast Co-hosts

The SURROUND Podcast Network is home to the leading shows from design’s greatest storytellers. Three of those storytellers are Erika Eitland, Eunice Wong, and Lauren Neefe, the team behind Inhabit, a podcast from Perkins&Will. We spoke to co-hosts Erika and Eunice about why podcasting is so relevant to our industry, where they find unexpected inspiration, and bold predictions for the next 10 years. 

Erika Eitland and Eunice Wong Talk Podcasting and Inclusive Design

Erika Eitland
Erika Eitland.
Eunice Wong
Eunice Wong.

SURROUND: Can you share the story behind Inhabit?

Erika Eitland: It was winter 2020 and everyone was like: “Let’s plan a webinar series!” And lots of us were like: “Nobody’s got time for that.” A lot of us also felt we needed to be as accessible as possible and not just overwhelm people with graphs and diagrams and data, which puts pressure on us to develop PowerPoints and visuals. I thought that it was going to be easier to make a podcast, so I reached out to Monica Kumar. We started brainstorming and we came up with this idea. Then we reached out to Anna Wissler, who had just been investigating the feasibility of doing a Perkins&Will podcast and had already reached out to Lauren Neefe, and the little scrappy quartet was formed.

Eunice Wong: I think already by 2020, Erika and I had formed this virtual bond in the confines of our own separate living rooms, where we were already spending hours, sometimes with a cocktail, nerding out endlessly. And we did not know where to stop. The show feels like an extension of our friendship and our nerdiness, a safe space where we can talk about our frustrations with design practices and our aspirations for what design can do. When I rotated in as co-host, it felt natural. We were speaking to each other still—but on a broader platform.

Want to learn more about the latest design narratives? Listen to Inhabit podcast.

SURROUND: Who is your show for, and what do you hope they walk away thinking/knowing/feeling after listening?

EE: In my mind the audience is people who traditionally haven’t been the faces of design and architecture. That means culturally, it means gender, it means professionally from disciplines like public health. It’s an invitation into a very elite club of predominantly white men with pencil drawings and to think about how we use data, research, humor, and our sense of self to totally transform and create places that we all want to live in. It’s an invitation to stop designing for the average and jump into creating for the whole distribution of experiences.

EW: I always want to answer that the show is for everyone. Like in the current series, you don’t have to be ‘in the know’ to have a definition of public space. You don’t need to be a planner to know what a sign in a public space is. My partner and I were talking with some of our friends who listen to the show and Zahra Ebrahim (in Series 3, Episode 1) points that out about signage. They all said: “Now we can’t unsee any sign that tells you not to do something.” This is what we want—breaking down the language and the numbers and history so that we view, experience, perceive, and just understand our built environments a bit better.

SURROUND: The design world is so visual—how does that translate in audio? Why are podcasts valuable to our industry?

EE: My hot take is that when we think that design is purely visual, we are limiting the impact of design. Minimalism and the “universal” are just what they sound like: reductive, singular. It’s one reason that health gets VE’d out of our schools. Design is aural landscapes and the way it makes you feel [is linked to] temperature and physiological and psychological impacts. We are here to tap into all of those pieces. We’re about going maximal.

EW: Right, the visual tends to privilege one perspective. Podcasting is a bit more inclusive because it counteracts systemic silencing. We can amplify our own and others’ voices, so the fact that voices like mine and Erika’s get to speak our love languages of design, research, and policy helps counteract the disappearance of people like us—with voices like ours who care about people the way we try to—into the one averaged-out perspective.

EE: We have hyperfocused on the visual and visual aesthetics and turned away from other very direct and clear impacts on human bodies and relationships, but we’re here to call that sh*t out. The data and the research are telling us the story of these impacts now. Through qualitative and quantitative evidence, we do have enough to make a case as for the significance. If we don’t, then we continue to let the modernists with their pencils tell us what’s real.

Inhabit Podcast team
The Inhabit team, recording on location in Toronto with special guests Suresh Doss and Sophie Guo.

SURROUND: What’s something new you’ve learned through your podcast?

EE: The process. It keeps pointing out that design is so much more than aesthetics. It is auditory, olfactory, haptic … Now we know we have to take the time to bring people into the whole experience of Sophie’s restaurant, Dream of Yunnan (Series 3, Episode 3). It’s its own lesson in decentering the visual in the design world, which extends to Lauren’s thoughtfulness in the transcript—being inclusive by calling out the music and all the sound layers in the episode.

EW: We use storytelling all the time in urban design, but podcasting is a new medium. Through the power of audio and music, there are all these other ways to capture the experiences we’re nerding out on with numbers and mapping and data. Yeah, and we have had to learn to slow down. At every beat in the show, we have to make sure we give listeners enough context and aren’t just talking at people. Inhabit is about inviting people into the design process, and podcasting has taught us to be really intentional, beat by beat, which is an approach we can take into design for the built environment.

EE: As a scientist trained in a “discipline,” I want to say Inhabit is also us pushing the definition of research. Maybe we don’t lead with the “literature review.” Maybe we lead with actually being really careful observers of the world we live in and show the process of embedding ourselves in the research. Then the intersection of rigor and creativity prepares us for moments like touring Border X Brewing with David Favela at the National Planning Conference in San Diego. Eunice and I were presenting together on public health and public space in spring 2021. We were in the midst of talking about what our first series together would be. And suddenly, our research collaboration and the podcast dropped us down in David’s tour. The show gave us license to say to ourselves: “Oh, alright. This can be a prologue to a longer series.” This is our summer jam. Let’s do it.

SURROUND: Can you tell us about a guest or topic that inspired or surprised you?

EE and EW: David Favela.

EE: We met David and were like: “Here’s a brave owner—not a capital D designer but you are also thinking about design: square footage, adjacency, anchor tenants …”

EW: What we learned from David did inform how we approached the current series on Toronto. We decided we were not just going to talk to planners and designers. We invited all kinds of other voices into what it takes to make a city—including a food writer.

SURROUND: Where do you find ideas and inspiration for new episodes?

EE: Talking to Eunice.

EW: Talking to Erika.

SURROUND: What is your number 1 tip for an aspiring podcaster?

EE: Build a great team. You don’t want to do it alone. You need a team you can trust. And a great team means you have multiple perspectives, constantly deepening the story you’re trying to tell. We aren’t just reproducing our biases here.

EW: Be open to learn. We’re not just here to be experts. I learn something from Erika every episode, so being open to that, sharing facts and our lived experiences. To Erika’s point, you need a safe space to do that, where we can tell our own stories in our own voices without filtering it or forcing it to sound a certain way. Inhabit is all very natural because no one is feeding us these words.

SURROUND: What are your favorite podcasts (both in and out of the A&D world)?

EE: Lovett or Leave It. It satisfies my nerdy and goofy sides. They had the rat czar on in the last episode and it was nice. And BD Wong, a huge film and Broadway star. It’s the full scope of human experience—personal and political.

EW: Podcast but Outside. It’s these two comedians that just sit outside (in public space!) and interview strangers on the street. Hilarious, ridiculous, spontaneous—and sometimes strangers just really surprise you with their life stories.

Three people posing in a building courtyard
The Inhabit podcast team.
People walking down a city street
Recording live in winter.

SURROUND: We know Inhabit is one part of your current work – what else are you up to? 

EE: Oh boy. We are working on a little bit of everything. In the Human Experience Lab we maintain an online resource called Healthy K-12 by Design, which increases designers’ access to public health data, methods, and research—especially in our K-12 spaces. The ASID Foundation has funded us to develop a public health tool, PRECEDE (Public Repository to Engage Community and Enhance Design Equity), that educates, quantifies, and strategizes to meet community health. On an individual scale, we are supporting the design of the Worcester Fire Station and William E. Carter School.

EW: In the Toronto studio, the urban design team is just trying to walk the talk about context-specific, culturally appropriate design solutions for different neighborhoods across North America. And across all different scales of planning, too, like a new planning and design framework for the Jane Finch neighborhood in Toronto—that’s where the Corner Commons project from the parking-lots episode is; an updated zoning code to tackle sea-level rise in Miami Beach; and a full Downtown plan for Winnipeg that’s aiming to bring people back into their vibrant urban core. Outside of client work, Erika and I are pretty inseparable—I’m also part of the Human Experience Lab and working on PRECEDE. I’m doing research on the Feminist City with my colleague Vinaya Mani—we can talk your ear off about how even the operations of snow clearing on sidewalks has sexist implications!

SURROUND: Looking back, what are your earliest memories of architecture and design that led you to your current career?

EE: My career didn’t start in design or architecture. It started with the now cliche statistic: We spend 90% of our time indoors.

EW: Haha, I spent 99% of my time indoors growing up. I was a LEGO kid (total design cliche). And a Making-Websites kid. And a Tear-Apart-a-Barbie-and-Put-Her-Back-Together-Again kid.

SURROUND: Name an unexpected source of design inspiration and how you translate that spark into your work.

EE: Is it lame to say just other humans? Cinnabon chairs. Being a witness to what’s happening right now.

EW: I’m on the same page. I love people-watching. It’s like playing that game at a bar where you try to figure out what people’s relationships are…Are they siblings? Colleagues? Long-lost lovers?

SURROUND: What’s one bold design prediction you’d make for the next 10 years?

EE: Maximalism and cultural acceptance. Color, vibrancy, and pattern. Decolonialize what is beautiful in design. Technology only takes us so far. Design has to take us the rest of the way. Rebooting innovation.

Eunice: Totally. Polka dots are coming back.

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