Maximum City: Engaging Youth in Urban Sustainability

Maximum City: Engaging Youth in Urban Sustainability

Last month, I had the opportunity – and the privilege – to participate in the Maximum City program in Toronto.  This program is the brainchild of Josh Fullan, a high school humanities and languages teacher at the University of Toronto Schools, my alma mater.  Last year, Josh ran a pilot program that brought a small group of students from two Toronto-area high schools together with a team of experts and professionals in a wide range of urban disciplines, including architecture, design, planning, transit, municipal governance, community development, and communications.  Over the course of  a week, the students listened to lectures and took part in design exercises and field trips in a series of modules that exposed them to new ideas and key concepts in urban development:  Built CityPlanned CityEngaged CityTransit CityLiveable CityPedestrian CityGoverned City.  The week culminated in a neighbourhood visioning study and design charrette.  The outcome?  A small but thoroughly engaged group of young people with a deeper appreciation of the complexity of urban issues and solutions.

When I read about the program last summer, I thought it sounded terrific – the kind of thing you wish they had when you were a kid!  But I couldn’t help noticing there didn’t appear to be any content explicitly dealing with urban sustainability.  So I called Josh to tell him so.  A few lunches and many emails later, I found myself on a flight to Toronto in the middle of July, busily finalizing my notes for the introductory module to this year’s program.  The theme of Maximum City 2012?  Sustainability.

On the first day of the program, I delivered a crash course on sustainability.  After explaining the traditional “three-legged stool” model of sustainable development, I had the students brainstorm all of the things they could think of in an urban setting that were necessary for sustainability, and I was delighted when their answers moved beyond the environmental, social, and economic realm to take in concepts of governance, co-operation, change, and compromise.  Here’s a sample of what they were thinking…

We talked about interdependence and interconnection and integration.  And I asked them to look for these relationships and linkages in all of the other modules, which spanned two weeks and covered even more topics than last year’s pilot program (Park CitySmart City). Once again, the program culminated in a design challenge, which this year had teams of students redesigning an underperforming city block with a focus on sustainability.  As a resource person and member of the critique panel, I had the opportunity to watch the students move through mapping the neighbourhood, identifying challenges and opportunities, and conceptualizing and actualizing solutions.

I was totally floored – and inspired – by the creativity and capacity for synthesis and problem solving shown by these students.  Their quick grasp of key concepts is demonstrated by these ‘mental maps’ one group created to explain the elements and linkages included in their neighbourhood vision.

In a matter of hours, the students’ ideas transformed an underused and unwelcoming city block into a hub of social interaction, economic diversity, and improved environmental performance, with improved connection to the surrounding community and a more productive use of urban space.

The Maximum City program is driven by Josh’s vision that young people can be key contributors to understanding and shaping our rapidly urbanizing world.  Indeed, as I witnessed the students getting more and more engaged through the program, I was reminded that youth have their own ways of seeing, interpreting, and interacting with the urban landscape, and there is great value and potential opportunity in integrating those perspectives into the dialogue of city-building.  Sustainable development is, after all, about meeting the needs of the next generation as much as our own.

If you are interested in urban sustainability – and if you live, work, or play in a city, how can you not be? – I encourage you to check out this program, maybe start a similar program in your own city, or find a way to engage youth around issues of sustainable development.  You’ll likely come away inspired, encouraged, and motivated, as I have been.


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Celesa Horvath is a consultant with some 20 years of experience in environmental assessment, regulatory affairs, corporate responsibility, and sustainability.  She's been involved in projects across Canada and internationally, including China and the Middle East, for clients in the energy, mining, infrastructure, transportation, and government sectors, providing both strategic advice and practical implementation support.  She strives for transformational corporate responsibility wherever possible. To learn more about the author or to view her other work, click here.