How to educate about sustainable cities?

By Yvonne Rydin, Bartlett School of Planning, University College London

Image credit: UCL Media Services - University College London.

Image credit: UCL Media Services – University College London.

It is the time of year for A-level and GCSE results to be announced. Geography students at both levels will have learnt about sustainable cities and case studies will have featured prominently in their studies. The BBC Bitesize website, for example, provides a profile of Masdar City in Abu Dhabi as an exemplar of how cities can be developed to have a lower carbon footprint, zero waste generation, prioritise pedestrian movement in the city centre, and so on.

The idea is clear – there are concrete examples of ‘best practice’ that students can learn about. As educational programme moves into the graduate and postgraduate levels, this learning is increasingly linked to potential professional practice – learning about best practice in order to implement more of it in the real world.

But in our article in Area, we raise some fundamental questions about this approach. We see an important tension between, on the one hand, the desire to teach skills and knowledge that is mobile and able to travel and, on the other, the realisation that implementing sustainability can only occur in specific sites and will inevitably be shaped by local features. Higher education institutions have a strong commercial and perhaps ideological imperative to emphasise the global transferability of their knowledge; we draw associations here with the policy mobilities literature that analyses the way that policy ideas circulate around the world.

But pedagogy should recognise that local implementation will always involve the re-use of knowledge in new contexts, not its simple transfer. Do universities currently stress this enough, problematising rather than recycling the idea of best practice? We also raise the question of whether students are sufficiently involved in the overt co-production of sustainable city knowledge by reflecting on how it is reframed in new contexts. Should they perhaps confront the results of research ‘back home’ or on fieldtrips more directly with the learning in the classroom, querying where principles-based learning does not work actually in practice?

Finally we urge the prioritisation of education over the marketing of qualifications although we recognise that the harsh financial realities facing many universities makes this seem somewhat idealistic. But if sustainable cities are to become a reality, perhaps one should be allowed to dream.

About the authors: Yvonne Rydin is a Professor of Planning, Environment and Public Policy at the The Bartlett School of Planning, University College London. Yvonne co-authored her Area paper with Dr Susan Moore, who is a lecturer at the Bartlett School of Planning, and Brian Garcia who is a PhD candidate at the same institution. 

 Moore, S., Rydin, Y. and Garcia, B. (2014), Sustainable city education: the pedagogical challenge of mobile knowledge and situated learning. Area. doi: 10.1111/area.12127

60-world2 BBC Bitesize Case Study: Masdar City in Abu Dhabi

2 thoughts on “How to educate about sustainable cities?

  1. Bob Graham

    Why do we persist with the notion that cities as objects can be or become sustainable? It is feasible to achieve more sustainable outcomes for particular activities within urban areas (as it is elsewhere), but cities are such complex and dynamic socio-political constructs that the notion of a “sustainable city” is unrealistic. Whilst Abu Dhabi has some interesting and worthwhile sustainable outcomes – it is hardly a “sustainable city” – with its dependence on low paid immigrant labour, high carbon footprint construction methods, massive landscape wide changes and extreme social divisions. From a teaching point of view I would prefer to see a more critical approach to simplistic concepts such as sustainable cities.

    Reply

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