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Children of today build cities for tomorrow

Emily Howley (center) of the Albert F. Argenziano School took part in the Future City competition held in Boston on Saturday. Howley and her classmates from the Argenziano School topped a dozen other teams and will head to Washington, D.C., for the national Future City event.
Emily Howley (center) of the Albert F. Argenziano School took part in the Future City competition held in Boston on Saturday. Howley and her classmates from the Argenziano School topped a dozen other teams and will head to Washington, D.C., for the national Future City event. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Imagine Cambridge as a model city for all ages, but particularly the future retiree — vending machines that dispense household goods, fall-proof flooring, wider sidewalks, and crosswalks that trigger automatic handrails to rise from the pavement.

This futuristic vision is not an engineering student’s thesis or a city planner’s newest proposal. It’s the product of 12- and 13-year-old students from the Albert F. Argenziano School in Somerville, who topped a dozen other teams in the DiscoverE’s Future City competition Saturday afternoon at the State Transportation Building in downtown Boston.

Students from across Massachusetts teamed up by school and created scaled model cities, complete with residential, commercial, and industrial zoning.

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This year’s theme, “The Age-Friendly City,” challenged students to create solutions that could make life easier for a city’s growing older population. Reed Brockman, former president of the Boston Society of Civil Engineers and co-coordinator of the competition, said the theme is meant to make students “rack their brains.”

The winning group created a more user-friendly model of Cambridge for all ages with the help of Alea Mehler of MIT AgeLab and Michael Coughlin, the science teacher who led the team to the final competition in Washington, D.C., last year.

“Older adults die alone, and that’s not how we want our future to go,” said 14-year-old Emily Howley, of Somerville. “So we changed some things based on it.”

Other groups came up with similarly innovative — and sometimes eccentric — ideas, like Foxborough Regional Charter School’s windmill built using an electric toothbrush and Masconomet Middle School’s two-level model city, with a subterranean industrial zone and above-ground residential park.

“I thought about my grandparents and problems they have,” said Lily Fishman, 14, of Boxford, who said the model would protect elders from pollution and noise. “I think creativity is the foundation for success.”

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In order to submit a model to the competition, students had to create a virtual city using a simulation program and submit an essay with a description of one issue the aging community faces.

The goal, set by the national Future City team, challenged students to prove to the judges that their cities could promote civic engagement and cater to an aging population. Judges included Sara Ting of World Unity, Inc., Jan Mutchler of the Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging at University of Massachusetts Boston, and Emily Shea of Boston’s Elderly Commission.

“These are our future leaders,” Ting said. “It would be great if lawmakers would come and listen to what young people are thinking.”

Students from the Argenziano School will travel to the Future City national competition in Washington, D.C., at the end of February to compete against thousands of students from across the country.

“We were very surprised because the other groups were so good,” Howley said. “We focus on community engagement for everyone and people respecting older adults more. It’s simple, but it’s something we really need.”


Samantha J. Gross can be reached at samantha.gross@globe.com. Shelby Grebbin can be reached at shelby.grebbin@globe.com.