TEXT Nathan Storring
Over the past five years, Toronto has seen a boom in youth education programs focusing on architecture, planning and urbanism. Thanks to a handful of urban practitioners and educators, numerous initiatives have sprung up that teach young people creative problem-solving skills through the city around them.
“When I first moved to the city in 2006, I remember feeling like an anomaly as I attempted to speak to the importance of design in education,” says Zahra Ebrahim, principal and founder at design consultancy archiTEXT. Now, she observes, a handful of educators “have built on the momentum of critical conversations happening around the future of Toronto to implement these programs.” As urban debates infiltrate the mainstream, Ebrahim has addressed a growing hunger among youth (and their parents) for tools to deal with the challenges they see in the media and in their daily lives.
Most impressive is archiTEXT’s partnership with the East Scarborough Storefront on Community. Design. Initiative, a project that entrusts young locals with the renovation and expansion of the social-service delivery hub’s building. Since the initial design charrette in late 2009, over 50 participants from ages 9 to 21 have worked with urbanists and architects to design and implement their ideas for the site. As Ebrahim puts it, “they learn, they test, they learn, they test, they ask questions, they learn, they test.” Key to the process is getting to see their ideas in action: the renovation is complete and landscaping is in process, with strategic additions to follow.
Andrew Davies, Executive Director at No. 9 Contemporary Art & the Environment, highlights the role of urban designers, architects and educators in the rise of urbanist education programs–particularly those that introduce sustainable design to youth. “There is an interest from professionals in the building industry, educators and NGOs like No. 9 to provide information to the next generation as to how things are made, so that they can participate in defining what their future city will look like.” For Davies, helping youth understand the ecology of cities is crucial to improving our society’s relationship with the environment for future generations.
Since 2011, No. 9 has collaborated with the Toronto District School Board to deliver a four-day program called Imagining My Sustainable City to hundreds of Grade 7 students–480 students in 16 schools over the last school year alone. The program places two architectural educators in the classroom to assist teachers in exploring sustainable design concepts with their students. Student groups produce scale models that integrate ecological practices into real sites in the school’s neighbourhood. Every cohort gets to show off its projects at a public exhibition in Metro Hall’s rotunda. By the end of the 2013/14 school year, No. 9 will accomplish its goal of delivering the program to one class in each of Toronto’s 44 wards.
Josh Fullan, a teacher at the highly competitive University of Toronto Schools (UTS) and founder of the Maximum City program, points to a gap in Canada’s current education system. While the country’s population has become increasingly urban, most schools have failed to incorporate the manifold challenges and opportunities of city life into the classroom experience.
Maximum City attempts to address this gap by giving high-school students a crash course in urban design, planning and governance. Taught as part of the Civics and Geography curriculum at UTS, the program brings professionals into the classroom to collaborate with teachers, much like Imagining My Sustainable City. However, instead of a four-day engagement with one set of designers, Maximum City aims for a broader overview of the complexities of city issues. Every day over a two-week period, a different designer, planner, urbanist or activist helps students understand topics from transportation to architecture to protest. A final design challenge requires students to apply this holistic rundown of urban ideas by reimagining a full city block.
While the program offers students tools to understand the city, Fullan emphasizes how it also empowers them to “feel like they can create change and be influencers in their urban environment.” Some past participants have gone on to be youth consultants for planning projects. Fullan recalls one student in particular who “wrote a letter to the CEO of a major city organization asking for youth representation on a regional transportation council that was filled with CEOs, presidents of banks and community leaders–but no one under the age of 30.” The 15-year-old student now sits on that council, and leads a youth campaign to raise awareness about transit issues in Southern Ontario.
The greatest challenge facing these ambitious educators is access. While hundreds of participants have had their civic and urban problem-solving muscles exercised, the reach of these programs has been variously limited by socio-economic factors, the necessity of a small ratio of students to educators to facilitate deep engagement, a reliance on professional collaborators, and a general resistance to change within the education system. Whether or not these innovative programs can (or should) overcome these limitations to be implemented on a larger scale remains unclear. In the meantime, our cities–and the demand for tools to understand and skillfully manage them–keep growing. CA
Nathan Storring is an independent writer, curator and urbanist currently pursuing an MA in Public Humanities at Brown University.