Some Toronto high school students are getting a lesson in politics as they push for design changes to a city bridge.
Eleven Marc Garneau Collegiate grade 12 students, members of the high school’s 4M Tech Design Class, presented their ideas on how to reimagine Overlea Bridge to city officials recently.
The bridge, which links the neighbourhoods of Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park, sees an estimated 3,000 pedestrians a day, with the majority between 11 and 19 years old. Officially called the Charles H. Hiscott Bridge, it was built in 1960.
“This bridge is our community sidewalk,” Zanib Zaakia, 17, one of the students, told city officials.
“We will have to come back to school soon. Our community still faces immense pressure from the pandemic today. We cannot wait for years before anything changes. We are asking you to find things that can be done today that bring some of our vision to life.”
On Monday, five students will take part in a one-hour workshop on how to talk to politicians led by Don Valley West MP Robert Oliphant. On March 23, they are expected to speak at the city’s infrastructure and environment committee after turning their presentation into a deputation.
According to the students, the bridge lacks enough space for pedestrians and cyclists and is not safe. There are no protected bike lanes. The road surface drainage and lighting are both poor. As well, there is no way to enforce the speed limit during rush hour in the curb lane reserved for buses, taxis and bicycles.
Community members have said it also lacks room for physical distancing during the pandemic.
Students learning how to present ideas ‘efficiently’
Zaakia, who lives in Thorncliffe Park, said on Sunday the project has taught the students about design, but presenting the project is teaching them how to convey their views succinctly. The bridge is important to the students because it connects two communities together, she said.
“It’s a bridge that I have to cross every day to get to and from school. It’s a place where you can see the beauty of the valley. It’s an experience for me and the other students, just crossing on it every single day,” she said.
Zaakia, who wants to be an engineer, said she signed up for the workshop to improve her communications skills. Through the project, she has learned about bridges, which she called a “symbol for communities,” and how to think like an engineer by solving a problem that affects her life.
“We learned about a lot of ways to present our ideas in a systematic way so what we have to say stands out. We learned that we can present what we have to say efficiently to the councillors and the MPs,” she said.
According to teacher Tim Langford, redesigning the bridge became a school project and the final phase involved the students presenting their versions of the reimagined bridge to the public.
“Although this is primarily a political issue, I put it to my Technological Design class as a design problem. They responded! The students were keen to work on the project because they live with the bridge and have many complaints about it themselves,” Langford said in an email.
Langford said the students are gathering community support by circulating the presentation within Thorncliffe and Flemingdon neighbourhoods. A social media campaign is underway.
City says it has started design work for bridge overhaul
Jacquelyn Hayward, director of project design and management for the city’s Transportation Services, told CBC Toronto that design work is underway as part of a planned overhaul of the bridge. The city also plans to improve infrastructure near the bridge, including the intersection of Don Mills Road and Overlea Boulevard.
“The City recognizes the need to enhance the bridge with wider sidewalks and higher railings, for example, and several of the concepts that the students were looking to see are already incorporated in preliminary designs,” Hayward said.
She said a public consultation process will take place later this year on preliminary designs.
“This consultation process will be a great way for the students to get involved and ensure their voices are heard formally through the City’s design process.”
At the meeting, six students presented videos showing their redesigns.
Among some of the ideas were glass barriers with bright LED lights, a new bike lane, wider pedestrian lanes with benches, speed bumps and a destination board, as well as surveillance cameras and high railings at both ends.
“We want the bridge to be a community place that will serve our mental health needs as well as our physical health needs: our needs for a sense of connection and community, and our need to experience beauty,” Arielle Limas, a student, told the meeting.
Students get mixed reaction from officials
The response from officials was mixed.
Coun. Denzil Minnan-Wong, Ward 16, Don Valley East, told the students that any proposals have financial considerations.
“It’s a complicated problem. I would say that our councillors, the elected officials here, need you to send your plans over to your financial literacy class because this is going to be an expensive, expensive project. Quite frankly, we have to find a way to pay for any of these things,” he said.
Coun. Jaye Robinson, Ward 14, Don Valley West, said she was impressed by the presentation and use of technology. She has said the bridge is scheduled for major infrastructure improvements in the next five years.
“Great work on everybody’s part,” Robinson said.
Hayward, for her part, said the research on existing conditions of the bridge was “fantastic” but reminded the students that thousands of vehicles use the bridge daily. “You recognize that the traffic demand is about 20,000 vehicles a day,” she said. “Part of that is a very highly used bus route.”
She said the city would like to maintain the “existing lane capacity” of Overlea Boulevard but said the students identified key parts of the design process.
‘Don’t be discouraged,’ former premier tells students
Kathleen Wynne, Don Valley West MPP and former Ontario premier, praised the students for their work, saying: “It’s remarkable and it’s thorough and it’s just so very impressive,” she said.
Wynne encouraged the students to speak to the North York Community Council with a focus on making the bridge safe.
“Don’t be discouraged by the idea that it will cost millions of dollars. Of course, it will. There is a plan and there will be dollars that will go into the road. Better that you have input now, right at the beginning of that process.”
Oliphant thanked the students for solving a problem in a way that is good for their communities.