Engineering solutions to America’s urban dilemmas

By Control Engineering Staff February 14, 2006

Oakland, CA —In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the national debate about the future of America’s cities has often led to gloomy forecasts and lowered expectations. For students heading to Washington, D.C. for the National Finals of the National Engineers Week Future City Competition, Feb. 20-22, it has revealed a wellspring of hope and brilliance.

Teams of seventh- and eighth-grade students from 31 regions across the country have created detailed—often fantastic—cities of tomorrow that give intriguing insights to how young minds envision their future. At the same time, their bold designs and innovative concepts provide a refreshingly optimistic appreciation of how our nation can realistically deal with the many challenges facing its cities, including environmental disasters, crime, urban decay and urban sprawl.

Take for example, the team representing Michigan, from St. John’s Lutheran School in Rochester, MI. Their Future City re-imagines Detroit as a safe, functioning, and successful city.

“I really think it could work,” says 14-year-old Jenna Affholter. “A lot of our ideas could help Detroit. I hope somebody will turn them into reality.”

Future City, in its 14th year, asks middle school students to create cities of the future, first on computer and then in large tabletop models. Working in teams with a teacher and volunteer engineer mentor, students create their cities using the SimCity 3000 videogame donated to all participating schools by Electronic Arts Inc. of Redwood City, CA. They write a city abstract and an essay on using engineering to solve an important social need—this year’s theme is creating an “Engineering Feasibility Plan” to redevelop an abandoned strip mall. Then they present and defend their cities before engineer judges at the competition.

Regional competition winning teams receive an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington for the Future City National Finals, hosted by Bentley Systems, Incorporated, a leading engineering software company. Grand prize is a week at U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, AL. Some 30,000 students from more than 1,000 schools participated in 2005-06. Future City is sponsored in part by Engineers Week, Feb. 19-25, a consortium of over 100 engineering societies and major corporations, co-chaired in 2006 by the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and Northrop Grumman Corp.

Students can locate their future cities anywhere in the universe, but the Michigan school chose the state’s crumbling major metropolis as its challenge.

“Our first mission was to find out what Detroit really needs,” says Jenna, who made field trips to the inner city with her teammates and teacher, Jon Pfund, to see firsthand exactly what ails the city. “And what Detroit needs is safety. When you have safety, you have more people, then you have business, then it’s a community again.”

This year’s essay focusing on the rehabilitation of an abandoned strip mall, sponsored by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, proved to be an inspirational topic with students across the country, regardless of where they live.

“I see parts of downtown Raleigh in need of rehabilitation but I never really thought about it,” says Charlie Townsend, 13, whose team from Dillard Drive Middle School in Raleigh represents the North Carolina region. “Now I realize it’s a waste of land. We’re wasting land with old, broken down buildings that need to be fixed. You can still use that land, all you have to do is update it.”

Teammate Tommy Pendlebury, also 13, notes that the paradigm of building in a new location is no longer a viable option. “If you move down the road, it doesn’t solve the problem,” he says. “The abandoned strip mall is still there and the soil is still contaminated and causes water pollution.”

Not surprisingly, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina was on many minds. The North Carolina team, for example, located their city on an island in the middle of a lake in the middle of the continent so they could completely avoid the threat of hurricanes.

For Louisiana’s winning team, Katrina was impossible to escape. As Tony Arikol, the engineer mentor who helped guide Baton Rouge’s St. Thomas More School to win their state’s regional competition with a redesigned New Orleans, put it, “The stakes, in my mind, are a lot closer to home.”

“We call our city “N.O.R.A.: New Orleans Reigns Again,” explains Katherine Fredieu, who turned 14 last September just as the Crescent City was flooded. “The name symbolizes a second chance at building a thriving city.” (Ironically, a team from St. Thomas More won the 2005 Future City National Finals with a floating city off the coast of Louisiana able to withstand a Category 5 hurricane.)

Even far away in Phoenix, Katrina had an impact on the students’ future cities. “We discussed New Orleans,” says Mark Wingert, a teacher at Ira Murphy Middle School in Peoria, Arizona, winners of the Phoenix regional. “It’s a case in point for when you haven’t planned adequately for the future. When my students created their city this year, they made sure we had an evacuation plan.”

For his students, however, it was the urban quandary of sprawl that garnered the most attention. “Here in Phoenix, it’s a problem,” says Daisy Nuñez, 13. “There are too many buildings and everything is just spreading out. We’re going to end up running out of space.”

Urban sprawl is also top of mind of the home-schooled team from Eagle, ID, a small town near Boise that represents their state at the National Finals. “We have a lot of development in the foothills that ruins the beauty of Boise,” says Weston Hancock, 14. The solution, he suggests, is to reuse abandoned city properties rather than move on to outlying areas. “Over the years the population will grow and grow so the more you conserve now the more space there will be in the future. We don’t want people to live in misery and ugly landscaping.”

The Idaho team’s engineer mentor, Tracy Olsen, credits the essay question’s focus on rehabilitation to spurring students to examine the importance of urban renewal. “The question was excellent,” she says. “It makes them understand what goes on in making a city work.”

Giving young people a glimpse into engineering is a key goal of Future City, says Carol Rieg, the program’s National Director. “Using SimCity and building the models are what catch the students’ attention,” says Rieg, who helped create the program. “Then they blossom into other aspects of Future City—why engineering is important, the need to plan, the challenges and responsibilities of running a city. They use what they know to solve real world problems and make the program their own.”

Deborah Escobar, the teacher from Farnsworth Middle School in Guilderland, NY, representing the Albany region, agrees that Future City “hits a chord” with students. Not only does it promote math and science skills, she notes, but it also cultivates team building and cooperation. “Instead of coming to me when they had a problem, they went to each other,” Escobar says. “I saw a real spark coming from these kids.”

One of those kids, Alex Dvorscak, 13, says even he was impressed with how his team learned to work together. “The challenge is when one person wants to do this or that, but we all have to figure out what to do and plan. There were a lot of compromises,” he says. “The result is our city turned out better than if one of us did it alone.”

Back in North Carolina, Sam Ray, 13, says the competition taught him that engineering is almost a limitless pursuit. “You can sit down and think about what the world needs and then just do it,” he enthuses. “It’s almost artistic with all the imagination you get to use.”

Still, Sam says he’s aware of engineering’s down-to-earth implications. “When you design a city, you have to think of Katrina, you have to think of seawalls and levees,” he says. “We must devise a way to get people out of there safely, and provide them with housing and water and electricity.”

Keep up the good work, Sammy. You’re doing a heck of job.

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—Richard Phelps, senior editor, Control Engineering