The city as place

Cities have always been significant places and have always had a disproportionate influence and impact upon society, politics, the economy, and the environment. But the pace and extent of urbanization since the mid-1970s has, in many instances outstripped the ability of governments and society to act, or even react to this reality.

This has led to the spectre of cities as places of chaos and disunity, of inequality and crime, of despair and malaise. Such interpretations are readily found in the media, in academia and in education. There is considerable truth in such stereotypes, but they are just that – stereotypes. Look a little deeper and you will find that cities are also places of community and cooperation, of cohesion and empowerment, of vision and creativity. Like any other place, they are complex and confusing.

The city as place can however be useful in engaging with complexity as it provides an element of tangibility; of boundaries. In reality of course few places are (or ever have been) truly bounded in such neat terms, but thinking about the city can be a useful starting point from which to begin framing ideas and engaging with different perspectives. Their pivotal role in the processes of modernisation and globalization means cities can be particularly useful to global learning. Cities represent a lens through which to explore global issues, the ideas underpinning them, and the reactions they engender.

[Table to be added] Fig 1: World urban population in real and percentage terms, 1950-2030

Making the global real!

Whether it is climate change or international migration, the challenge of waste and recycling, or the threat from international terrorism, global issues can be readily identified at city-level. This can make such issues more accessible to learners - the scale of the city being more meaningful, and in many instances directly relevant to learners’ real-life contexts. Such contexts also open up the possibility of learning directly through the experiences of young people and their engagement with their city.

More significantly however, exploring global issues through the city can help to dispel ideas that the ‘global’ is somehow out there. It makes explicit the idea that the global is omnipresent – as much part of our local as it is the so-called global. It exposes the global as little more than a series of interconnected locals; a matter of scale rather than distinct geographical entity.

Seeing the global in this way can help to release more creative approaches to learning, opening up new avenues of enquiry and interest. Exploring the impacts of climate change at a local level, can for example, create a more meaningful encounter than looking at climate change in Bangladesh or Kenya. The same is true of local development issues, often ignored in favour of abstract and distant case studies that have little or no meaning to the learner.

A problem shared…

I am not, it should be clear, suggesting we abandon studying examples from the South or from beyond our local – far from it. Instead I am proposing that a focus on cities can help to make such foci more meaningful by building on the idea of commonality. If we are able to readily identify global issues in our cities then we can immediately begin to build empathetic responses to challenges shared by people we may never meet living in places we may never visit.

The reality of a problem shared also helps to break down the stereotypes that plague much of development education – helping young people (and their teachers) to recognise the similarities rather than jump to the differences. Cities may of course, be very different in form, but beneath this they share many of the same problems (housing, transport, environment, community cohesion etc) and could by default, learn a great deal from one another. ‘The State of English Cities’ report commissioned by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, recognised as one of its key findings the particular need to ‘…learn from successful cities abroad’. These opportunities for mutual learning can translate into stimulating learning encounters, allowing us not only to learn from others, but to better engage with our own place as a result. Cities themselves have recognised this and city-to-city networks now exist at various scales. These provide a rich vein of material to begin exploring how cities can contribute to global learning - the vast majority of it freely available via city websites.

One example of such materials is the City Development Strategy (CDS), developed by the South African Cities Network (SACN). Tide~ has found this a useful stimulus to its own thinking about cities and the learning opportunities they offer. It allows the user to begin a cities enquiry from different perspectives or doorways, but at the same time recognises the necessity for more holistic thinking. 

Fig 2: The SACN City Development Strategy – a useful framework for thinking about cities and global learningSACN strategy

“As entry points to and from the global community, cities are the spaces where the country meets the rest of the world…”  (SACN, State of the Cities Report, 2006)

The city as identity…

Whether through sporting, cultural or political events, cities frequently act as the representatives of their country. The competition that exists to host the Olympic Games is a good example of this, but there are many others. Another way that cities frequently represent the wider nation is through tourism. As primary entry points, most visitors will experience at least something of a country’s major cities and in some instances the city may itself be the destination. Barcelona, Prague and Marrakech are examples that fit well with this latter category, all benefiting from the growth in low-cost air travel since the early 1990s.

One outcome of this enhanced role of the city is that they often strive to form strong identities for themselves, complete with logos, slogans, images and entire marketing departments. But how much do these identities reflect those of the people living there? At a time in which identity politics is high on the agenda (e.g. what does it mean to be British?) and entering mainstream education, cities provide a good opportunity to explore concepts and constructs of identity. How are these identities formed and negotiated, and how do people relate to them? Do they see themselves in the city; do they see the city in themselves?

Is it possible for a city to form a single identity when the reality of cities is today an amalgam of people from disparate backgrounds, many of whom do not even speak the same language. Differing identities can be a cause of considerable tension within cities and there are examples from around the world and in the UK of this leading to localised violence. However it is perhaps testament to cities that such tensions do not emerge as an issue more often. City identities are simultaneously simple and complex and provide us with many learning opportunities.

The city as competition…

It is a common belief that to make it in life you have to head to the city; a belief largely responsible for kick-starting the rapid urbanisation of the last half century. In reality many people arriving in the city find it a place of considerable hardship and fierce competition for jobs, homes, schools, road space etc. The idea of competing for the resources of a city is very real, but there is also competition for the city itself - the literal physicality of space.

Business, transport, housing, culture, retail, leisure and the environment all seek a place and space in the city. The problem for many cities is that they are a finite resource and with so many different interest groups this inevitably leads to competition. Decisions about how best to utilise the city are subject to a wide range of opinions, agendas and dilemmas.

Such is the scale and extent of modern cities that these decisions are increasingly influenced from beyond the limits of the city itself. This intricate web of competition can delay progress for years and present cities and their populations with major problems. In response cities have introduced all manner of systems to shortcut the process, including forming their own governments. The decision making apparatus of a city can be a useful means of introducing learners to issues of governance and democracy, not least because how effective and democratic such city-level governments are, is very much up for question.

Voices of the city…

So how are today’s cities governed and how and when are the voices of their people heard? Are all voices heard equally? The political structure and function of the city is a particularly fertile ground for learning. Politics is sometimes considered abstract and ‘too big’ for children to engage with, but at the city level there are local groups representing all manner of niche interests (including children) and a real sense that voices are more effectively heard. This is evident in Birmingham for example where the views of young people involved in Tide’s Lets Talk climate change project were incorporated into the city’s 2007 city-wide strategy document [link] for climate change.

So cities can be something of a beacon for upholding the principles of democracy and debate, but they can also be hotbeds of resistance and repression. Many of the world’s most notorious civil uprisings [e.g. the 1989 student uprising of Tiananmen Square] have occurred in cities. Whatever line is taken, that cities provide a vibrant arena for exploring concepts of democracy, participation and rights, is hard to contest. A core aspiration of global learning is to reconnect young people to such political concepts and to better prepare them for life in a globalised world. It is suggested that beginning this process at the level of the city is more relevant and immediate for young people, not least because it is the real-life context in which the majority of them are today living.

Cities as a lens on the world

With the undeniable demographic shift of population towards urban areas, there is a need to better understand cities for their own sake. As the director of UN Habitat, the body overseeing work on human settlements, points out ‘how we plan and govern our cities will determine … our collective future.”

Cities then, are an issue in their own right, alongside other contenders for classroom attention like climate change, obesity, the war on terror, or immigration. But, where are the lines? In reality the competition for focus is what curriculum planners and teachers make it - subjects and issues are not so neatly bounded. Cities, it is proposed offer a particularly accessible point through which to begin unlocking these boundaries. The new QCA secondary curriculum provides teachers with greater support for transcending such subject/issue boundaries. Cities it is suggested offer a particularly rich focus for more holistic approaches to learning.

As well as providing a useful focus for holistic learning [which cities are not dealing with climate change or the war on terror for example], cities have the added benefit of acting as a lens to the wider world. The brief forays into the life of the city within this paper have demonstrated that cities around the world are dealing with common issues and sharing innovative practice and solutions. Learning about our own place through investigating another [in this case a city] can open up new and innovative ways of thinking, but so too can investigating our own place in order to understand another. Cities offer particularly rich synergy; there are clear aspects of commonality upon which to develop our understandings of the world around us.

In addition to better understanding the specifics of another place [city], the skills and approaches used to investigate that place, and the awareness and understanding of complexity that this gleans, can benefit our insights into broader global issues. Making these issues less daunting and more accessible to young people is essential if educational responses are to move beyond simplistic messages and calls to action. For young people to truly become global citizens they need to be able to engage competently with the world around them. The world is a big place, but starting in the city is one way to begin making it more accessible.

Rob Bowden

23 January 2008

The term ‘South’ as used here is comparable to ‘Third World’, ‘Less Developed’, ‘Developing’, or ‘Majority World’. I recognise that these and similar terms all have their limits and none is fully acceptable. I make no representation to favour one over another in its usage here.