Meet the D3 Staff: Noah Urban

Noah joined D3 as a Project Associate in July 2013. He currently serves as a Senior Analyst and Project Lead. Prior to coming to D3, he spent two and a half years at Wayne State University working as a Graduate Research Assistant and Research Technician while completing his Master’s Degree in Urban Planning. At D3, Noah writes proposals, manages projects, provides mapping and GIS support, coordinates the analytical team, and develops both spatial and non-spatial datasets.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Southfield and spent the first five years of my life in Lathrup Village. At that point, our family moved to West Bloomfield, and I lived there until college, as well as during the summers and while I was in graduate school.

What is your degree in? Why did you choose that degree?

My undergraduate degree is in International Relations and Comparative Cultures and Politics from Michigan State University. After realizing that there were not many jobs in that field in Michigan, I decided to do something in a field that had a marginally more conscionable reputation, kicking off a process that would culminate in my Master’s in Urban Planning at Wayne State. Initially, I wanted to pursue something in transportation planning. While I started accumulating GIS work at Wayne, I fell into the D3 situation by repeatedly bothering Erica (our Executive Director) with data requests over the course of my studies. It’s been a great fit ever since!

Tell us something about yourself that would surprise us.

Like many people, I got a job after junior year of high school, but that job was a bit uncommon – I provided private cello lessons to elementary and middle school students. From then through my college career, I tutored a group of between one and five students every other week. I did this for 7 years and it’s still the longest job I’ve ever held.

What is your history with Detroit?

I’ve always lived in Southeast Michigan, but until high school, I had a very stereotypical suburban attitude about Detroit; I looked at the city through jaded eyes and with no small amount of cynicism. When I was younger (and much more ignorant of things like urban planning and reality), I even once commented that they should just raze Downtown Detroit and move everything to the New Center (with, of course, no actual strategy for how that would work). Everything changed once I actually visited the city (a novel concept, I know). I started to fall in love with this beautiful, flawed, and ultimately transcendent metropolis that defies any sort of categorization. Since that point in high school, I’ve been a bit Detroit-obsessed – press-ganging my friends into Detroit discovery tours, taking long walks on the river, spending an unusually high number of Saturdays at the Belle Isle Aquarium, and, most importantly, indulging my gastronomic tastes at the city’s fantastic array of well-known and not-so-well-known restaurants.

What did you do before working at D3?

I’ve spent my entire post-graduate career at D3. Before that, I was a research assistant at Wayne State, working on mostly transportation- and housing-related projects for several professors in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. I also did a brief internship at the Detroit Department of Transportation working on the Woodward Light Rail initiative. And of course, there were the cello lessons.

What do you like about working at D3? How do you think the work you are doing benefits the city/region?

I love the open, collaborative atmosphere, and the fact that no matter their role or how busy they might be, everyone’s always available and willing to bounce ideas or provide advice. Coming from a policy background, I also really appreciate the opportunity to develop data that can help lead to smarter policies that are supported by facts instead of ideology. Numbers in particular are often misused in policy conversations, so it’s wonderful to be at an organization that cares about representing information accurately and honestly.

What are your favorite types of data?

I like any kind of data – the cleaner and more comprehensive, the better! It’s hard to pick a favorite – almost like picking between children – but I’ve always had a soft spot for the first dataset I ever processed in any analytical job: the EPA’s National Air Toxics Assessment. It provides insanely detailed modeling of health risks from air pollutants at a neighborhood level.

Who or what inspired you to take the path to Detroit, data, or both?

I’ve always been strangely interested in data, and there are plenty of varied forces that combined (along with no small amount of luck) to put me in the position I’m in now. That being said, two stand out in particular. First is my older sister, who started exposing me to Detroit once she moved into the city while I was in high school (and finally convinced me that pursuing urban planning with my last name wouldn’t lead to too much awkwardness). I also credit a Study Abroad trip I took to Thailand and Laos while at Michigan State, an experience that fueled my interest in urban planning and economic development. It’s pretty challenging not to get sucked into a field of study when you’re experiencing it through the lens of economic infrastructure and local tourist establishments on Thailand’s fantasy coast.