As I have become more aware of the need to incorporate global themes in the classroom, I recognize that many of the issues and themes I want to bring into the classroom are found under the 12 headings of the United Nations Sustainability Goals. I will spare you, gentle reader, an overview of all 12 goals, but I do want to concentrate on one of them that is of special interest to me: Sustainable Cities and Communities. I have always loved urban spaces. I love the amenities that cities offer. I love access to culture, food, diverse and cosmopolitan populations, and the sense of community that can be built in a city.
However, there is another reason why this goal is of interest to me. We know that urban area are growing at seemingly exponential rates. According to the UN, currently 54% of the world’s population is living in cities, and by 2050, that number will rise to 60%. Furthermore, the report suggests that this population growth will be felt particularly in African and Asian nations. The number of mega cities (cities with a population in excess of 10 million) are expected to increase past the current 28 today. As John Wilmoth, Director of UN DESA’s Population Division stated in 2015: “Managing urban areas has become one of the most important development challenges of the 21st century. Our success or failure in building sustainable cities will be a major factor in the success of the post-2015 UN development agenda.”
When thinking for urban growth in the macro, it is extremely daunting. But this is where including global education in the classroom becomes vital. It’s not so much repeating the mantra of “Think globally, act locally” but rather thinking and acting locally. Most students in Ontario classrooms have limited interaction with the larger world. I know that the students in a grade 6 I recently taught has little idea of the issues that face global communities. There is no question that they need
to be made aware that decisions of sustainability made in Mumbai or Manila or Cape Town will have ramifications on a large scale. There are many resources available for the classroom. For example, Skype in the Classroom is a great way of introducing students from around the world to each. Classroom activities can
be centred on discussing sustainability issues that students in India, China, or Nigeria may have and to compare them with issues here in Canada.
As I have been thinking about this issue, I have considered what kind of tools I could bring into the classroom. Researching for different resources, I was struck by the sheer number of materials that would bring rich learning activities to students. One of the first resources I would use is this document from UNESCO that provides all kinds of lesson plans that are easily adaptable in a classroom. Based on this, one activity I would like to introduce to students ranging from grade to 10 would be to have students draw up a proposal that would increase the size of the city’s urban forest. (i.e. turn vacant lots into wooded parkland, plant indigenous tree species along sidewalks, by-laws that require buildings to implement green roofs, creation of urban food gardens).
Even as a single goal, sustainability is a huge, complicated idea. I really think that a sustainable urban area needs to rehabilitate its green space. Cultured parks are an important feature of any urban space, but by enlarging areas that are reclaimed by nature, even the largest cities can make themselves sustainable since we know that naturalized spaces reduce soil erosion, reduce the effects of heat islands, are a vital part of a city’s water management strategy, and helps reintroduce necessary flora and fauna into the ecosystem. The value of increasing naturalized spaces to a city’s sustainability is becoming increasingly recognized. At this point, wilding is difficult to implement given the drive for increased development, especially in Ontario where we have a premier who is actively hostile to any curbs on rampant development. But, as educators we have a responsibility to provide our students the space to challenge outmoded development models. Although this may be a local concern, working and interacting with other school children around the world opens up the classroom to all kinds of ideas. For example, wilding may be as simple as planting roof top gardens made up of indigenous plants to support local bee populations, or to naturalize some of the storm drainage creeks as the City of Kitchener has begun doing in order to encourage less flooding by reducing the amount of run off from non-porous surfaces.
There is no question that for the foreseeable future, urban populations will continue to grow and with that, the pressures to maintain sustainable cities will increase accordingly. While urban planning has not always done a good job in preventing sprawl and short-term policies at the expense of sustainable goals, there is a growing recognition that the status quo cannot be maintained. As educators, we are in a prized position to bring these issues to the forefront and educate our students on how they can act to ensure that the cities of the future grow and can meet the demands of more than 9 billion people while at the same time remain environmentally sustainable.