Student designed cities explore going green

Mayor Michael Nutter apologized Friday to a group of seventh and eighth graders about the environmental problems they will inherit as they grow older. And at the Wissahickon Charter School’s Sustainable Cities Summit, he also commended the students for tackling these issues so early.

“They’re much more likely to be recyclers, get into urban farming,” he said of the 86 young people who participated in the program. “They’re also focused as great students.”

All year the students have been studying sustainable cities and what makes them work in their science and social science classes. Now they are applying that knowledge through two-dimensional models of sustainable cities that they have designed, said Mike Friedman, a science teacher at Wissahickon.

At the summit, which was held for the first time Friday, 15 experts gave the middle schoolers input on their cities before they headed back to the design tables to turn them into 3D models.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The students worked in groups of about three and took turns explaining their cities to the experts.

Zareena Anderson, Kyerra Aimes and Dawn Boyd spoke to Ken Weinstein, owner of the Trolley Car Diner and Café.

They each showed him their first models, where they each drew what they thought a city should look like, and their collective model that incorporated what they learned.

“We put the houses in the middle to travel better to work,” Kyerra Aimes said.

The group mixed together residential, industrial and commercial uses of land.

Student Marc Saunders’ group took a different approach and separated the city by the different types of land uses.

Betsy Teutsch, director of communication at, suggested installing a hub in the middle of that city and making sure there was accessible transportation between the zones.

Anuj Gupta, executive director of Mt. Airy USA, used downtown Philadelphia 20 to 30 years ago as an example of how creating separate zones for the different land uses might not work. When it was mostly commercial buildings, everyone went home when the work day was over, he said. After apartments were built in Center City, it allowed people to easily go from work to their homes.

“Mixing the uses is a good thing,” Gupta said. “[But] zoning [laws are] important. If we didn’t have zoning, I could open a factory next to your house.”

David Kinsey, director of community affairs at RecycleBank, was impressed at how well thought out the students’ models were. A creative example was one design team’s intention to plant farms on top of the buildings where large businesses operate as a way of meeting several needs at once.

Karen Anderson, executive director of Awbury Arboretum, thought the school project worked, because it was clear that mass transit and green spaces weren’t just abstract concepts to the students.

She also liked how the project let them think about the systems and what the trade offs would be for each, she said.

Student Trixie Steiner-Rose’s model included apartment buildings with parks or gardens on the roofs. She also spoke to the experts about being inspired by solar and wind power.

But she thinks the project should be expanded.

“I suggested we make it an all-subject project,” Trixie said.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal