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Center for Urban Studies helps middle school students envision the future of the city

Students from the Buffalo Public Schools' Futures Academy worked with two UB graduate students to develop the city of Aqua Tractino. Photo: GAVIN LUTER

Not all photos need captions but if they do this, this is the area to do it.

By Charlotte Hsu

Published February 21, 2013

“Projects like this show the kids that you can work within a neighborhood and a community, and that you do have control, that you can change the environment for the better.”
Henry Louis Taylor Jr.
Professor of urban and regional planninbg and Director of the Center for Urban Studies

The City of Aqua Tractino is a bright and forward-thinking metropolis, with shrub gardens gracing roofs and drinking straw-like contraptions funneling rain from the tops of buildings into storage barrels. Other runoff drains into a man-made swamp that cleanses the water.

This metropolis, though imaginary, represents what some of Buffalo’s youngest residents think a city should be.

student model

This tabletop model of Aqua Tractino was built by students from Futures Academy. Photo: GAVIN LUTER

With help from UB graduate students Paria Negahdarikia and Gavin Luter, a team of 12 middle schoolers from the Buffalo Public Schools’ Futures Academy dreamed up Aqua Tractino for the Future City Competition, a national contest that challenges participants to design cities of the future.

This year’s competition asked participants to solve problems related to stormwater: How can a city better handle the massive amount of water that pours off pavement and rooftops into sewers each time it rains?

To address this question, Negahdarikia and Luter, both members of the School of Architecture and Planning’s Center for Urban Studies, guided the Futures Academy students in building a colorful, tabletop model of Aqua Tractino. The team also used SimCity software to create a computerized version of the city to see how their drainage systems worked.

Though Futures Academy didn’t win the regional competition, which took place on Jan. 19, they did take home two prizes: the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying’s (NCEES) Best Land Surveying Practices Award, and Time Warner Cable’s Connect a Million Minds Award for Promise in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, which went to Futures Academy team member T’Aisianee Brunson.

Each award included a $250 prize, says Henry Louis Taylor Jr., director of the Center for Urban Studies. The honors were a big deal for the middle schoolers, who had to defend their design in front of a panel of adult judges, Taylor says.

“Projects like this show the kids that you can work within a neighborhood and a community, and that you do have control, that you can change the environment for the better,” he says. “We want the kids to understand that the kind of conditions they see in their neighborhoods are not there because of chance or because God is punishing them, but because of the decisions that were made in the city.”

An essay the students wrote for the competition reflected this philosophy—that it’s possible to create a better community and world through smart decisions.

“Some of the (stormwater) management solutions may be expensive in the beginning, like the constructed wetland or changing hard surfaces with permeable surface,” the students wrote. “But letting trash and waste and litter into the lakes and rivers is more expensive for humans. If we do not take care of our water resources and do not save them, future generations will not have enough resources to use.”

The partnership with Futures Academy is part of a larger menu of initiatives that the Center for Urban Studies is undertaking to help revitalize the area in which the school is located. The center is a major partner in the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority’s Perry Choice Neighborhood Initiative, which is developing a plan to transform the Commodore Perry Homes and Extension, and the immediate Perry Choice neighborhoods, into a vibrant community with job and educational opportunities for all residents.

Negahdarikia is a student in UB’s master’s program in urban planning, and Luter is pursuing a PhD in educational leadership and administration through the Graduate School of Education.