For the past seven years, the Contemporary World students at Shawinigan High School have been proposing ways to revitalize their city’s downtown core. That alone is impressive. Even more impressive is how seriously Shawinigan’s mayor and urban planners are taking the students’ ideas for sustainable development.
When Winnie Lilley began teaching the new Contemporary World course in 2008, she believed that students would better appreciate the concept of sustainable development if they could apply it to a project in their own community. “I have no background in urban planning,” she is quick to point out. But she did know that just a short walk from the school lay the architecturally significant but rundown core of what, in the early 1900s, was Canada’s most industrialized city. It was in Shawinigan that companies like Alcan first set up shop.
A call to the city put the Secondary V teacher in touch with urban planner Suzanne Marchand, who was intrigued by the idea of getting student input into ongoing development projects. And so began a partnership that each year sees the students—mentored by Suzanne Marchand and her colleagues—formally present their ideas for sustainable development to the mayor and city officials.
Winnie may not have called her initiative GOAL at the time. But it is a stellar example of how teachers can use GOAL to make their classroom teaching instantly relevant to young people wondering where the future might take them.
Dream away, but be realistic
For the first three years, the students focused on the abandoned site of the once vital Shawinigan Cotton Company and its immediate vicinity. (The site has since been completely restored and now houses an incubator for business start-ups.) They have also suggested ways the city’s original arena, named after legendary Habs’ goalie Jacques Plante, could be given a new vocation. This year, they concentrated on the area around the former arena (now Complexe Jacques-Plante), which includes a strip of riverfront land.
Most of the project is completed between September and November. The students work in teams to apply their in-class learning about environmental issues. In suggesting potential uses for buildings and public spaces, they draw on their research into local demographics, zoning, energy conservation techniques, green cities and so on.
In early January, they do a dry-run of their presentations for the urban planners, in preparation for their meeting with city officials in the spring. “We don’t give them any financial constraints because that’s not the focus of the project,” says Winnie. “We tell them: ‘Dream away, but be realistic.’ ”
Aging population a real eye-opener
To start the ideas flowing, the students’ urban-planning mentors lead them on a walking tour of the area under study. Back in the classroom, they also give the students mini-conferences on issues relevant to the specific site. But they don’t tell them what to do. In one instance, students wanted to incorporate a casino into a proposal, even though the city’s low average income and high proportion of elderly couldn’t sustain one. “We didn’t say anything, we just asked pertinent questions and let them go with it,” recalls their teacher. Ten days before the students were to make their presentation, they realized that their idea wouldn’t fly and came up with a new proposal for cooperative housing and community gardens.
Statistics Canada information on the demographics of Shawinigan has been a real eye-opener, adds Winnie. “The students see that young people are leaving the city and know how important it is to keep young families here.” Their proposals reflect this with provisions for daycare, medical clinics, bike paths and other family-friendly features.
“We are almost asking them to do the work of professional consultants.”
No one expects the students’ proposals to be adopted in their entirety. But students do see their ideas being used here and there. In one case, they suggested using new technology to reduce light pollution. The city has since announced that a grant from Hydro-Québec will allow it to do just that.
Shawinigan’s mayor, Michel Angers, has said that the students have made him aware of the importance of saving the city’s historic buildings. “We are almost asking them to do the work of professional consultants,” notes Winnie. “They feel their opinions are respected.”
“The joy of seeing students totally engaged” is one of the great rewards she experiences as a teacher. Moreover, she says she benefits personally from the mentor contact: “They bring back information from conferences they attend and are very generous in sharing it with us.”
Exercise in citizenship
The degree of support she and her students have received from the City of Shawinigan continues to astound her. When the city held a news conference to announce the restoration of the old cotton company, her class was invited. “The participation of the urban planners, the maps they give us, the media attention, the presentation day—all this has made this multi-generational project amazing,” affirms Winnie. “The mayor sincerely wants to hear the opinions of younger citizens. He has never missed a student presentation.”
Whether or not any of her students decide on an urban-planning career, their teacher has seen how empowering this experience is for them. “It’s a good exercise in citizenship,” she adds. “It is fostering an attachment to their city and they are seeing its potential.”