Building future cities

Northern Nevada kids think up green, environmentally friendly cities with renewable energy sources at an annual Future City competition.

Lost Paradise co-founders Leah Radcliffe, 12, Jon Lienert, 13, and Brian Bosma, 13, built Lost Paradise with a “people mover” to take residents to and from the flag-topped office building.

Lost Paradise co-founders Leah Radcliffe, 12, Jon Lienert, 13, and Brian Bosma, 13, built Lost Paradise with a “people mover” to take residents to and from the flag-topped office building.

More on the Future City project at

A river can be a useful city feature. Just ask the city leaders of Lost Paradise, a town of 39,492 that gets much of its power and water from the river that runs through it. The rest of the energy that powers Lost Paradise comes from solar panels perched on the tops of every house and some wind turbines.

What, no nuclear power plant? City leaders said they looked into the possibility. But one of their directives was to create a living environment that would be environmentally acceptable in the future. Also, at the end of the day, the city had to look at its budget.

“Nuclear power was too expensive,” said Brian Bosma, 13, who co-founded Lost Paradise with classmates Leah Radcliffe, 12, and Jon Lienert, 13.

“These work out better,” added Lienert, gesturing toward a row of homes, one-sixth scale, topped with solar collectors crafted from tinfoil.

In fact, the environmentally friendly energy generation does seem to be working. Pollution is minimal in Lost Paradise, one of 24 cities designed with the help of SimCity 3000 software that were competing Saturday for the National Engineers Week Future City award. The Regional Transportation Commission, the American Public Works Association and a group called Our Future Cities sponsor the Northern Nevada competition.

“You can see how excited the kids are about this,” said judge Keith Lockard, who works for the city of Reno. He’s never played SimCity, but he knows what to look for in a quality municipality. “We all live in cities, and to understand how cities function is important. … We need engineers.”

Swarming around possible cities of the future were potential engineers of the future, all middle school-aged. The event was held at the Harry J. Reid Engineering Lab at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The competition served as the culmination of a semester of work that only a few students survived, said Fernley Intermediate School teacher Alan Parnell. In Fernley, 12 teams expressed interest in building a future city.

“At first, it’s ‘here’s a way to have fun,’ “ Parnell said. “And you’re playing a computer game that’s fun.”

But playing SimCity was only a small part of the project. After designing a city that worked—the game defines success using growth as one of several deciding factors—kids had to write papers describing the choices they made regarding some complex city planning issues like tax rates, zoning, transportation, water and electricity.

Then they had to build a scale model of one part of their city on a large hunk of plywood. Like the computer-simulated city, the model was also built on a budget. That led to some creative-looking structures.

In Lost Paradise, created by a team from Calvary Baptist Church School, a hydroelectric paddle wheel made from a No. 2 pencil and slices of aluminum from a Mello Yello can was powered by a battery-operated pencil sharpener. In the city created by Fernley students, Monstropolis, large painted coffee cans marked the city’s commercial core. Plans for Monstropolis included a mix of world wonders, like the Washington Monument, the Great Pyramids, the Sydney Opera House, the Sphinx, the Smithsonian Castle and the Alamo. Of these, the Alamo was included on the Monstropolis scale model.

“Ivan carved the Alamo out of foam,” Monstropolis co-founder Morgan Temple, 14, explained, referring to city co-founder Ivan Young, 13. “He’s good at carving.”

Other students building Monstropolis included Jed Brazell, 13, and Brian Merrill, 13.

Ivan also carved the mayor’s house, Temple said. “That’s the building with the helicopter pad painted on the top.” That’s not all that Ivan carved. “We had some benches, but kids at our school stole them.”

The computer game SimCity, even back in its ancient low-res “classic” mode, is at least as addictive as crack cocaine—to the right kind of person. In the game, a player (aka “mayor") starts out with a chunk of undeveloped real estate and a given amount of money to spend. Growth must be managed carefully through zoning and taxation decisions. Being in charge of all the utilities complicates matters for the player. There’s no Sierra Pacific Power Company to fix power lines that are downed by a storm. No Truckee Meadows Water Authority to keep the H2O flowing.

But, oh the power, the complete authority given to the mayor. No city council must be convinced of the wisdom of any given course of action. No pesky citizen activists protest the building of a train trench through the downtown core. If a mayor does poorly, the little Sims quietly pack up and move to greener pastures. If a mayor does a truly horrible job, there is a slight risk of a drive-by shooting.

One teacher was overheard telling another adult about a student mayor who didn’t exactly pursue the kinds of goals desirable in exemplary leaders.

“He worked hard and built a big city. Then he wrecked it. Turns out he just wanted a huge city so he could turn on all the disasters and wipe it out. That’s all he wanted.”

Judges wandered through the engineering lab building throughout the day, stopping at each city for a student presentation. After considering Lost Paradise for a few moments, Judge John Mayer, a Sparks city councilman, asked about the round black ball on top of the all-black government building.

“That’s just for decoration,” said one student. “We thought that, with the egg cartons, it gave it a futuristic look.”

“I think it’s interesting that the government building looks a little like Darth Vader,” said Judge Christine Welch, in an aside to Mayer.

“I’m surprised that there’s not a theater in it,” Mayer replied.

The winner Saturday, a city called Packmaquady, was a biomass-powered wonder created by a team of future city leaders from Pine Middle School. Co-founding 13-year-olds Stephanie Sebek, Kristine Carter and Kristine McGinley will take their city to Washington, D.C., for the national competition.

Interesting idea, powering a city with garbage. It just so happened that I had spent the previous day talking with a biomass zealot for a future story about the real possibilities of doing this here.

Cooking garbage—from food waste to discarded paper and plastic bottles—at extreme temperatures and capturing the resulting gas seems to be the ultimate green energy. It completes the recycling cycle. It seems so doable that, in fact, some innovative California power plants are giving garbage fuel a whirl. Why not Reno? With kids like the Packmaquady city mothers in charge of the future, anything is possible.

Perhaps the most important question being asked Saturday by judges and by a few wandering faculty from UNR’s College of Engineering to all the future city co-founders was: “What makes your city great? Why would I want to move here? Why would I want to bring my business here?”

The future engineers were prepared for the question. Some mentioned low tax rates. Others talked about the many recreational opportunities offered in their cities. For a few, though, greatness was simple.

“What we really strive for is less pollution," Brian Bosma of Lost Paradise said. "And see how we have the houses so close together? That’s so that when you look out, you see beautiful grass and trees and open spaces."