It's summertime at the University of Toronto Schools, and inside one room, twenty students are furiously combining a variety of materials with their own ingenuity to shape ideas of what public space should look like. They are part of the high school's summertime Maximum City program, and have been tasked with designing a 1.6 acre park for a redevelopment site in the centre of the city. Their designs will include both a water park for dogs, and functional 'water fountains', which are actually more squirt toy than fountain. But underneath the wonder and mischievousness that comes with being young, lie some very solid fundamentals of what makes a good park: lighting, flexibility, and thinking about the needs of all users. Their designs aren't just creative, they're also inspiring.

Maximum City, University of Toronto Schools, TorontoCelesa Horvath looks on as the students work. From left to right: Pranav, Daniel, Saachit, Vishnu, Jade, and Catherine

Note: unless otherwise labeled, all photos are courtesy of Josh Fullan at Maximum City

Leading these students is Josh Fullan, a teacher of civics and geography at the school. Maximum City, a two-week summer program that the University of Toronto Schools (UTS) offers its students, is a unique opportunity to learn more about Toronto, its challenges, its opportunities, and how the students can help shape the change that is to come. Fullan says he started a pilot project for Maximum City in the summer of 2011, with students from UTS and Marc Garneau Collegiate, to fill what he felt was a gap in his students' education.

“When I came to this school, I realized that the the thing I wanted to teach the students, and the thing I thought they really should be studying, was not offered in the curriculum, not just at this school, but anywhere. We don't study cities and sustainable urbanism in schools.”

Maximum City, University of Toronto Schools, TorontoDave Harvey (left) and Josh Fullan (middle) speak as students Saachit and Daniel listen

Through the two weeks, the students are introduced to a variety of modules that pertain to cities, including walkability, transportation, and civic engagement. Fullan started Maximum City with what he says are two basic principles:

  1. Collaborating on real world problems in an urban environment; and
  2. The city as the classroom.

“I think the school system and political system intentionally disengages youth. The civics education branch does a terrible job of engaging students in real world problem solving and learning. The flip-side of that is that, if you do make it authentic and real-world, engagement is extremely powerful. Maximum City is proof that if you make the content and the method of instruction collaborative and problem based, students will become engaged and civically literate.”

Maximum City, University of Toronto Schools, TorontoMaximum City students travel the city by bicycle, as Yvonne Bambrick leads

During the two weeks, students are taught a variety of contemporary urban issues, with high profile guest lecturers such as the TTC's Head of Communications, Brad Ross, and Ward 27 Councillor Wong-Tam leading the kids through topics such as transit and public space. At the end of the two weeks, they synthesize the information and work in a group to create a new vision for an area of Toronto. Fullan says that getting his students to start thinking about the city, and how they could participate, is critical.

“Youth are sometimes the forgotten stakeholders in the civic conversation. They often get planned out of public spaces or public realm."

Maximum City, University of Toronto Schools, Toronto, Sugar BeachThe Maximum City class takes a field trip to Sugar Beach, to see a unique example of what public space can look like.

This year, the students got to put their heads together to create their own ideas for 11 Wellesley West, a browfield site soon to have a condominium and 1.6 acre park on it. The sometimes controversial sites was sold to Lanterra Developments by the provincial government earlier this year. Thanks to numerous other developments that Lanterra has underway in the area, the company has pitched the idea of pooling the cumulative section 37 development benefits into a 1.6 acre park, with a 54-storey building being constructed in the north-east section of the property. Fullan had the unique opportunity to use the site as a design challenge for his students, and even managed to get Robert Ng of NAK Design – the landscape architect Lanterra has hired to design the park – in to speak to the students, and walk them through his design process.

“To give a kid that kind of engagement is amazing. The park is a great story, it's topical, and the students will be able to experience the outcomes in real time.”

Maximum City, University of Toronto Schools, TorontoStudents discuss their design (and mug for the camera). From left to right: Pranav, Vishnu, Daniel, Saachit, and Sharon

While some of the design choices are ambitious—especially given the limited resources of the city's Parks department—there is some real thoughtfulness in each design about what a public space can and should be if it desires to truly tie a community together.

Since the initial pilot program, Fullan has brought some of the modules of the program into his UTS classroom as part of his civics and geography curriculum, where it has since been picked up by other schools. This year, a German filmmaker came for two days to video tape four of the modules, intending to show in other countries what the potential of the program is.

Maximum City, University of Toronto Schools, TorontoLucia, Andy, and Pranav, hard at work at turning their design into something a little less abstract

While the program has ended for this year, it has left a mark on the future design of 11 Wellesley. After hearing some of the students' ideas for the park, Councillor Wong-Tam told the students that she would try and make sure that a critical component of each of their designs - public art - would be incorporated into the final design of 11 Wellesley.

Fullan is proud about how youth have responded to Maximum City.

"If you engage young people in conversation about public space and about planning, about how they can influence the community and city as a whole, you get a very robust, civically engaged young person who is ready to take on a leadership role.”

UrbanToronto got a chance to see the final designs and interview their student creators. Check back tomorrow for our interview with three Maximum City Students, and a look at their designs.