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Published February 5, 2015
Buffalo’s largest urban farm would rise high above the downtown landscape, housed in a now-vacant building retrofitted as a self-contained ecosystem.
It’s a notion as fanciful as it is plausible, but don’t expect to find mention of that lofty vision among any downtown redevelopment plans. A group of Buffalo Public Schools students are responsible for the award-winning idea that claimed a regional prize as the “Most Inspiring Essay” in the 2014 Future City Competition, sponsored by DiscoverE, the philanthropic arm of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NPSE).
The annual competition asks kids in sixth, seventh and eighth grades to design and build a city. The process introduces students to urban planning, engineering, design and building concepts. They learn the value of teamwork, strong writing and public-speaking skills, while gaining exposure to the different types of engineering and potential career options.
“We want kids to understand that cities and their neighborhoods can be changed,” says Gavin Luter, coordinator of educational programs for UB’s Center for Urban Studies. The Future City project is part of UB’s Community in the Classroom program that shows students how to apply what they learn in school to the world around them. UB receives assistance from the National Society of Black Engineers, which provides mentors throughout the program. Luter says the mentors provide guidance and feedback to the students about their work.
Each year’s Future City contest presents competitors with a problem that must be solved through a city’s design. This year, students addressed food insecurity, the threat of reduced availability, quality and variety of food.
The 17 students from Futures Academy in Buffalo began their approach with a three-dimensional response to a historically two-dimensional problem, creating a farm that reaches above — rather than across — the city in the former HSBC tower, transforming Buffalo’s tallest building into an aquaponic food provider.
“Their vertical farming facility is completely workable and was part of an incredibly comprehensive essay,” Luter says.
Matthew Austin, a lead instructor for the Future City project and master of urban planning (MUP) student who worked with the kids on their solutions, says the students researched the farming concept, examined available buildings and applied what people are doing in their backyards to a major downtown site.
But these urban pioneers from Futures Academy were helping to develop more than a new city. This year’s effort included participation in a new pilot program that will determine the future course of Future City.
The NSPE is considering changing the competition’s requirements. In order to test possible new directions, the organization asked 11 schools, including Futures Academy, to take part in a program slightly different from what the majority of competitors had entered.
Traditionally, students wrote an essay along with a city narrative, developed a computer simulation of their city, built a physical model and presented that model to the judges. But as part of the pilot program, students wrote a project plan that documented tasks, constraints and resources. The plan set goals, identified milestones and included a reflection section. Since the pilot program excluded some of the deliverables required of other participants in the overall program, the Futures Academy students weren’t eligible for the top prize.
“They were disappointed about not being in the running,” Luter says, “but they also knew that the pilot program had them looking at a problem in a new way.”
It’s inspiring to watch, notes MUP student Kimberly Burley, another lead instructor for the Future City Program who worked directly with the Futures Academy students.
“The kids have an opportunity for self-realization with this program,” she says. “They may be intimidated by the objectives at the beginning, but they learn that they can do it.”
Adds Henry Louis Taylor Jr., director of the Center for Urban Studies: “These kids are thinking about ways they can use their knowledge to make their neighborhoods and Buffalo a better place to live, play and raise a family. They are doing this by finding solutions to real problems and imagining a future world.”