2020 Top 25 winners – Urban Sustainability Champions


 |  The Starfish

Urban sustainability is the planning and principles designed to improve cities environmentally, economically, and socially without exploiting natural resources. Let’s take a look at these five leaders in Starfish’s Top 25 Under 25 who are using their unique skills and passions to support urban sustainability across Canada. 

Jason Liao, 19

Hometown: Coquitlam, British Columbia 

Traditional Territory: KʷIKʷƏƛ̓ƏM (Kwikwetlem) First Nation, Tsleil-Waututh, Katzie, XʷMƏΘKʷƏY̓ƏM (Musqueam), SḴWX̱WÚ7MESH ÚXWUMIXW (Squamish), Quay Quayt (Key-Kite) First Nation, and Sto:lo Nation

For Jason Liao, environmentalism is not just an interest or hobby, it’s a necessity. Growing up, Jason was told by teachers, news outlets, and media that the planet was dying as trees were being cut down and oceans polluted. When he didn’t see political leaders creating solutions to combat this, Jason and his friends decided to make a change. He says, “We were just tired of being scared all the time, so we decided to do something about it.”

In 2017, Jason co-founded The Pollinator Project, a youth-led non-profit whose goal is to “Save the Bees” by creating bee-friendly spaces in urban areas. The Pollinator Project works with schools, businesses, and governments to design and build gardens that attract pollinators like hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees. To date, they’ve created over 50 green spaces across Metro Vancouver.

But why do bees matter?

Apples, blackberries, onions, grapes, and lettuce… they are just a few of the crops that rely on pollinators, especially bees, to grow. Pollinators are essential to the global food system and contribute to ⅓ of every meal, yet their existence is threatened by city expansion. 

Jason explained how bees struggle to coexist with humans as green spaces are replaced with shopping centres and parking lots. “When you expand human infrastructure, we take away pollinator habitats which are essential to the survival of bees. Having green spaces, gardens, and urban agriculture inside city centres is crucial to keeping pollinators alive.”

The Pollinator Project’s latest collaboration is with environmental clubs in schools. Jason hopes to inspire youth to create pollinator gardens. By combining their enthusiasm for change with The Pollinator Project’s experience and resources, together they’ll reintegrate green spaces in cities across B.C. and help save the bees. 

Sidney Shaw, 18

Hometown: Markham, Ontario 

Traditional Territory: Ho-de-no-sau-nee-ga (Haudenosaunee), Anishinabewaki, Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, and Missaugua Peoples

Sidney Shaw is aware of the struggle to create an efficient, environmental community within highschools. In their own school, Sidney sees that while climate change interests students, they tend to look outside of school for clubs and programs. Though Sidney is in their last year of high school, their goal is to achieve an EcoSchools Certification for their school before graduating. Their environmental club is achieving this goal by creating a pollinator garden, Earth Day events, and environmental resources for teachers.

Sidney knows firsthand that youth have an overwhelming number of opportunities to get involved with climate change. They have pressed for a variety of sustainable urban solutions within their city of Markham, including joining the Blue Dot movement and speaking with MPs to advocate for the right to a healthy environment, the creation of an online public consultation portal, and the launching of a community repair cafe.

Currently, Sidney is passionate about urban agriculture and is educating people through their blog, Winky’s Farm. Sidney shares information about what they’re growing, how to create a personal urban farm, and the benefits of backyard chickens (which they are working to have legalized in Markham). They believe that urban agriculture is important on several levels. They explain, “the obvious reasons are reducing shipping and carbon emissions, but also having healthier food since you aren’t spraying pesticides.” However, for them, the most meaningful part is “making the community stronger by allowing people of all ages to be involved with food production.” 

Isaac Greenberg, 25

Hometown: Halifax, Nova Scotia

Traditional Territory: Mi’kma’ki/Mi’kmaq First Nations

According to Isaac Greenberg, community-driven projects are essential to creating sustainable solutions to urban environmental issues. 

Growing up, the idea of urban sustainability was foreign to Isaac. They were born and raised on an organic farm in Nova Scotia where they planted peas, picked peaches, and raised sheep with their family. “I never had to go to nature, it was just my life.” Isaac explains, “Once I moved to the city, that was a huge culture shock. [There were] all these social constructs about what the environment is and where nature is.” 

Many urban areas were previously integrated into agricultural spaces and had strong communities, but were eventually removed through municipal policies and discriminatory land-use decisions. Isaac’s work in sustainability focuses on social innovations that strengthen communities and reintegrate green spaces. For example, he helped launch a 1,200 square foot farm in the centre of Halifax at Veith House. 

Veith House is a community organization in Halifax that provides services such as daycare, counselling and legal services, wellness workshops, and a community kitchen. After suggesting that the empty garden at Veith House be used to create a large-scale community garden, Isaac coordinated the building process, wrote grants, and helped construct the garden. In contrast to many urban gardens that assign individual plots to members, Veith House’s urban farm is a drop-in operation. Everyone is welcome to help tend to the garden as a whole. They harvest when they can and receive food as needed, ensuring that community needs remain central to the program. 

Currently, Isaac works for the Nova Scotia government as part of a think tank that develops social innovations and solutions to the province’s challenges. They have worked on biodiversity policies, provincial happiness projects, and improving rural transportation operations. Most recently, Isaac is creating an entrepreneurship co-op in Nova Scotia that supports young people with their own business ideas while encouraging strong connections to the province. As Isaac explains, “to stay here and feel like they have a future here, they need to feel valued and like they contribute to the community.”

Nicholas Pasieczka, 21

Hometown: Oak Bluff, Manitoba

Traditional Territory: Anishinabe (Ojibway), Ininew (Cree), Oji-Cree, Dene, Dakota, and Métis People

For Nicholas Pasieczka, the community is one of his favourite parts of environmental work. He says, “getting to meet people along the way, sharing their stories and their experiences on why they’re involved, and hearing the power of why, is really inspiring.”  

Nicholas is an engineering student at the University of Manitoba who first saw the impact of renewable energy during an educational exchange with the University Cote D’Ivoire in West Africa. The universities exchanged environmental and social problems: Canada’s unreliable water and electricity in northern First Nations communities and Cote D’Ivoire’s use of kerosene wood stoves, and created solutions that were economically, environmentally, and socially responsible. 

After this experience, Nicholas actively promoted sustainability at his university by implementing composting in the engineering department, launching a speaker series on climate change solutions, and running an innovation design challenge to create solutions for world issues like wildfires and vaccine distribution. 

Nicholas is a proponent of analyzing one’s strengths and weaknesses and suggests asking yourself, “What can I do that would make the biggest impact?” While doing this himself, he realized that he could combine his passion for sustainability with his athleticism. In 2019, he ran 100 km to raise money for Pollinate Group, a global charity that empowers women entrepreneurs in India and Nepal, and distributes solar-powered lights to save money and time, while decreasing health risks from other sources of light.

Currently, Nicholas will be spending the summer working with farmers to test new harvesting technology to ensure the equipment is working efficiently and reliably. He plans to continue working in the renewable energy field, eventually apply his engineering experience to policy making, and create more sustainable governmental policies. 

Samia Sami, 23

Hometown: Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

Traditional Territory: Treaty 6 Territory, Cree, Dene, Nakota, Saulteaux, Ojibwe, and Métis People

Samia Sami is also bridging her two passions, sustainability and engineering, to integrate environmental stewardship into engineering projects. She is currently working for SaskPower and designing transmission stations that support increased use of renewable energy such as wind and solar to replace coal-fired power plants. 

In addition, Samia has been at the forefront of new engineering technologies by incorporating Artificial Intelligence (AI) into her engineering projects. She views AI as “one of the most innovative and influential trends in environmental sustainability.” By using AI, Samia has created more efficient and accurate “smart grids” that detect pollution levels, analyze energy use in buildings, optimize transportation routes, and reduce waste generation. 

Samia’s interest in sustainability originates from her personal experiences living in developing and developed countries. She witnessed how developing countries most impacted by climate change lacked many resources needed to adapt or create change. Samia’s religion, Islam, also teaches responsibility for the environment. She explains, “humans are referred to as khalifia (guardian) of the Earth. This implies that we must live in harmony with other creatures and care for the environment.”

For Samia, environmental sustainability is an exciting responsibility that leads to innovation in support of the world and all people. “We have the resources, we have the technology, we have the people. We have everything that is needed to save the climate and the most vulnerable.”