Meet our Summer 2022 Interns!
Simran Arora and Alex Cardelle couldn’t likely hail from more different backgrounds – Simran is an aspiring urban designer from Mumbai, while Alex has worked in local government near his South Florida hometown. Both found their way to West Philadelphia for an invaluable summer internship at U3 Advisors that deepened their skill set, broadened their understanding of how institutions and anchors shape the public realm, and accelerated their professions in real estate, development, and design.
Questions and responses have been edited for length and clarity.
What were your respective paths to interning at U3 Advisors?
I’m actually from Mumbai. That’s where I studied architecture and after that, I decided to go into urban design. I didn’t really like making smaller spaces and I knew that by working in more urban spaces, I could have a greater impact on people. I was working in an urban design studio in Mumbai, but I wanted to go more into the stages that come before design stuff: “Why is this plaza here?” or “Why do we need a park here?” That’s what I really wanted to study and that’s how I chose to come to the University of Pennsylvania; I’m doing my masters of City Planning here.
There are a range of concentrations [within that program], and I chose to concentrate on transportation planning. I was doing a lot of GIS and data analysis, because that’s what I really like and when I was looking for internships, that’s what I was looking for. When I was interviewing with U3 Advisors, I told them that I wanted the skills that I learned here to not necessarily be only in the transportation planning realm. I want to learn more.
I am originally from Miami. Since I was a kid, I’ve always been interested in the urban environment, and specifically, how different functions of different actors make the cities around us appear. As an undergrad, I dabbled a little bit in urban planning, economics and political science – I was really trying to find a way to turn those into a career. As I got a little older, I realized there were all these distinct silos: you can either choose to work in government, or you can choose to work in real estate development, or you can go straight into heavy analytics, but nothing really seemed to be working with synergy.
As I got older and got more experience working in city government, I realized that as much as I appreciated the work that the public sector does, I was really intrigued with the way that a lot of the big development happening in cities around the country was usually led by either hospitals or universities. They’re the ones that are really creating dynamic urban spaces. It was interesting to me that there was no clear place to go to learn how to do that. Through my research for graduate school, I learned about U3 Advisors and I was very intrigued by the kind of work that they do. I love seeing how U3 leverages all these institutional actors, and specifically, how they try to figure out the secret sauce behind innovation districts and innovation centers. It really encapsulates all the different facets of what makes planning interesting to me.
What have you been working on during your internships?
My main project is for a large, urban public school district, where we’re helping them reimagine their surplus property and figure out how it may be realigned and repurposed to serve other community or business needs. That’s definitely been a very all-encompassing project: I’ve helped do a little bit of real estate analysis, mostly the mapping and GIS, which has been fascinating to figure out just how many layers of data you need to learn about a place.
The other project I’m working on in another city is assisting a consortium of hospitals and higher education institutions figure out how to deal with issues of security and safety. I’ve been doing research broadly about crime and perceptions of safety, and then understanding different ways that we can engage non-police interventions to improve safety for people who work and live in the district. That’s just been a very cursory study, but it’s fascinating how it’s developing very quickly.
Most of the time, I’ve been working on a project for a major tech company that’s headquartered on the east coast. They want to see how their city is changing and specifically, how it has changed in the past few decades. They want to come up with strategies to retain employees, bring millennials to work, and support community development, so I’m doing a lot of demographic analysis, I’m making maps, and I’m trying to see how their neighborhood and the entire city has evolved over the past 10 years. A lot of my work is grabbing data and analyzing it .
What are some specific things you’ve learned during your time here? Has your time at U3 set you on a different course?
Because I come from a very design-oriented background, this is a completely new industry for me. I think it’s changed my trajectory in a way because this internship showed me all that you could do once you graduate from a planning program – it does not have to be traditional planning. That was great for me! Now I have a lot of things to think about.
[The internship] has actually both accelerated and deepened my interest in the field. I guess the overall main question for me when I started was, can universities, hospitals, and innovation districts be used to leverage both better development and more equitable outcomes? And the answer at U3 is a resounding yes. It’s fantastic to know that and now I’m thinking about ways in which I can use this as my last year of graduate school study – how I can apply it to different contexts or different conversations that we’ll be having in graduate school. I’ve been impressed with the range of tools that we use at U3 – already, I’ve worked with our programming language, I’ve done a little bit of Python work, it’s definitely deepened my ArcGIS skills. I’ve also learned some of the more qualitative aspects of how we measure places. Some of the best conversations have been something as simple as, why don’t you look at re-roofing permitting data? That seems initially benign, but it turns out that the fact that communities are investing in brand new roofs tends to mean that they see the future of their properties as containing value; therefore, it’s a way of measuring better economic success or potential for more economic development in those neighborhoods. Learning how to measure that and make those qualitative connections has been really enlightening.
If a colleague or younger peer were to ask you, what would you tell them about the culture of the firm and the people you’ve worked with? What about the office and their West Philly location?
I think one of the best things for me was that I did not have to follow a particular formula or template for my projects. I was able to use my own skills that have been developed in my previous employment and grad school to do my work. I don’t feel restricted and that’s a good thing for an internship.
I was taken aback by the intentionality of the internship program here at U3. Even though it is a small firm, we have had very specific contacts with our firm mentor, Maurie [Smith, U3 Advisors Vice President and Capacity Building practice area lead], who’s been very intentional to do things like schedule us to meet one-on-one with most of the folks in the company. That includes everyone from managing directors all the way down to associates, just to have at least thirty minutes of engaged time with them, and then hopefully setting up further meetings to explore our interests. That’s been a big win for me.
I was a little bit nervous about joining a consulting firm or an advisory service kind of place, but I found folks here are extremely inquisitive. They’re engaged and professional, but at the same time, it feels approachable and like I’m in a learning environment. I can approach anyone who has a higher level skill set to help me with the coding or the ArcGIS questions I have.
My last favorite piece [about the internship], honestly, is the #articles channel on Slack that we have. It’s just fun to know that other people are thinking about the same things you’re thinking about in terms of broad patterns of national development, or what to do about housing, or what to do about better income inequality, or even quirky things like the origins of place names and how they came to be. It’s just fantastic to be in a family of things, the same stuff.
The one-on-ones we had with everyone were really helpful, especially because everyone has different stories of how they got to U3 and they have different skill sets and interests. I think that that’s why the entire convivial environment that Alex mentioned works so well: because everyone is so different.
My last comment would be about Philadelphia. It’s my first time living here and I just love Philly. U3’s offices are in the very space that they helped form and design before U3 even existed. I think that Philadelphia serves as our playground – like the place to help improve or help connect. You can be part of it when you come to the U3 office. I really have seen the power that institutions can do here and spending a summer in Philly is a fantastic way to get that appreciation.