Student Spotlight: Michael Snidal
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"Planning school exposes you to people who are equally passionate about urban issues, but offer their own unique backgrounds and visions to approaching them."

Michael Snidal is a doctoral student in urban planning at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) at Columbia University. His research focuses on segregation, demographic shifts, and place-based investment in weak market cities and inner-city neighborhoods. His dissertation will examine HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods program in Woodlawn, Chicago and Treme, New Orleans. Before returning to New York City to pursue his doctorate, Michael served as the director of neighborhood development for Baltimore City’s economic development agency, worked as a community organizing director, and served on President Obama’s field campaign in Northern Virginia.

Michael also owns and manages his own real estate practice in Baltimore and is currently the Chairman of the Board of Directors for the community development nonprofit, Citizens Planning and Housing Association, Inc. His work has been featured in popular news sources such as the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post, and among other awards, he received a Fulbright-Hays -Group fellowship to study advanced Vietnamese in Saigon and the Charles Abrams thesis award for a master’s thesis committed to social justice. He received his BA from the University of Michigan and MS from Columbia University.

Here’s more from our conversation with Michael:

Q; Which ACSP member school do you attend?
A: Columbia University

Q: What specialty are you studying? 
A: Housing policy, segregation, neighborhood change, and place-based investment 

Q: Why did you select your particular specialty
A: I grew up in the diverse yet exclusive neighborhood of Hyde Park, Chicago. My research is a reflection and extension of my curiosities around urban infrastructures and inequalities that date to my early days of living and walking on the south side. 

Q: Do you have a current job or internship in your specialty?
A: I own and manage my own real estate practice in Baltimore City.

Q: Is there a particular class or professor that has made a great impact on you? How so? 
A: One of the first panning courses I ever took was on redevelopment policy with Dr. Robert Beauregard. The readings were a classic tale of history on repeat; how the same debates and lines of thought that drive economic development policy (insert: urban planning, urban design, housing policy, etc.) are reiterations of the past and yet with little ode to it.

Q: What's your favorite project you’ve worked on, in class or in practice? 
A: At the Baltimore Development Corporation, Baltimore City’s economic development arm, I proposed and was tasked with crafting a tax credit to alleviate the food desert crisis in East and West Baltimore. The project gave me a detailed understanding of the institutional and ideological challenges that maintain food deserts, pushed my real estate finance to a level I thought not possible, and was a textbook on urban politics, city limits, and the trials and tribulations of running a successful grocery store.

The legislation took two years to pass and was a shell of my original proposal. But the tax credit moved the needle on bringing more groceries to forgotten neighborhoods and set a precedent for how government can and should play a role in securing healthy food as a basic right for all its residents. 

Q: What future goals do you have in your field? 
A: I want to tip-toe that elusive line of academia meets practice, to use research to solve real planning problems and boots on the ground to inform better planning research. 

Big dreams? At some point, I’d like to take a break from research and run a major agency in a major city.

Q: How has planning school changed your daily habits? 
A: Days are never the same. Sometimes I find myself glued to a computer downloading census data (and talking to myself) with no sense of time and others conducting interviews on a bike path for countless hours in the rain.

Planning school exposes you to people who are equally passionate about urban issues, but offer their own unique backgrounds and visions to approaching them. I think this diversity of people and ideas makes for an open-mind when it comes to the daily routine.

Q: What did you want to be when you were growing up?
A: I love walking. When I was young my only job criteria was being able to get there by foot!

Q: How many different cities have you lived in and which was your favorite?
A: Seven. Hanoi or Baltimore—too close to call and for completely different reasons.

Q: If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
A: Tehran. I love narrow alleys (and want to see them before they are bulldozed), and a very wise man once presented the city to me as an atypical planning case study--given Iran’s unique experience with globalization and modernity.

Q: What is the title of the last book you read? What did you learn from it?
A: I just finished Rising Dragon, Bill Hayton’s pop journalism account of Vietnam after economic liberalization in the mid-80s (Doi Moi). He gives a detailed account of communist party decisions that unintentionally gave rise to the street activity, commerce, narrow shop houses, and even the (delicious) street food culture that defines Hanoi today.

Q: What’s your favorite color and how would you creatively incorporate it into a planning project?
A: My favorite color is red--the same color, unfortunately, that spread through the entire American mortgage industry to exclude black people from building wealth in this country. As a best practice, I think it should be incorporated into every single planning project and exercise.

Red should be used to draw lines where discrimination needs to be addressed. Planning projects would be inundated in red.

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The Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning promotes education, research, service and outreach in the United States and throughout the world by seeking to:

  • recognize diverse needs and interests in planning;
  • improve and enhance the accreditation process, and;
  • strengthen the role of planning education in colleges and universities through publications, conferences, and community engagement;
  • extend planning beyond the classroom into the world of practice.

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