Mott Haven high school seniors try their hand at city planning

A student at X233 explains his project at the Youth Engagement Student Project Fair on April 4, 2024
Photo Emily Swanson

On Thursday about 40 high school seniors at the South Bronx’s Laboratory School of Finance and Technology (X223) in Mott Haven showcased projects that allowed them to envision and plan for change in their own neighborhood. 

The work was presented to leaders in various city agencies and done in collaboration with the Department of City Planning (DCP), who made no secret of the fact that part of their mission was to inspire future coworkers. 

DCP Executive Director Edith Hsu-Chen praised the “creativity and sophistication” of the work and told the group.

“I feel I’m standing in the presence of future planning greatness,” Hsu-Chen said.

More urban planners will be needed in the coming years as the industry is projected to grow at an average pace and the median salary is over $79,000 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A master’s degree is typically required, but as high school seniors, this group got a head start in exploring a career that affects every aspect of their lives. 

The April 4 Youth Engagement Project Fair was the culmination of a curriculum jointly planned by X223 teachers and DPC staff. Final projects were presented on neatly-organized posters that mimicked the kinds of easy-to-follow one-pagers handed out for DCP initiatives. 

The work focused on housing, economic development, transportation and sustainability in the South Bronx, where all the students live and go to school. 

X223 has a special focus on real-life learning and collaboration with professionals in various industries, according to Assistant Principal Ashley Downs. She said the school changed its focus from just getting students into college to ensuring they all have “career-connected learning opportunities” based in the real world. 

Edith Hsu-Chen, executive director of DCP, told the students she hopes some of them will choose a career in city planning. Photo courtesy DCP

Working under DCP guidance, the students put their imaginations to work while also researching the practical realities of what it would take to carry out their ideas. 

Edwin Lucas, 18, said his group’s idea — a sustainable housing concept called Green Top, inspired by the Via Verde complex in Mott Haven, which the students visited with DCP — helped him identify areas in the neighborhood that are sitting vacant and dream up good uses for them.

“Instead of abandoning places, we should recreate buildings,” he said.

Another student group designed a community center at 272 East 151st St., having also found that site by researching vacant buildings. 

Their demographic research showed that many people in the neighborhood do not have four-year college degrees and the poverty rate is high. So their center would offer job training for adults — specifically in pharmacy careers — and a place for young people to hang out, learn and be active.

The center’s highlight — a garden and soccer pitch — would actually be up on the roof. A student in the group named Freddy said saw something similar in Queens and figured South Bronxites would love it as well. 

“It’d catch a lot of people’s eye and attention,” he said.

Focus on youth opportunities was common amongst the students, as they know firsthand what their neighborhood needs. 

Gideon Owusu and his group created Youth Empowerment Programs (YEP), which would provide workforce training and fill some gaps in school curriculum. 

For instance, X223 does not offer physics classes — and some seniors applying to college have missed out on opportunities because they lack the physics background, according to Owusu, 18.

“If [the city] invest[s] in us, it wouldn’t just benefit us. It would benefit the whole economy,” he said. “We are the future generation. We are the work force.”

And to make sure the idea would have support, the students read survey data and found that residents and elected officials want youth training and education programs in the neighborhood.

“People really support it. The youth really need it,” he said.

Hope Devore, who teaches the 12th grade government class, guided her students through their research and accompanied them on the site visits with city agencies to Via Verde, the Kingsbridge Armory and various street improvement locations. 

The projects “provided students with a voice and lens for issues in their neighborhoods,” Devore said. And because of their work, “a bunch of students” have expressed interest in city planning careers, while many others saw themselves getting into nonprofit community work.

DCP staffers were quick to remind the students that they welcome all who may want to join the team or somehow develop these projects down the road. 

“We are planning for the future of New York, and that starts today, right here in this cafeteria,” Hsu-Chen said.

Reach Emily Swanson at or (646) 717-0015. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes