2021: Overcoming The Odds

2021 marks Urban Minds’ fifth anniversary, and what a journey it has been.

In the last five years, we have grown from a young trio of friends to an organization of over 30 volunteers and board members, who share the same passion for educating and equipping the next generation of city builders. Our impact has gone beyond organizing a conference for high school students to partnering directly with municipalities, companies, and organizations to engage hundreds of youth on various projects and initiatives in Ontario.

Imagine how excited we were when our first 1UP Toronto Conference made the front page of Metro News!

All of this would have called for a grand celebration, if not for the fact that 2021 has also been a difficult year for many of us.

As the pandemic continued, we saw the widening of social disparities and inequity, with youth being among the hardest-hit demographic groups in many communities. From the devastating effects of Zoom fatigue and loneliness to the broader societal concerns over educational funding, housing affordability, racial injustice, and climate inaction, not to mention the ongoing risk of COVID outbreaks in schools, youth are forced to face significant challenges in our cities with their voices still often left unheard. Our society has dealt young people a terrible hand of cards and, in many cases, they weren’t even allowed at the table.

Yet despite the overwhelming uncertainty and adversity, we witnessed the admirable strength and resilience displayed by the participants at our workshops and conferences, as well as our own team members. Looking back, we are proud to say that 2021 was a year of overcoming barriers brought forth by the pandemic and charting new territories as a diverse, creative, and industrious team.

The concept plan from the winning submission of 1UP Design Competition 2021

We kicked off the year with a 1UP Youth City Builders program that took on a new dimension since the pandemic began. Our Co-Founder, Angela Ng, along with our Program Coordinators, Areej Ashraf and Cynthia Chiu Chen, andour youth executives led by Maya Lekhi, held the first-ever 1UP Design Competition in partnership with Friends of Wychwood Barns Park. The focus of the competition was to design an accessible, outdoor learning and playing environment for youth and people of all ages. Our team went on to host our annual 1UP Toronto Conference virtually for the first time, where professionals and youth exchanged ideas about what a post-pandemic, youth-friendly city could look like.

After a year-long hiatus, our Program Coordinators, Denelle Carvalho and Jennifer Khuu, helped students from five different high schools launch their own 1UP School Chapters in September. Denelle and Jennifer worked incredibly hard to revamp our webinars and resources to be more focused on leadership training, skill development, and knowledge building.

This year, our Strategy + Design Team engaged a wider range of age groups with online workshops. In Hamilton, our Project Coordinators, Jane Law, Brianne Lee, and Co-Founder, Ryan Lo, worked with middle school and high school students to visualize ideas for a park revitalization project. Our friends at Urban Strategies pinned up the youth’s ideas on the storefront windows of their Hamilton office:

Back in Toronto, we introduced urban planning topics through games and activities to first-year students at the School of Urban & Regional Planning at X University (formerly Ryerson University) in a three-part series called Weekly Warm-ups.

One of the highlights of Weekly Warm-ups was the Idea Board challenge where students brainstormed ideas to transform parking spaces in front of their school building.

In the fall, Jane and Brianne ran an empathy mapping workshop for the DesignTO Youth program for young emerging artists, exploring our sense of belonging in public spaces. Ryan also had the opportunity to speak at 8 80 CitiesOntario Community Changemakers Studio. Ryan shared Urban Minds’ experience of running youth programs and projects with a group of young leaders who are spearheading community initiatives across the province.

Our team discussed the various sign-up options for online youth events

Throughout the year, we advocated for more and better youth engagement strategies and practices among professionals in the public and private sectors. One of the highlights was our workshop at this year’s OPPI Conference, #NowWhat2021. Our Outreach Coordinator, Enosh Chen, along with 1UP president, Maya Lekhi, and Ryan led a workshop sharing our approach and lessons learned on online youth engagement. We hosted more professional development webinars for organizations and companies such as the Toronto Public Library, DPAI, and LURA Consulting. Selina Phan, the chief editor of our Medium blog, worked tirelessly with the rest of our team to publish monthly blog posts discussing urban topics like homelessness and defensive architecture, hosting the Olympic games, and the TTC, all from youth’s perspectives.

We worked on some fun, creative projects while giving youth unique opportunities to get involved. Urban Minds was invited to produce an audio tour for The Bentway this summer on the topic of play in public space. Enosh and Ryan, along with our Growth Coordinators, Adriana Ceric and Matthew James, recorded a mini-podcast sharing our own experiences growing up — what it meant to be playing and hanging out as youth in public.

Our first in-person event since last year came in the form of an actual Park(ing) Day installation! Building on the foundation of our Weekly Warm-ups sessions earlier this year, we created Brake at Bond in downtown Toronto in September with the support of a grant from Better Block and Spin. We worked with X University faculty and student volunteers to set up a pop-up parkette on two parking spaces, in real life this time!

Volunteers and visitors mingling and enjoying the new pop-up parkette

It has been a long time since we were able to host an in-person event and we certainly missed the social aspects that virtual events could not replicate. Our hope is that we will be able to organize more of these types of events and initiatives in the new year!

As we look towards the upcoming year, we are thrilled to share some of the exciting initiatives we have on deck for 2022:

1. New Logo

We are unveiling a new logo for Urban Minds! Our Outreach Coordinator, Catherine Caetano-Macdonell, has given our beloved logo a facelift. Stronger and bolder; it is a symbol of our team’s readiness to take on new challenges.

2. Cities For Youth: Toolkit for Youth Engagement in Planning

In January, we will be officially launching our Cities For Youth toolkit! Drawing from the experience of our own work and other city-building leaders in Ontario and beyond, Cities For Youth includes guiding principles, best practices, and successful case studies for youth engagement in urban planning. Authored by our Research Analyst, Federico Palacios, it is a helpful resource for those looking to better connect with the new generation and deliver more youth-friendly outcomes.

3. 1UP Network

We are partnering with Blueprint Carleton to develop a new online platform to share city-building opportunities with youth and reward them for their participation. Join our Discord server to keep up-to-date with the 1UP Network community.

4. Play at the Barns: DesignTO Exhibit

From January 22 to 28, we will be hosting an exhibit at Artscape Wychwood Barns to showcase the creative ideas of our 1UP Design Competition 2021 participants and local community members for the revitalization of Wychwood Barns Park. Join us at the reception on January 28.

Urban Minds is a movement powered not only by a dedicated team of volunteers but also an entire community of youth and allies who believe in the work we do. We are constantly inspired by this young generation’s spirit of overcoming challenges and eagerness to learn and participate. We are also grateful for the generous support of our advisors, sponsors, clients, and partners in providing us with resources and opportunities despite these uncertain times.

On behalf of our team, we wish you and your loved ones a safe and restful holiday season. Happy Holidays!

Ryan Lo and Angela Ng