KRR Photography

Forty-three teams of 11–13 year-olds from the U.S., Canada, and China gathered at the Hyatt Regency ballroom near Union Station for the finals an annual international science, technology, engineering, and math competition on Feb. 19. They had been tasked with devising imaginary “future cities” that would stand up to natural disasters like floods and hurricanes. Using today’s cities as a starting point, participants implicitly also had to incorporate ways to serve low-income and impoverished people.  

After conducting their research, participants use SimCity brand software to develop their plans, expand on them in an essay, and build scale models. Many of the teams had already won state-wide or other smaller competitions in their areas. 

Members of the teams interviewed by Street Sense Media said they did not want low-income residents cast out of their imaginary cities, but included and respected in society. “We want to make sure the people of our city enjoy our city and have a healthy, happy life,” said a member of a team from Ontario, Canada.   

That team modeled their future city on Nagoya, Japan, on the Pacific Ocean coast, because it is resilient to natural disasters and floods. They planned to use renewable energy sources such as wind, ocean waves, and biomass to supply energy to the city.   

To provide low-income housing, they built apartments and condos. The apartment buildings are 20 stories, and are built with high-efficiency lights and electricity, the student engineers said. The team planned for residential, commercial, and industrial zones to be separated and for all buildings’ foundations to be pile-reinforced to ward against collapse in floods. 

The middle schoolers from Ontario also said they built the structures with artificial intelligence that uses sensors to detect problems with the electrical grid of their city. 

Photo of three students stand behind a diorama of their city.

The team from Ontario. Photo courtesy of KRR Photography

A team from a Westerville, Ohio,  modeled their city of the future on a city near Iceland because it is prone to a multitude of natural disasters, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, the team said.  

According to the students, apartment buildings in their Icelandic template city are low-rise so they don’t topple when a disaster strikes. The team built low-income housing throughout their residential areas and their homeless shelters near those areas so the residents would not feel cut off from the rest of the community.  

“People who live in poor areas shouldn’t have to be separated because of their socio-economic class or made to feel like they’re inferior,” a team spokesperson said. He added that if low-income or homeless people were given separate housing, that housing would be known as ‘the low-income building,’ which is not fair to the residents. “We want to make sure everyone’s in the same area and has good living space and environment,” the Westerville team said.  

A team from Reston, Virginia, used Port Vila, the capital of the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, as their model because they wanted to explore its proximity to earthquakes. The team said in a telephone interview that Port Vila is number one on the United Nations’s risk report for being susceptible to tsunamis.  

Housing is not stable there because it is made of wood that falls over in volcanic eruptions. The Vanuatu government also uses diesel fuel, which is expensive.  The Reston students said they would switch to coconut oil biofuel, which is cheaper. They would also build structures with strong metals, such as steel, and use cross-bracing. They also planned to put the foundations of all the buildings in bedrock with rubber shock-absorbers.  

This team would give low-income people vouchers for housing, transportation, and food. Low-income people would have access to vertical gardens and fish farms in the same apartment buildings where they live. In exchange for work on the farms, citizens would receive free food. And builders would be given permits for larger buildings if they include affordable housing within them. For example, in order to construct a 20-story building, developers must include two floors of affordable housing, a team member wrote in an email. “We offer free job training, free child care, and unemployment insurance,” they wrote. 

“Everyone deserves an opportunity because everyone is useful and has talents,” one team member told Street Sense Media. “[Participating] makes them feel useful.”  

The team from Virginia. Photo courtesy of Kerr Photography

Members of the Reston team said they wanted to avoid depression among elderly residents, so they planned to offer them meals on wheels. Aging residents in this group’s future city would need to leave the building to eat, and that would enable some social interaction for them so they wouldn’t get depressed, the students said.  

These residential buildings would have low-income apartments spread out randomly within them, according to the team, so no single floor or building would become known for housing low-income individuals. The Reston students had developed a three-tier taxing system to fund affordable housing, of which lower-income people would get the lowest tax rate.   

A team from Lititz, Pennsylvania won the grand prize for the 27th Annual Future City Competition. Students from Huntsville, Alabama were awarded second place and a team from the JerseySTEM program, which has locations throughout New Jersey, took third place. Each winning team earned a scholarship for their school’s STEM program, with the first prize winners from Pennsylvania also earning a trip to U.S. Space Camp.