Learning Towards Better Cities Highlights from University of Victoria Urban Sustainability Field Schools

Since 2012, geography students from the University of Victoria have gotten out of the classroom to study sustainable community development in cities abroad. On month-long travel study programs with itineraries traversing the Pacific Northwest (or North America) or the Atlantic Northwest (of Europe), students connect with city planners, activists, community leaders, academics, and others grappling with the daunting social and ecological crises facing cities.

In 2017, for example, students traveled from Paris to Copenhagen.

Here we share what we have learned about the joys and frustrations; the promising pathways and challenging barriers in cultivating just, resilient, and sustainable cities .

learning outside the Classroom

Each summer the UVic Sustainability Field School inspires critical reflection and practical action towards sustainability through an engaging, experiential learning program. The program commences with a week of local field trips and classroom discussion, where students are immersed in the literatures of sustainability, regional geography, and field methods, followed by the travel study component itself.

pre-travel program

The program encourages continuous self and group reflection, balancing structure and guidance with self-directed and community-based social learning. Following Shurmer-Smith et al. (2002:166), instructors “facilitate the experience by making suggestions and responding to observations, stating their own point of view without privileging it, setting things straight when they recognized factual errors, but, otherwise, trying to restrain the urge to dictate”.

The field school features guided tours, meetings with local actors, community-service projects, hands-on activities, and group reflective “sharing circles”. However, apart from setting the theoretical context in the first week, it does not feature conventional lectures. Instead, students cultivate critical thinking skills through continuous individual and group discussion and social interaction (Brookfield 1987, Reed et al. 2010). Each student keeps a detailed field journal, contributes to a multi-media blog and participates in a legacy project, bringing what they learned in the field back to their own home communities. The itinerary and program are carefully designed to afford diverse learning experiences and encounters with multiple (often contrary) perspectives.

reflective learning in sharing circles

We deliver the field program in the spirit of critical pragmatism and transformative learning (see Dewey 1917, Bernstein 2010, Kadlec 2007, Holden et al 2013). Dewey (1917:65) directed academic inquiry away from the stuffy problems of philosophers to practical problems facing communities. The goal of education, according to Dewey (1933), should be to transform the way students see and act with others in the world. Dewey’s (1933) radically democratic pedagogy informs service-based, experiential, transformative and social learning approaches (Giles & Eyler 1994, Mezirow 1997).

Former field school student Morgan henderson sharing her research on land use conflict with the 2017 group

Mezirow (2000:214) describes transformative learning as occurring when “we transform our taken-for-granted frames of reference to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, [malleable], and reflective so that they may generate beliefs and opinions that will prove more true or justified to guide action”. A critical pragmatic approach further emphasizes the interrogation of normalized structures and discourses in capitalist modernity that insidiously reproduce uneven social relations (and could be different) (Kadlec 2007). While critical pragmatism shares this commitment with other critical approaches, it departs from them in its wariness of “ready made answers” that preclude a critical examination of particular arguments given by multiple actors in specific contexts in a world “ineluctably characterized by flux and change” (Kadlec 2007: 12). Critical pragmatists appreciate the de-constructive, polemical, and pedagogical potential of interrogating institutions and processes (surrounding sustainability, for example) as sites of reality construction and contestation (Barnes 2010). To this end, the field school is counseled by Friedrich Nietzsche to avoid “resting once and for all in any one total view of the world” and, instead, to become enchanted with opposing points of view and to refuse “to be deprived of the stimulus of the enigmatic."

Trädgård på spåret - Garden on the Tracks - Stockholm (2015 Field School)

The field school is thus premised on an anti-essentialist epistemology, ceaseless critical interrogation, interest in the multiple perspectives of various actors constructing or contesting sustainability on the ground in the region and a commitment to creative action arising out of communal inquiry.

city of malmö (2015 Field School)

Paul Robbins' metaphor of the “hatchet and seed” is useful for communicating the critical pragmatic approach. Students are continuously encouraged to interrogate the dynamics of the devastating “dominant social paradigm” by “cutting and pruning away the stories, methods and policies that create pernicious social and environmental outcomes” with a hatchet while simultaneously cultivating the seeds of creative and practical action (Robbins 2004:12).

2017 Field School Group at learning about food security in Victoria from Patti (Vic West Food Security Collective). Check out: https://vicwestfoodsecurity.org/

Sustainability education often privileges one of the two: robust critical reflection or a pragmatic, action-orientation. Michael Maniates argues that too many sustainability-focused programs privilege applied problem-solving over critical reflection. In so doing, such programs neglect careful consideration of how action fits into “a larger mosaic of political power, cultural transformation, and social change” (Maniates 2013:258). Without nuanced critical reflection, practical action can unintentionally reproduce insidious infrastructures of power.

Conversely, programs may focus exclusively on critical theory while foreclosing outlets for hopeful, practical and creative action (Latour 2004). If the hatchet of deconstruction is wielded without the seed of practical action, students are left as disempowered, indignant spectators. Like Clegg (1999), I believe that simply “teaching subject knowledge falls short of ensuring new practitioners are empowered to question, and potentially improve upon, what they are doing or why” (cited in Smith (2011: 218).

field schools are also meant to be fun...

The tone of the field school is thus critically optimistic – eschewing both debilitating pessimism and oblivious optimism about our present condition and future opportunities. We are buoyed by Hawken’s (2009) reflections that, “if you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data... but if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic you haven’t got a pulse.” We intend the field school to inspire students to approach unflinchingly the daunting task of promoting robust, sustainable communities and the cultural-political barriers in the way. We seek to incite a bit of anger, but also hope and commitment to confronting despair, power and incalculable odds to restore some semblance of grace, justice and beauty in this world” (Hawken 2009).

Meeting with planners, activists, scholars, and others grappling with the daunting social and ecological challenges faced by cities (in this case in Northern Europe) students are tasked with asking and answering increasingly more nuanced and qualified questions piercing the who, what, where, when, why and how of sustainability.

The field school focuses on "sustainable communities", but our interest is not in uncritically celebrating "sustainability". Students are tasked with unpacking how this or related terms e.g. "livability", "resilience", "net-positive" have been understood, struggled over, implemented, and / or resisted on the ground in the specific, complex urban contexts we visit. We seek to learn from inspiring efforts to cultivate better urban living, but not without asking piercing questions after the who, what, where, when, why, and how of sustainability.

ANTI-gentrification Tour in Berlin (2015 Field School)

Care must be taken in setting off to learn from European cities. Some urbanists argue that the political, historical, and planning / policy contexts are so different that while European cities might appear impressive "they aren’t that relevant to American planners" (Holleywell 2016). Yet, after a number of trips to Europe, visiting a number of projects and meeting the inspiring people behind them, I feel there are many relevant insights and ideas that can inform and inspire our efforts towards better urbanism here at home.

As UVic students and instructors, we live and study on the unceded territories of Coast Salish (Songhees, Esquimalt, and W̱SÁNEĆ) Nations. We support the struggles of First Nations communities for dignity and sovereignty. There will be no "sustainability" in this region while Indigenous peoples remain dispossessed of their territories.

Created By
Cam Owens


Created with images by Moyan_Brenn - "Amsterdam" and Cam Owens

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