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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Street smarts for students

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Close your eyes and try to remember your early education, say between your first day of kindergarten and your high school graduation. In those years, how much did you learn about cities?

Not much, I would guess. Contrast this with the environmental movement of the 1970s and 1980s, when students were being introduced to ideas like the "Three Rs." Today, green issues are at the forefront of federal politics and mainstream business. Could increased urban issues education in our schools do the same thing for Toronto?

The Provincial government seems to think so. Kindergarten students are now taught to become more aware of the surroundings in their communities, while students in Grade 3 are taught a unit about the differences between urban and rural communities. In Ontario high schools, Grade 9 and 10 students begin to learn about civic engagement and social challenges, as well as geographic ideas of space. Senior high school students have an entire course dedicated to cities, entitled "World Geography: Urban Patterns & Interactions." After the course, students are expected to understand "how social, political, cultural, environmental, and economic processes shape urban spaces."

Laura Taylor, a professor in Environmental Studies at York University, feels that early education about urban issues will be beneficial in the long run. "In my experience as a planning consultant, residents at public meetings are often shy to discuss the personal attachment and engagement they have with particular landscapes and often lack the vocabulary to say it. If, at a young age, we encourage kids to think that the landscape is created by everyone collaboratively over time, they may not be so intimidated to get involved and know that their story is one of many that makes a place what it is."

Nonprofit groups are also getting involved. This past spring, Jane's Walk introduced its School Edition, in which a local class develops a neighbourhood walking tour. And the Toronto-based Pug Awards (the "People's Choice Awards for Architecture") curates Pug Ed, an outreach program for elementary school students, culminating in a design competition.

Jane Farrow, the executive director of Jane's Walk, recognizes the importance of urban issues education. "If kids learn how they are acted upon by architecture, design, and planning, they are going to be more likely to make up their own mind about what they like/dislike, and in turn, take a more active role in shaping the places and cities where they live," she says. "Informing kids about their right to take part in that conversation, and educating them about how architecture, design, and planning create these situations, raises everyone's urban literacy."