Not only is the world’s population growing, but a greater percentage of people are now living in urban areas than ever before. The current estimate is 54 percent, although the figure is expected to be over 70 percent by 2050. While 75 percent of Europeans are now living in cities, in a shocking number of countries, including Brazil, Japan, the Netherlands, Venezuela and Israel, the proportion of people living in urban areas is already over 90 percent. Europeans inside and outside metropolitan areas have adopted lifestyles that are deeply intertwined with the cultural, education and health services provided by cities, thus the line between urban and rural environments is rapidly blurring.
Use the activities below to design a teaching session on urban challenges.
Europe’s cities are both cultural capitals and economic engines, but at the same time they depend heavily on resources from other regions — from all over the world, in fact — to meet the demand for consumer goods; for resources such as energy, water and food; and to accommodate waste and emissions. Explain to your students how this dynamic sharpens existing urban problems, while also giving rise to new challenges. These problems and challenges require either innovative solutions, or the introduction of “urban resilience” strategies to prevent or minimise the consequences of anticipated large-scale or long-term crises.
Fortunately, cities are also hothouses of social innovation and ideas on how to solve complex problems. As environmental, social and economic threats grow more acute, cities are increasingly seen as an appropriate governance level at which to tackle climate change and provide solutions to fundamental sustainability challenges. In fact, cities may have more in common with one another than with the rest of the country, as they exemplify the environmental benefits of density — that is, the opportunity for increasingly efficient planning, design, management and governance.
Define “urban resilience” for your students as the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems within a city to survive, adapt and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience. Chronic stresses weaken the fabric of a city on a daily or cyclical basis. Examples include high unemployment, overburdened or inefficient public transport systems, endemic violence, and long-term food and water shortages. Acute shocks, by contrast, are sudden and unexpected events that damage a city. Examples include earthquakes, extreme weather events, floods, disease outbreaks and terrorist attacks.
Cities can improve their resilience by being:
This game encourages students to identify social and environmental challenges that affect them directly. Instead of focusing on global problems that they feel powerless to solve, they are asked to consider how small changes in behaviour can have a big impact in the community.
Prepare in advance by asking your students to bring in magazines. Collect a pile of images cut from the magazines or printed from the Internet that have some relevance to social or environmental challenges, or that can prompt ideas.
Get the class to play the game, following the instructions. Example: Chris prepares a challenge card featuring images of congestion and obesity, stating that "car use leads to traffic jams and laziness". Liza then makes a solution card showing bicycles, a train and people jogging in the park, stating that “active lifestyles and public transport reduce traffic jams and keep people healthier”.
Collect the pairs of cards and display them on the classroom wall. Refer to them in future lessons and encourage the students to read them during the workshops.
Describe to your students how, as demographic, environmental and economic threats grow more acute, society’s traditional response mechanisms — governments and other public bodies — are less well equipped to cope. Especially in the wake of the financial crisis that started in 2008, public agencies simply do not have the money to deal with the growing burdens on the welfare system. Many experts argue that a new approach is needed — one based on local control, active citizenship and open governance.
Define "social innovation" for your students as the movement towards novel, grassroots solutions to urban problems. It has to do with citizens working together on local initiatives and inventing new and more sustainable solutions to solve day-to-day problems. Digital communications, and in particular social media, contribute to such activities, making them easier to organise and on a larger scale and at a more rapid pace than before. Popular examples of social innovation include crowdfunding platforms (i.e. raising investment capital from social networks) and collaborative mapping (i.e. people with common interests making maps together online). However, social innovation includes all sorts of initiatives that involve people working together for the good of the community. It may be a network of widows who let out vacant rooms to young, unemployed people in exchange for household help. It may mean a micro-credit bank that allows people with no collateral to obtain small loans to set up businesses. It may mean organising a community garden that produces local food and adds life and beauty to an abandoned neighbourhood lot. All these initiatives address common challenges. At the same time, they build connections between people, which creates enduring social benefits. People who know and trust each other are more likely to come to each other’s aid in times of crisis. That’s a key ingredient in urban resilience.
Ask your students what problems they think can be tackled by City Hall. Is self-governance efficient? To what extent should City Hall have power to govern a city? Does City Hall have sufficient power to solve problems? Does the existence of city-states prove that cities can be more efficient on their own? Does the fact that Singapore is a success story prove anything? Or is it merely an exception? Should London govern itself?
What sorts of social innovation activities are your students aware of in their own city or community? What public challenges do those activities address? Can such problems be solved by City Hall? What are the pros and cons of addressing them through direct citizen initiatives instead?
Ask your students to write a letter to themselves 10 to 15 years down the road. Ask them to reflect on their long-term goals:
Suggest that they seal the letter and wait for five or 10 years before opening it again to see how their goals have changed.