Stories of Young Urbanists: Meet Manali Sheth

21.01.2022, Nayla Saniour

Manali Sheth initially studied Ethnomusicology in California and traveled to Turkey and India before shifting her career through an urban planning crash course. She received her Master’s in Urban Planning from the University of Washington in Seattle while doing research at the Urban Freight Lab. Manali then joined Arup as a logistics consultant, and she is now working at the Shared-Use Mobility Center in Chicago. # ROOTS IN MUSIC I grew up in a household of musicians in the Bay Area, California. When I was younger I trained in Indian classical music with an instrument called the santoor, which is said to have originated in modern day Turkey and Iran. I applied to [UCLA]( for their [Bachelor of Arts in Ethnomusicology]( with the intention to study Middle Eastern music and travel to this region to understand the roots of the instrument. I also studied Turkish at UCLA so that I could set my foot in a new country. Through a study abroad program, I spent six months in Delhi and six others in Ankara. It was my brother who encouraged me to go to India. We visited with the family when we were kids, but I had never been there alone. India has a rich history as a cosmopolitan place, where people from all around the world came to trade and explore new opportunities. In Delhi I was able to connect with my South Asian roots and become fluent in Hindi. My study abroad experience in Ankara was drastically different from Delhi. The university was nestled on a huge property with trees and we had little need to leave, but we explored the city and Turkey over the weekends. {{Pic1: Delhi. Photo by Manali Sheth.}} # FREEDOM THROUGH PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION Both in India and Turkey I relied heavily on public transportation, as neither I nor my friends had access to our own vehicles. In Turkey there is no need for transportation apps, it works very intuitively: you just step out onto the main street and a dolmus (shared taxi) will be there to scoop you up. There are many other ways to move around: the public bus, the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), the ferry, the funicular and the tram. I was more independent and mobile than I had ever been in California, where I grew up in a suburb with high dependence on cars. Through my study abroad programs, I learned that having independence in mobility is key to living a quality life. #MOVING FROM THE U.S. TO ISTANBUL AND BACK After my graduation, I went back to Turkey and lived in Istanbul, which I had fallen in love with during my first stay in Turkey. I was lucky to be generously hosted by my friend and her family while I searched for a job that was aligned with my interests. I wanted to use my Ethnomusicology degree to work in the arts, culture, and education industry in Istanbul. However, after trying for several months, this plan did not work out, so I came up with a new plan. As a young person starting my career, it was challenging to tell my own authentic story and market my skills to land a dream job. I eventually moved to Washington D.C. for an internship in international relations to explore a new city and a new industry. Looking back, both decisions of moving to Istanbul and leaving it changed my life – it was all meant to happen. {{Pic2: Istanbul. Photo by Manali Sheth.}} # RETURNING TO A UNIVERSITY After the internship in Washington D.C. I got a job at the [University of California Berkeley]( at the [Institute for South Asian Studies]( My role was to facilitate public events and run administrative work. It felt great to be part of such a top public institution, be surrounded by very eager people, and have access to informative events that sparked discussions with others and within myself. I would encourage anyone who is doing a bit of soul searching to try a job at a university and get immersed into a learning environment. # LEARNING URBAN PLANNING BY AUDITING COURSES While I was working on UC Berkeley's campus, I audited urban planning courses and was able to explore this field through the renowned faculty at the [City and Regional Planning Department]( Through these courses, I read about urban planning and reflected on the urban experience I had while I was studying abroad in Delhi and Ankara. I attended every class, did all the readings, and was also able to participate in a class project. # GROWING INTEREST IN URBAN LOGISTICS One day I attended a guest lecture by [Anne Goodchild]( at UC Berkeley. She presented research about online shopping, how to optimize deliveries in neighborhoods, and the environmental trade-offs of different modes of delivering goods. Attending this lecture was very impactful and I seriously began considering going back to school to get a masters in urban planning. I realized that placemaking is intricately linked to resources and goods. People are attracted to cities that have good amenities, and to bring good amenities to a city it is critical to have strong urban logistics in place. {{Pic3: Observing urban freight and waste management during a conference trip to Venice. Photo by Manali Sheth.}} # A CRASH COURSE FOR A CAREER SHIFT By the time I was working at UC Berkeley, I had already worked for a few years after my Bachelor’s and I was ready to move onto graduate school. I joined UC Berkeley’s [[IN]City program](, a six week crash course on urban planning for people interested in a career shift, to make sure it was something I really liked. I learned the jargon, did a lot of academic readings, and worked on some real-life projects. As I was living in the Bay Area with large urban planning firms such as AECOM, Arup and SOM, I started cold calling people at these offices to ask if I could shadow them to see what it really was like to work as an urban planner. One senior professional was generous enough to accept and he took me through his day, answered my questions and showed me how his team worked. {{Pic4: [IN]City program presentation. Photo of Manali Sheth.}} # A FORTUITOUS CALL TO CHOOSE A MASTER’S DEGREE After the urban planning crash course, I applied to urban planning programs across North America. The night before making the final decision on which university to attend, I had a chance to connect with Anne Goodchild, whom I had met at the lecture at UC Berkeley. I had previously emailed her about being interested in her research, and our call was very fortuitous: we connected really well and after our conversation I decided to join the [University of Washington]( in Seattle as a student in [Urban Planning]( and also became a researcher at the [Urban Freight Lab]( # RESEARCHING AT THE URBAN FREIGHT LAB I spent most of my time conducting research about curb space management and the impact that rising freight has on our infrastructure and other transportation modes. I would spend weekends in downtown Seattle observing truck movements to get a sense of what challenges they were facing. It was a true joy to work on the projects with everyone at the Urban Freight Lab and I think it was the highlight of my time at the university. {{Pic5: International Urban Freight Conference in Long Beach, California. Photo of Manali Sheth.}} # ENTERING THE INDUSTRY AS AN URBAN PLANNER One of my favorite things about being a researcher at the Urban Freight Lab was being able to tell a story and present our research at conferences. One year, I found myself at the Transportation Research Board conference where thousands of people in the transportation industry meet in Washington DC. There, I bumped into someone working at Arup, a consulting firm that I had recently applied to, and expressed my interest to them about joining the logistics team. This personal encounter helped accelerate the process: that very week I got an interview and I joined Arup after my graduation. There, I learned a lot about the design principles for loading docks and waste enclosure rooms, and how consulting as a business model works. # REFLECTING AND CREATING During the pandemic, I had some time to reflect on what I wanted to do next. I knew that I was craving to do creative work and to connect with people. So I created [my own website]( in which I write about all things urbanism, design, waste, and more. I also publish interviews I conduct with people in the field. This past year, I joined the [Shared-Use Mobility Center](, a nonprofit in Chicago that is working to replace car-centric transportation with people-focused shared mobility to fight climate change, promote equity, and strengthen community. My work is now exactly what I hoped for, a big picture approach to solving transportation challenges. My day-to-day work is very creative: I get to do a lot of content creation, communication, and UX/UI design as well. Today I feel like I am back on a path that feels authentic to myself. I am excited to be where I am and to see what comes next!