Urban Minds
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Urban Minds

Building bridges is hard, but we do it anyway.

Urban Minds 2022 Year in Review

The SvN team leading a walk around Distillery District with our 1UP Office Tour participants.

Whenever I describe my work at Urban Minds to people I meet, I find myself going back to the same analogy time and again: we build bridges between decision-makers and youth to create better cities together. Usually, I’d stop there because, at this point, most people I talk to would already nod and agree that yes, we need people like you to make these connections. OK, job done. This analogy works! And I would continue sharing the story of our organization. But allow me to paint a fuller, more serious picture here.

In 2022, the gap that we are tackling is not only a generational divide. We are talking about a deepening, multilayered rift that separates these two groups of people:

  • Between those who are in meetings, check emails, and write reports all day and those who spend their time on TikTok or Discord;
  • Between those who can work comfortably from home most days of the week and those who are thrust back to full-time school in the classroom after two years;
  • Between those who reminisce about playing on the streets or hanging out at the mall and those who cannot even go outside alone without worrying about their own safety;
  • Between those who benefit from rising home prices and those who cannot afford a place to live or are too young still to even comprehend the gravity of this crisis;
  • Between those who prioritize economic growth and personal convenience and those who worry about their health, career prospects, and the future of this planet;
  • Between those who hold power and those who want their voices heard.

In the midst of our transition back to in-person events, behind all the fun icebreakers and trivia games, our team knows that it is our core mission to connect these two sides who don’t understand each other well. We simply cannot afford to allow decision-makers to continue building communities for the loud and powerful while ignoring the needs of the young and vulnerable. However, as we know, the pandemic has had a profound impact on the way we interact with one another. Many of us feel tired, powerless, and disengaged in the current political climate. It takes a lot of effort to build and restore these relationships to make our communities more equitable and sustainable.

But we are here for all of it, as we have been over the last twelve months.

Advocating for Youth Engagement

Since we are in this bridge-building business, we have to make people realize that they need these bridges in the first place. To start, we focused our efforts on advocating for youth engagement in city building to the professional audience — those who are urban planners, architects, policymakers, developers, etc. In January, we published Cities For Youth: Toolkit for Youth Engagement in Planning. It was the culmination of months of research, including eleven interviews with urban planning and community engagement professionals in Ontario and British Columbia. In this Toolkit, we not only reiterated why youth engagement is important, but we also shared many best practices and case studies on how it could be successful. In a follow-up Spacing Radio podcast episode, our Research Analyst Federico Palacios and Engagement Strategist Enosh Chen spoke extensively about the Toolkit.

A decision tree diagram that helps decision-makers decide which youth engagement strategy is appropriate for their work.

In June, Enosh, alongside Project Coordinators Jane Law and Patrycia Menko, hosted our first international workshop with public health, parks, and recreation staff in Maricopa County, Arizona. In this workshop, Enosh, Jane, and Patti shared various examples of fun and hands-on activities to help youth learn about topics related to public spaces and active living.

Later in the fall, Patti, together with our Outreach Coordinator Catherine Caetano-Macdonell and Growth Coordinator Matthew James, traveled to London, Ontario to present at the OPPI-OALA Conference. There, they met with an active and thoughtful audience of planning practitioners who were, again, curious to learn how youth engagement could be done effectively to bring distinct youth voices to municipal planning processes.

Matthew, Catherine, and Patti posing for a photo in front of an orange camper van prop.

If this group of 30 participants was of any indication, our digital outreach performances in 2022 were also telling a similar story. As of December 1, Urban Minds has over 1,000 monthly newsletter subscribers, over 1,000 views of our blog posts this year alone, and over 800 followers on LinkedIn. These numbers are both the results of the work of our incredible Outreach Coordinators, Catherine Caetano-Macdonell, Selina Phan, and Kelly Gingrich, and an encouraging sign that enthusiasm for youth engagement is indeed growing.

Amplifying Youth Voices in Long-Term Initiatives

These bridges could only be built if this enthusiasm was followed by action, and this was exemplified in our Strategy+Design work with municipalities and our partnerships with planning and design consultants on long-term planning initiatives. Our project team, led by co-founder Angela Ng, trained a team of local youth ambassadors and hosted a number of pop-ups at schools, community centres, and shopping malls to get youth feedback for the City of Toronto’s Jane Finch Initiative. From our discussions with the City and our partners Perkins&Will, Access Planning, and Jane/Finch Community and Family Centre, it was clear that youth made up a significant proportion of the neighbourhood’s population and their voices needed to be amplified in the process that guides the future development of this area. In a community where distrust in authorities and fear of gentrification run deep, the youth felt much more comfortable offering their views to the ambassadors, who were similar in age and had common lived experiences. While the pop-ups will continue until the end of the year, we will be hosting an “idea jam” and pizza party in February where local youth can gather and share their ideas for this community.

Our team also supported the City of Markham and the consultant team led by WSP in engaging youth on the Markville Secondary Plan. Centred around a large suburban shopping mall, this was an area not far away from where I grew up as a teenager. We visited the local high school and facilitated a visioning workshop with the two grade 9 geography classes. Through guided activities using sketches and Google Jamboard, the students shared what they thought about the current state and the future potential of this area. Following this workshop, we will return to the school next year to share the City’s draft plan and recommendations, and invite the students again to provide their critique, keeping their city planners accountable.

A visioning board with the map of Markville in the background and images and sticky notes of the youth’s ideas scattered in the foreground.

Youth Showing Up During Uncertain Times

Running a youth program over the last two years felt like building a pier over rough, choppy waters in the middle of a storm. A year ago, we were headed into another wave of COVID cases and lockdown in Ontario, and our hopes of organizing in-person events in the winter and spring quickly evaporated. Yet, despite the headwinds, our participants in the 1UP Youth City Builders Program showed incredible resilience and strength. Over the months of January to March, eleven teams of high school students across the Greater Toronto Area participated in the second edition of the 1UP Design Competition. Under the guidance of volunteer planners, designers, and architects, the student teams developed creative and thoughtful solutions to make the St. James Town Co-op Community Garden more accessible and youth-friendly. Leading up to March Break, our Program Coordinators Jennifer Khuu, Cynthia Tia, and Juan Rueda worked tirelessly with our 1UP Executive Team and Plan Bold (formerly RU A Planner) to organize the 1UP Toronto Conference. In its sixth year, the conference brought together high school students and professionals around the theme of ‘Nourish’ — the intersection of sustainable community food systems and social justice.

A screenshot of the participants, speakers, and volunteers attending the 1UP Toronto Conference 2022 on Zoom.

As the warmer weather set in and the province gradually reopened, we were finally able to host in-person events again. In May, we hosted Play at the Barns, as part of the DesignTO 2022 Festival, where we celebrated last year’s 1UP Design Competition submissions for the Wychwood Barns Park.

Two students presenting in front of an audience with a TV showing their project.

In July and August, we partnered with MJMA and SvN to host our first-ever 1UP Office Tours, where our participants got more than a glimpse of what city-building professions looked like in real life. The highlight of the summer was, of course, the return of the in-person 1UP Leaders Lab. We were excited to show our participants many places around the city, including The Bentway and Stackt Market, and equip them with the skills and resources as community changemakers. Most of them would go on to launch six 1UP School Chapters as the school year began in September, each working with a mentor to complete a community design-build project. To complement their journey of learning, our team organized the 1UP Connect webinar series, where we invited guest speakers to share their experiences on various urban planning and architecture topics.

Volunteer from Perkins&Will working with a group of participants around a table with sticky notes.

In a turbulent time, our Program Team, Jennifer, Cynthia, Juan, and our newest member, Maryam Sheikh, persisted to make sure that 1UP was adapting to the new reality of having both virtual and in-person youth events. Together with our 1UP Executives, this team worked very hard to provide youth with learning opportunities in different formats about often unfamiliar subjects. I also commend our participants, especially our 1UP Fellows spearheading the school chapters, for showing up and taking the initiative to learn and lead.

Deepening Our Ties with Academic Institutions

One of the most cherished and long-standing relationships we’ve had is our partnership with Toronto Metropolitan University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning. They have always been a staunch supporter of our 1UP Program, particularly the 1UP Toronto Conference, and have continued to collaborate with us year after year. In August, we brought our annual virtual “warm-up” event, 105 Bond-ing, not only to the incoming undergraduate students but also to those entering the Master’s program. The aspiring planners had the opportunity to meet their peers and faculty, and brainstorm ideas to make the parking spaces in front of their main school building more welcoming. Those ideas then created the foundation for our next event, Park(ing) Day, where students temporarily transformed those parking spaces, for real, on a Friday afternoon. Volunteers assembled CNC-cut furniture and decorated the sidewalk with chalk, which made for a wonderful lounge space for students and visitors.

Students decorating the sidewalk on Bond Street with chalk.

We have been building connections with other universities as well. We partnered with the University of Toronto’s Urban Studies Program to host a number of placement students this year. Sara Angod and Michelle Fung Wu provided much-needed help as we promoted our Cities For Youth Toolkit in the spring, while Matthew Chan and Rian Moreno have been instrumental in supporting our ongoing Strategy+Design projects and 1UP Program events. Our Growth Coordinators Adriana Ceric and Vincent Lee have continued to work with the Blueprint chapter at Carleton University to develop the future 1UP Network platform.

Widening Our Reach Through Youth Workshops

Just as bridges are meant to provide access to people and places that are otherwise challenging to reach, our youth workshops this year have been serving a similar purpose. Our team worked with various organizations to provide customized learning opportunities that help to achieve their curriculum or program needs. Our hope is that these workshops would inspire and equip a new generation of community changemakers.

In April, we hosted a virtual workshop for the Mind and Spirit Youth Leadership program at the Scarborough Centre for Healthy Communities. As facilitators, Jane and Patti trained the youth leaders to use practical tools like asset mapping to identify key health infrastructure in their neighbourhoods as they began to develop their own community projects. In the same month, Patti and I visited Elsie MacGill Secondary School in Milton, where we supported the teachers’ geography curriculum by customizing a design activity around stormwater management.

In October, we partnered with the Black Architects and Interior Designers Association and the Toronto District School Board to host the first edition of Stepping Stones, a two-day workshop for Black TDSB students in grades 7–12 who are interested in the professions of architecture, interior design, and urban planning. For many of them, it was their first time participating in this type of workshop where they learned about the different career paths of Black professionals pioneering ahead of them.

Students and volunteers taking a group photo in front of the Pioneer Village subway station

We also teamed up with DesignTO again to run an empathy mapping workshop for their youth artist residency program, where we prompted the participants to reflect on their observations and experiences as young people in different public spaces.

The Work Continues

And so, the bridge-building work doesn’t stop here. Looking forward to 2023, I am excited to announce that we will be hosting Design For Change, a DesignTO 2023 Festival event at the University of Toronto’s Innis Town Hall. We will be showing off our student teams’ submissions from this year’s 1UP Design Competition, and inviting our 1UP School Chapters to pitch, Dragon’s Den style, to a panel of judges to win additional funding for their community design-build projects. The reception and pitch event will take place on January 21, while the exhibition will continue until January 26. If you want to witness the creativity and thoughtfulness of our youth, I invite you to join us.

A bird’s eye view of the winning team’s design for the St. James Town Co-op Community Garden.

Finally, as I look back on all the projects, workshops, and events over the last year, I can’t help but be immensely proud of this talented and hardworking team. When I take into account that all this was achieved by a collective of volunteers who are juggling between their jobs and school, I am constantly blown away by each team member’s passion and dedication to the cause. Similarly, I am very grateful for our 1UP Program sponsors, mentors, and volunteers who have continued to believe in our work and supported us throughout another difficult pandemic year. I would like to thank our outgoing Advisory Board members as well for their mentorship and guidance over the last few years: Sheila Boudreau, Arnaud Marthouret, Catriona Moggach, Ryan O’Connor, and Dave Rose. This community of people is what keeps this organization going and gives us hope as we continue to work toward better youth engagement in the future.

Onwards and upwards!

Ryan Lo is the Co-Founder of Urban Minds.

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