One Step Forward Towards More Sustainable Cities

Mengyu Magnus Gao
Urban Minds
Published in
4 min readDec 7, 2019


Recently, there have been more extreme natural disasters around the world. Many lives have been lost as a result of these disasters and people have spent billions upon billions of dollars to recover from these nightmares. It is clear that climate change is happening, and we need to address it now.

This is why students from seven high schools across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) proposed ideas on designing future sustainable cities as part of a special climate action project, called “Future Cities, Future Us”.

Youth’s ideas on display at Evergreen Brick Works’ Community Studio, categorized into the following topics: Reduce & Recycle, Education, Building & Infrastructure, Renewable Energy, Transportation, Green Spaces, and Innovative Technologies.

This project showcased youth’s ideas, both physically and digitally at the Future Cities Canada Summit, as well as at the Community Studio at Evergreen Brick Works in November. As a student ambassador at the Community Studio, I shared my peers’ ideas with the visitors, then asked them to vote and build on their favourite ideas. These visitors were composed of both local residents and tourists from all around the world. Fortunately, a diverse audience group, aged 8 to 80, was interested in providing their input on our ideas on sustainability. Here’s a snippet of the great conversations we had with the visitors:

Visitors voting on their favorite ideas

An urban planner visiting from Australia encouraged the use of passive design, which involves adjusting the orientation of the building to allow natural lighting and heating. This method of designing cities will conserve energy and reduce people’s utility bills. From personal observation, many of the 1960s modernist buildings in Toronto do not have a lot of windows, so natural light cannot enter the building, which causes unnecessary energy to be used, therefore emitting more greenhouse gases.

Another gentleman suggested that we should have private bike-share programs, instead of the monopolistic government-run bike-sharing. Since he taught English in China for ten years, the Chinese model of bike-sharing fascinates him, as there are bicycles available everywhere. He also believed it was important to have properly-designed, protected bike lanes on city streets.

“We have many proven ideas, but they were never implemented,’’ said a former City of Toronto public servant, “tolling the Don Valley Parkway should have been implemented years ago. All of these ideas on the board are great, and we need to start implementing them!”

Personally, I agree with this public servant. Implementation is harder than ideation, but they are equally important at the end of the day. Overall, the great conversations I had with so many visitors led to a meaningful exchange of ideas, and they broadened my perspectives of cities. I truly believe in the wisdom of the public because a city is composed of ordinary people like the ones I met at the Brick Works. We must listen to them and reflect on their ideas.

Many visitors cast their votes on improving the transit system and added their own ideas.

Feedback from the visitors was inspiring, hopeful, and useful for students to prioritize the most significant improvements. For example, upgrading the transit system was one of the most popular ideas. Therefore, students should put this as one of their top priorities when building sustainable cities. For example, students can advocate for better bus services by contacting their city councillor or making deputations at City Hall. Personally, I have encouraged transit-supportive compact developments on major transit arteries, by speaking at public consultation meetings.

How cities are designed to withstand the impact of climate change will greatly affect our quality of life, now and into the future. This is why high school students in the GTA and across the world are working hard to generate ideas and take real action to solve the climate crisis, as well as to implement their ideas. I believe that if we work together, we can change the course of the future in our cities.

“Future Cities, Future Us” is a collaboration between Urban Minds and 1UP Toronto, in partnership with Evergreen and ENCORE Lab at OISE.

Mengyu Gao is the 2019–2020 1UP Fellow leading his school chapter at Pierre Elliott Trudeau High School.