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Science and Innovations

Flagstaff Middle Schoolers Imagine 'Future Cities'

Melissa Sevigny

What will cities look like 100 years from now? Eighth grade students at Sinagua Middle School are dreaming up their own ideas. It’s part of the national Future City contest which teaches science, engineering skills, and imagination. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports on their creative solutions to today’s problems.

Welcome to the imaginary city Kuppell, Switzerland in the year 2119. "We have two fire stations, one hospital, one clinic, two universities…. So since we’re 100 years into the future, we thought, flying cars," explains 13-year-old Dareen Huffman, showing off his team's 3D model. Buildings made of recycled cardboard cluster beneath a snow-covered mountain. The judges begin to make their rounds.

The students have to invent new transportation options and think about sustainable energy. And their cities have to be able to withstand natural disasters. Local contractor Mike Thomas is one of the judges. He says the contest is about imaginative solutions to real problems.   

"These are real-world issues that they’re dealing with," Thomas says. "One of them was talking about floodwaters in Louisiana, I mean, these are things we’re dealing with."  

Some cities have escape tunnels, or sprinkler systems for wildfires, or enormous retractable domes. Snow fences protect one Canadian city from avalanches, and its solar array folds back into the mountain. 13-year-old-Lakin Smith explains residents here have an unusual way to get around: "We’ve focused ourselves on eliminating the carbon emissions from vehicles like cars. One of our main choices is snow dogs, and of course the ski lift and skiing."

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Logan Ash, Anthony Escalera, Ali Liebe and Lakin Smith with their city

An Australian city has a whole subterranean level for water, recycling, waste, and hurricane shelters. The designers Kadence Brown and Caprice Galea both say they want to be engineers one day. They click on a mechanical toothbrush painted and glued to their city. "This is a wind turbine and it actually works," explains Brown. Galea adds: "For our energy we only use renewable energy sources like solar and wind power."

A resilient power grid is one of the requirements. Cities also need some kind of industry, like stone masonry. That’s what Ella Augenstein and Jake Mizer imagined in their New Mexico city.

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Jamie Sevier, Jake Mizer and Ella Augenstein with their city

"That’s the main industry," Augenstein says, and Mizer explains: "Countertops and stone appliances and stuff, and we make tacos as well."

The city is named Nan So’geh Hugeh, which means “underground” in the indigenous Tewa language.  In case of a tornado, their whole city sinks beneath the earth. Mizer says, "Our city lowers down by these jacks I guess, and then when it’s fully underground generators push over this cover to protect our city from tornados."

Gretchen Goodley is the teacher who organizes the Future City contest every year. She says the kids learn a lot, but so do the teachers and community members who come to judge the projects. Goodley says adults sometimes feel trapped in the face of global and local problems. "These students don’t feel that way. They don’t have the cynical approach that others may have," she says. 

And the best thing about the contest, says eighth grader Gus Fox: "This actually might be a city in, like, a long time."

Maybe cars won't fly and cities won't sink underground anytime soon, but one of the judges, Sinagua teacher Cy Hershey, says that’s OK. The students aren’t limited to today’s technology. They’re free to use their imaginations. "Some really great ideas, from the minds of these guys. They are our future, looking into the future, you know?" he says.

Six teams from Sinagua will go on to the regional competition in Phoenix this weekend. There students have a chance to go to the national finals in Washington DC.


Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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