Urban Environments Examined in ‘Where We Live’

Camila Chaudron ‘08

June 30, 2014

“At the end of this class, these students will have a deeper level of understanding of community issues than most voters,” said Kris Schwengel of his grades 5 and 6 students. He and Adam Reid are co-teaching the Summer School course “Where We Live: Redesigning Our City,” which runs from June 16 – July 18, 2014. Together with their 22 students, they intend to examine the real-life challenges that every city faces, such as traffic flow, energy access and wastewater management, among others.

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Over the course of the five weeks, students will take field trips to Kaka‘ako urban area and Nu‘uanu Reservoir, and meet with industry experts from planning, consulting and electric companies in the classroom. Equipped with sophisticated software, students take the information discussed and apply it to a virtual city of their creation.

The students use “Sim City” to simulate the conditions of a real city: “Sim City is touted as a ‘game’ but trust us – this ‘game’ is just about the most powerful educational tool available for students interested in urban planning, city management and community partnerships,” wrote Schwengel and Reid on their class’ blog. However, while the program is fully functional, it is disconnected from the internet for the students’ safety, the teachers repeat assuredly.

The “Sim City” software uses advanced technology to replicate the societal repercussions that building a park or restructuring the budget might have on an actual city. While Schwengel has used the technology in his class for the past six years, “Where We Live” is the first four-hour class at Punahou that focuses entirely on urban planning.

Using “Sim City” and “SketchUp,” a 3D architectural modeling software, “students are making decisions that have visible consequences,” explained Schwengel. The class intentionally only has subscriptions to 11 programs, so the students work in pairs to design a functioning city, which, Reid adds, “allows them to engage in discussions to come to decisions about planning.”

In an early class assignment, the students were tasked with building their ideal playground given unlimited resources and incorporating some of their design lessons into the structure. “We challenged them to think about simple things that can really affect the usability of a location, such as the direction of the wind,” Reid explained. “When we zoned our playground, we put the snack bar upwind so that the smell would travel through the whole playground. Our reading area was away from the water structure to ensure that the books won't get wet,” Aidan ’22 said in defense of his group’s design choices.

The lessons explored in “Where We Live” extend beyond the infrastructural needs of a city to the theoretical: “Some students begin by building an opera house and go bankrupt instantly, but gradually, they learn to watch their budget more closely. With every city they build, they get better at managing it,” Schwengel reflected. “They learn that there are many paths to a thriving city.”

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