Students in the Spotlight: Michelle Zhang

June 8, 2021 by School of Cities Staff

"Students in the Spotlight" is a conversation series with members of the SofC Urban Leadership Fellowship and Academy program

Michelle Zhang's headshot

  • What are your research and engagement interests?

For my whole life, I’ve found cities and their places beautiful. I grew up between different cities and love exploring new neighbourhoods, an experience that has made me very interested in placemaking and the emotional vocabulary of space. Through my undergraduate studies in Urban Studies and Peace, Conflict and Justice, I’ve been able to frame the highly local placemaking processes as occurring within rapidly changing global processes like climate change, migration, and the knowledge economy. Over the course of the pandemic I’ve merged global and local into a new-found interest in digital placemaking and the role of innovation in urban identities. So here I am now, traveling around Google Earth with my friends in other time zones.

  • What has motivated your interests and journey? How do you hope to make a difference?

    I distinctly remember my grade 9 geography teacher introducing the class to urban planning. Our final assignment for the unit was to create an aerial map of the city of our dreams and colour code for land use. I remember I filled the pages with circles and probably used all the pencil crayons I owned. The final product definitely looked more like one of those meditative colouring book designs than an actual city. Regardless, this was the moment I started putting my love for cities into words. Like with that first mapping assignment, I’m always dreaming about what our future cities could look like. Building colourful, meaningful, and equitable places is what drives me.

  • What’s the latest project you have been working on that you would like to share with the SofC audiences?

    Over the next few months with the support of the School of Cities Urban Leadership Fellowship, I will be gathering stories and artwork from young people around the world representing their experiences navigating physical and virtual spaces throughout the pandemic. At the end of the project, I will compile a multimedia storybook presenting all these thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and share it with the public. Just like the cities around us, the final form and flow of the storybook will be determined by the participants and their submissions. My hope is that this storybook can be both a space for communities to gather and share, as well as a document that preserves and presents stories our cities can grow from.

  • As a student, researcher and or activist, what have you learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and its global impact? How do you envision post-pandemic recovery? What do you hope for?

    It’s so strange to think that I went through my final year of undergrad, several volunteer and work experiences, and countless events entirely online. Likewise, I’ve made new friends who I’ve never met in person and missed old friends leaving the city or country for good. By the same token, I’m able to call friends from all over the world in different time zones with a touch of a button. This simultaneous shrinking and expanding of space and time has been discombobulating, however, it gives me so much hope that we can find more common ground and rethink how we define our communities. I’m excited to be entering my Master of Planning degree at UofT at just this moment.

  • Please share with us your experiences at the SofC. How do you think being a member of the SofC Urban Leadership Fellowship and Academy Program has contributed to your scholarship and added to your experience as a student?

    I love that we have voices in the SofC Urban Leadership Fellowship and Academy Program from all corners of campus and intersecting between all the disciplines you could think of! I’m inspired by all the different ways everyone is approaching urban research and engagement, from art to data to politics. Everyone is genuinely supportive and eager to learn from each other. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s been an adjustment moving towards online communities over the past year, but it’s been great not only to share research and project tips, but also to know that I’m part of a larger group of talented people all trying to figure out this virtual thing together.

  •   Any final words or message?

    Email me if you’re interested in my project, or just want to chat more! :)


Student Bio:

Michelle is an undergraduate student specializing in Urban Studies, majoring in Peace, Conflict and Justice, and minoring in Human Geography. She is interested in the placemaking, belonging, and urban innovation. She developed a keen interest in comparative smart and global city development while on exchange to Singapore, which she investigated further through the Asian Institute’s Insights Through Asia Challenge. She is currently developing a digitally activated urban consultation tool capable of bridging the gap between communities and decision makers. An active student leader, she takes her work in community development beyond academia and into the lives of people around her.