How do we build a resilient city?

Brought to you by The York School

The students of The York School investigate what it takes to build a resilient city. Each spring, Ms. Megan Gardner-Ross takes a group of World Issues and Geography students to the Mississippi delta and New Orleans to investigate how the area is recovering post Hurricane Katrina. Students work with journalists, environmentalists, engineers, community activists and politicians, gaining a comprehensive understanding of the resilience of the city.

From touring storm surge dykes, pump stations, barrier islands, natural flood-mitigating swamps and the Lower 9th Ward, where the Hurricane was especially damaging, the students get a holistic view of the various factors at play in rebuilding and protecting the city.

But they’re not just going to look. The students also participate in the recovery process through collecting and testing water samples from Lake Pontchartrain and by planting marsh grass and cypress trees to prevent erosion. “There is much to be learned from visiting a region recovering from disaster while facing a future that will be complicated by climate change,” explains Gardner-Ross.

The big picture

There are now 7.5 billion people living on earth. 50% live in cities. By 2075 an additional 3.5 billion people will move to cities and everything is going to change. NYC will have a population of 28m, Hong Kong 10.4m, Mumbai 57.9m, and Toronto 7.8m. Many more cities in the world will double in size.

During that same period, environmental and social pressures will increase (climate change, fresh water, food security, mobility, and affordable housing, to name a few). This future unfolding in our lifetime will be the reality of our children.

With challenge comes innovation and opportunity

To keep pace with these global shifts, the World Bank forecasts that infrastructure investment – from roads and railways, to power plants, communications networks, clean water and sanitation for example – needs to reach $94 trillion by 2040.

Ideas in science, health care, architecture, urban planning, technology, investment banking, politics and law are needed to address today’s most pressing needs.

How does a student cut through the complexity and prepare for these mega trends, and how can teachers help equip them with the tools to realize a better world? At The York School, students spend a great deal of time dissecting the issues and testing solutions.

Student-driven inquiry

“The challenges facing New Orleans can be categorized as “wicked problems”. There is not one clear-cut solution. Students are challenged to understand the interconnectivity of the regional issues,” Gardner-Ross explains.

“The trip provides students with a chance to collect data and conduct research about one particular element of the challenges facing New Orleans. Students then evaluate existing solutions and create a “pitch” for a fix they would propose. Gone are the days of passive learning. We aim to inspire our students to be forward thinking innovators, and they are rising to the challenge.”

Like cities, learning is done in layers

Besides the New Orleans trip, there are many examples of how The York School students are researching, learning and testing solutions to issues brought on by urbanization. Often going out into the field, these include:

Grades 8–10

  • A Future Design School where students explore real-world issues. This year students developed apps to address single use plastic as well as one on raising flood awareness in Toronto. Meanwhile, The York School Robotics League worked on a sustainable city, testing everything from renewable energy use to traffic flow.
  • Inspired by Jane’s Walk, the Grade 9s gave Neighbourhood Tours to parents, staff and fellow students. With titles like ‘Putting the Parks In Lawrence Park’ and ‘Distilling the Distillery they researched the unique features of each neighbourhood – the culture, degree of sustainability and pace of change – and spoke of the community spark in each. 


Grades 11–12 IB Diploma programme

  • The students have a learning unit critically evaluating sustainable city planning practices and the implications of smart city design, including a study of the new Google smart city: Quayside.
  • Using the geographic information system (GIS) framework for collecting, managing, and analyzing data, Grade 12 students are gathering and plotting their own research data to map out patterns of gentrification using indicators such as parks, schools, and proximity to public transportation.
  • From housing affordability to waste, student-led York Talks explores global and local challenges as well as how they might foster change.

As we adapt and transition, our students are developing the character traits needed to pursue opportunities and solve today’s challenges. Key skills such as critical thinking, curiosity, collaboration, risk taking and creative problem solving are built on and strengthened every day. Confidently, the students are learning and finding their role in how to help build the cities – and world – we want.

Anthony Westenberg has written about cities, the environment and sustainability for the United Nations, INSEAD, Evergreen Brick Works and the Toronto Star. He is associate director of communications for The York School. 

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