Vancouver’s CityStudio shows that municipal staff have lots to learn from students at local universities and colleges.
Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.
Photo from CityStudio.
As students and teachers across the country settle into a new school year, some post-secondary students in Vancouver are embarking upon a new kind of learning experience that prioritizes experiments in city-building over conventional classroom activities.
CityStudio is an innovative approach to higher education that allows undergraduate students to collaborate with staff from the City of Vancouver and develop solutions to real-world problems. While some students take part in a semester-long studio program, others enroll in related courses offered at six different post-secondary institutions throughout the city. In both cases, the focus is on practical projects in public spaces and participation is open to students from a variety of disciplines.
To date, more than 3,000 students have contributed to upwards of 192 projects that involved 60 city staff and represented 75,000 hours of civic action grounded in educational outcomes. Projects combine the charm of big ideas with the drive for measurable results. Examples include piloting a volunteer concierge to spark interaction and exchange local knowledge in high-rise communities and compiling data on the location of garbage bins in order to design a more effective system for solid waste management in public parks.
What makes CityStudio unique compared to other programs that connect students with local opportunities is the direct link between course activities and municipal policy objectives.
CityStudio emerged from an open call for ideas as part of the City of Vancouver’s Greenest City Action Plan. The document [PDF] lays out ten goals and 15 quantifiable targets in areas ranging from renewable energy to access to nature. In order to work towards these ambitious goals, city leaders recognized the importance of engaging expertise outside of City Hall.
Janet Moore and Duane Elverum, instructors at Simon Fraser University, proposed CityStudio as one of more than 800 ideas submitted in response to the Greenest City Action Plan. As a result, student projects contribute to different aspects of the plan, whether designing with wood waste or increasing awareness of urban birds.
The TEDx talk by Moore and Elverum contains some pedagogical clichés like “students make the course instead of take the course,” but it also offers pointers about what is needed to get a similar program off the ground in other cities. One of the key components is risk-taking. Moore explains, “It’s okay that students fail and make mistakes—we expect them to because they are learning. We need cities that learn; we need cities that make mistakes and experiment.”
Five years of successful programming in Vancouver suggest it’s time for Toronto to take risks with youth engagement and include more of the 200,000 plus post-secondary students in tackling the city’s most pressing challenges. Granted, risk-taking may be more appropriate in some areas of municipal services than others. While tap water is best not tinkered with, broader participation could yield positive results in areas ranging from reducing waste to supporting seniors.
Toronto already has a youth engagement strategy and other strategies that set goals for social, economic, and environmental outcomes. Student involvement cannot replace underfunded programs, but it can inject new ideas and test out different ways of doing things.
CityStudio shows that creative collaborations are a win-win situation because city staff benefit from improved morale and youth gain hands-on skills. Building on experiences in Vancouver, the City of Toronto has an opportunity to work with the eight publicly-funded colleges and universities throughout the city and invite students to swap classrooms for public spaces to take action on municipal priorities.