How cityscapes can help us learn

Beyond classrooms and their formal education, cities can engage communities in learning

Meeta Sengupta
Updated: Jun 26, 2014 08:10:24 AM UTC

Image: Shutterstock

A decade ago, the idea of a borderless world seemed closer to our grasp than any other time in history. Even as we speak, cities across the world seem to become more homogenous as they grow along traditional topographies to create skylines in concrete and glass. They are both the symbol and process of mobility—people, technology, knowledge and more.

Cities tell stories but not as many as they can, or should. Cities as evolving carriers of global standards need to do more—they need to be vehicles for global learning. And the very same cities can teach more about their roots and traditions than any classroom ever can. So far they have been passive teachers and there is little reason for them to be as restrained as they have been in the past.

Building and planning Cities as Learning Aids (CaLA) programmes would greatly enhance the education standards across the world, whether it is about literacy, awareness, science, traditional medicine, history or even physics. Imagine a city with trash cans that carry information about the local area, encouraging communities to know and share more. Imagine bus stops with educational games for younger children and the physics of those explained for those who are slightly older. Imagine sidewalks with word-building lessons built into them—some could even sound out the letters and notes as you walked over them. Imagine a world where every bridge and flyover had giant markers explaining the science of what held them aloft. Or every river and park had markers sharing how things grow. The possibilities are limitless. And the science for it is here.

Much work has already been done in the Building as Learning Aid (BaLA) programmes where primary schools used surfaces wherever the student walked or played to encourage learning. Mirrors reflected principles of light, multiplication games were embedded in hopscotch painted on the floor and window grills showed how fractions worked. There is no reason not to transfer these to cityscapes to jumpstart learning conversations. This is especially relevant to cities with a large immigrant labour force that may have missed out on formal education in their past. Many of the materials have been tested for sturdiness and cost—rolling it out for meaningful engagement needs some thought now.

CaLA programmes need to be adopted to break the bounds of the classroom and reach out to people at every possible point of contact. We miss out on learning opportunities that each brick provides at the point of use—which is where one crosses over from the theoretical to the possibility of application and enhancement. It breaks through the traditional barriers of learning of age, registration, verification, testing and creates more real engagement than the phenomenon of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have. Call this Massive Open Real-time Engagement, if you will.

Much work is being done on smart cities. But that is doomed to stagnate unless cities are learning cities in ever more inclusive ways. Learning cities are, by definition, smart cities because they build community engagement and improvement into their very fabric if they engage the learning-doing muscle for all. Without this, we may end up like those poor people who, when recently surveyed, seemed to place Ukraine all over the world map. Or those who miss out on the measurement of nature—also called science. Or worse, miss out on economic opportunity because their cities did not care enough to reach out to them.

This is a strategy that brings together the tools of urban planning and the Millenium Development Goals in the ultimate glocal programme. CaLA can work as an aid to city goals. Cities that wish to engage all in more literacy, better health, more tourism, local trades etc can design learning aids for their needs. For example, language guides as you walk out of stations and bus stops, local courtesies marked out to prevent trouble for tourists, guides to local businesses and trackers built in to measure engagement can support city targets. CaLA for public education has already been used in traditional ways—road signs, billboards etc. Public programmes and social engineering projects have often used passive, sometimes even passive-aggressive techniques for sharing their message. Advertising for commerce has done far more creative things in dissemination using the city but few of these tools have been used for learning yet and this is an opportunity that must be tapped.

London is one city, for example, that does well to use the city as an aid for learning its history. The blue plaques put up all over the city mark the houses and buildings where great events happened or where scientists, authors and dramatists lived and worked. With limited space, the plaques manage to be visible, readable and pique the curiosity of the passerby—local and tourist alike. They create a unique identity for themselves and engage people with the past of the city. Yet, this barely scrapes the surface of what is possible. Other city programmes too have done just that— engaged with the history, art and the local industry of the area. Few have ventured beyond the local to give global flight to latent potential that walks past everyday. But we know from the success of the school building programmes that there is an opportunity to create deeper and wider engagement with learning using cityscapes. Else, we cannot meet the growth and equity goals of the world. And cities must do their bit.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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