Maximum City: Engaging Youth in Urban Sustainability

Last month, I had the opportunity – and the privilege – to participate in the Maximum City program in Toronto.  This program is the brainchild of Josh Fullan, a high school humanities and languages teacher at the University of Toronto Schools, my alma mater.  Last year, Josh ran a pilot program that brought a small group of students from two Toronto-area high schools together with a team of experts and professionals in a wide range of urban disciplines, including architecture, design, planning, transit, municipal governance, community development, and communications.  Over the course of  a week, the students listened to lectures and took part in design exercises and field trips in a series of modules that exposed them to new ideas and key concepts in urban development:  Built City, Planned City, Engaged City, Transit City, Liveable City, Pedestrian City, Governed City.  The week culminated in a neighbourhood visioning study and design charrette.  The outcome?  A small but thoroughly engaged group of young people with a deeper appreciation of the complexity of urban issues and solutions.

When I read about the program last summer, I thought it sounded terrific – the kind of thing you wish they had when you were a kid!  But I couldn’t help noticing there didn’t appear to be any content explicitly dealing with urban sustainability.  So I called Josh to tell him so.  A few lunches and many emails later, I found myself on a flight to Toronto in the middle of July, busily finalizing my notes for the introductory module to this year’s program.  The theme of Maximum City 2012?  Sustainability.

On the first day of the program, I delivered a crash course on sustainability.  After explaining the traditional “three-legged stool” model of sustainable development, I had the students brainstorm all of the things they could think of in an urban setting that were necessary for sustainability, and I was delighted when their answers moved beyond the environmental, social, and economic realm to take in concepts of governance, co-operation, change, and compromise.  Here’s a sample of what they were thinking…







We talked about interdependence and interconnection and integration.  And I asked them to look for these relationships and linkages in all of the other modules, which spanned two weeks and covered even more topics than last year’s pilot program (Park City, Smart City). Once again, the program culminated in a design challenge, which this year had teams of students redesigning an underperforming city block with a focus on sustainability.  As a resource person and member of the critique panel, I had the opportunity to watch the students move through mapping the neighbourhood, identifying challenges and opportunities, and conceptualizing and actualizing solutions.







I was totally floored – and inspired – by the creativity and capacity for synthesis and problem solving shown by these students.  Their quick grasp of key concepts is demonstrated by these ‘mental maps’ one group created to explain the elements and linkages included in their neighbourhood vision.







In a matter of hours, the students’ ideas transformed an underused and unwelcoming city block into a hub of social interaction, economic diversity, and improved environmental performance, with improved connection to the surrounding community and a more productive use of urban space.







The Maximum City program is driven by Josh’s vision that young people can be key contributors to understanding and shaping our rapidly urbanizing world.  Indeed, as I witnessed the students getting more and more engaged through the program, I was reminded that youth have their own ways of seeing, interpreting, and interacting with the urban landscape, and there is great value and potential opportunity in integrating those perspectives into the dialogue of city-building.  Sustainable development is, after all, about meeting the needs of the next generation as much as our own.

If you are interested in urban sustainability – and if you live, work, or play in a city, how can you not be? – I encourage you to check out this program, maybe start a similar program in your own city, or find a way to engage youth around issues of sustainable development.  You’ll likely come away inspired, encouraged, and motivated, as I have been.


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  1. I’m thrilled to read about your experience working with this group of young people, Celesa. Too few organizations value young people as meaningful actors, let alone be willing to embrace them in the design process. It’s great to read this example. Let’s hope more organizations will consider setting aside their fears and the consequent marginalization of young people and begin to embrace them as citizens too.

    Cathie Guthrie

    • Thanks for your comment, Cathie! I think part of the challenge of engaging youth is finding an appropriate way to do so that meets the needs of both parties. A conventional ‘consultation’ approach is not necessarily meaningful or effective.

    • Josh Fullan
    • September 15th, 2012

    Thanks for the post and being such big part of the program, Celesa.

    Below are some of the terrific student insights into what learned they about sustainability in Maximum City:

    1.Maximum City has given me an entirely new meaning to the concept of sustainability. With my in-depth understanding of what sustainability is, who and what it involves, and, most importantly, its significance in our world today, I can say that sustainability is extremely important. If something is currently thriving and reaching its full potential but is not sustainable, it will very quickly reach a point where it will no longer be able to prosper and provide for itself. Sustainability is such a complex concept that was only recently seriously taken into consideration as being the key to a prosperous future. Sustainability essentially means that something can reach its full potential and stay at its full potential.

    2. Sustainability is important for many reasons but I think that the most important reason is that because we all live together we all are responsible for the things that we have done in the past, our current decisions, and therefore we are responsible for our future as well. By introducing sustainability into our lives we create better future for everyone.

    3. Sustainability is important because it is something that is going to be inevitable in our global future. Currently, we as a whole human population are not living sustainably. Recently, the focus has been particularly on environmental sustainability. From Maximum City, I’ve learn that environmental, economical, and social sustainability all affect each other, and I think that we as humans have a responsibility to live as sustainably as possible. Right now, we are taking away from the world around us, but not giving enough back.

    4. Without the three (or more) legs of sustainability all aspects of society, everything anyone has worked for, and any possible future development will collapse.

    5. Sustainability is important because it creates a balance that makes the environment and community members happy. It is essential in creating a stable and beneficial society.

    6. Sustainability is important because it affects us directly, whether socially, economically or environmentally. It’s something that is relevant to our daily lives even though most people might not realize it. It is something we should be working towards everyday.

  2. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Involving youth in sustainability through urban issues… great post on Maximum City program in Toronto

    • Thanks for re-blogging my post on Maximum City, Jeff! I hope interest in this great program picks up, and it spreads to other urban centres!

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