NEW Urban Thinkers Campus report: Education for the City We Need - How do we teach the New Urban Agenda?

NEW Urban Thinkers Campus report: Education for the City We Need - How do we teach the New Urban Agenda?

Spatial Planning and Design education around the world needs to undergo a revolution if we wish to prepare critical minds and skilled professionals who will be able to steer the implementation of the New Urban Agenda in the next 20 years.

The way in which planning and design are generally taught does not cater for the need to create sustainable, fair and inclusive cities. This is because many planning and design schools follow an old paradigm of architectural education that privileges individual genius and design creativity and do not prepare students to understand the implications of social, economic and environmental sustainability, spatial justice and the right to the city. Most importantly, the relationship between those concepts and the built environment is not well understood. This poses the question: what can spatial planning and design schools actually DO in order to help deliver the city we need?

The lack of trans-disciplinarity in urban planning and design education is both a reflection of and results in sectoral urban challenges being fenced off in departments and administrations who barely communicate with each other. The reality of urban management in most places is fragmented, unimaginative and excessively technocratic, if not squarely inefficient and plagued by corruption. Well, we need to change that, and the best way to do it is through education and capacity building.

This is why we decided to organize an UTC focused on education for the New Urban Agenda at TU Delft. How do we teach the New Urban Agenda? And what do we need to teach/ learn in order to implement its core ideas?  During 3 days in June, academics, members of the public sector, private sector and civic society, as well as students and members of the public got together at TU Delft in The Netherlands to debate precisely those questions.

At TU Delft, we are entirely convinced that universities have a very important role to play in the implementation of the NUA, and we have been reforming our education in order to respond to the challenges of urbanization today.

Habitat III in Quito and its outcome document, the New Urban Agenda, reinforce the idea that sustainable urbanisation is an engine for development. But urban sustainability here is holistic, embracing its three constituent elements: the environment, economy and society. The NUA seeks to create a mutually reinforcing relationship between sustainable urbanization and development, but it pays much more attention to the social and political aspects that underscore sustainability.

The idea is that by addressing Sustainable Development Goal 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable), we can address most of the other SDGs agreed by the United Nations in 2015. If we wish to ensure “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, as the of 1987 put it, then we must be able to build socially sustainable, fair and inclusive cities. And in order to do that, we must find the political, economic and technological tools that will support sustainable urban development.

The NUA introduces three ‘enablers’ for sustainable cities: local fiscal systems, urban planning, and basic services and infrastructure. In doing so, the NUA explicitly recognizes the role of spatial planning and urban design as crucial tools that can steer and coordinate the efforts of a large number of stakeholders with diverging interests towards agreed goals.

In this context, it is easy to see that most curriculums in universities around the world must adjust to the evolution seen in the New Urban Agenda, that is, that we must pay more attention to the social and political aspects that underpin sustainability and resilience.

It is crucial that planning and design schools go beyond their typical excessive faith in technocratic solutions and grandiloquent design in order to understand social sustainability as a central issue in sustainable urban development. Understanding governance, management and stakeholder involvement are essential issues for any plan or project to succeed.

But what is social sustainability in urban development? It has several faces, but it mainly concerns the social and political aspects of urbanization processes. In this sense, social sustainability is a “reality check” for plans and projects.  Are these plans and projects supported by the right stakeholders? Do they take into account the real economic and technological capacity of implementation existing in a given society? Who wins and, most importantly, who loses? Do they promote spatial justice and the creation of public goods? Are the formal institutions of that particular society prepared to enforce contracts and the rule of law fairly? What about informal institutions (to use a concept outlined by the ever so great Elinor Ostrom)? While things like corruption, nepotism and clientelism are unacceptable, we can’t bury our heads in the sand and pretend they don’t exist. Instead, we must find ways to strategically deal with them and finally uproot them. Social sustainability is a matter of democracy-building, as much as economic progress.

Schools must also inculcate a sense of urgency in the young minds they are forming. Schools around the world must wake up to the fact that we are running out of time to guarantee the sustainability of human life on our planet.

How to prepare students to face not only the technical challenges of today’s cities, but to understand urban planning and design as vehicles for articulation of different groups with very different interests? How to prepare urban planning and design students to be the articulators, synthesizers, and conjoiners of different kinds of knowledge necessary to steer sound urban development? How to explain to students their role in creating public goods for all?

At TU Delft, we are trying to apply the following model to Urbanism education.

In the Dutch tradition, Urbanism combines the physical sciences (notably engineering, environmental technology and information technology), the social sciences (notably sociology, political sciences, urban geography, management and aspects of psychology) and last but certainly not least, DESIGN. Design is the great tool that allows us (planners, designers, stakeholders, citizens) to visualize and project desirable futures. But we take a broad view on design: we design processes, where projects (buildings and infrastructures) play of course a central role.

Each of those disciplines has its own worldview and asks different questions. To answer those different questions, different methodologies are needed. So, in a transdisciplinary environment, we must find ways to articulate different kinds of knowledge that will allow us to tackle urban complexity effectively.

To those disciplines, we have added one crucial dimension that helps us decide on our way forward: ETHICS. TU Delft is entirely committed to including the ethical dimension in our education, with workshops and discussions with specialists and committed professionals.  

The UTC we organized gave us the opportunity to expand the discussion and include a wide range of committed professionals and other stakeholders who can help us in the challenges ahead. Interdisciplinary studies and stakeholder involvement sound like great ideas, but they are difficult to achieve. In light of the discussion with new and old partners, the results of this UTC are a set of recommendations about education for the city we need and concern higher education institutions, rather than governments:

  • Universities and other higher education institutions must actively seek to improve the relationship between local governments, research and education. Local governments know what are the pressing questions being asked. Universities are equipped to enlighten local governments towards new questions and new solutions.
  • The engagement of higher education institutions in real urban management challenges must be constant and embedded in local governance.
  • Universities and other higher education institutions must actively seek transdisciplinarity and ways to join up different actions, projects and stakeholders into coherent strategies for urban development, enabling students, teachers and decision-makers to deal with complex fields of knowledge.
  • Universities must work on trans-sectional education that contemplates urban development from alternative perspectives, such as gender equality, minority rights, participation and democracy building, citizenship formation and the right to the city (including the right to public goods and the rights to individual goods that allow for the creation of socially stable and sustainable cities, such as shelter, education and health).
  • Universities must work on and enable students to understand how urban systems are embedded in natural systems and how cities can incorporate, rather than fight those natural systems (e.g. actions that harmonize urban development, water management and energy efficiency)
  • Universities must actively seek to “de-colonize” urban studies and urban development, pursuing knowledge-building and methodologies that stem from or incorporate local knowledge vigorously. Universities must seek to create alternative forms of dialogue between North and South, as well invigorate South-South knowledge transfer. At the very least, universities must actively work to prepare students to work in unfamiliar contexts, where they need to converse with local knowledge and work towards in depth understanding of local contexts.
  • While local knowledge must be a priority, universities should not overlook the importance of knowledge transfer. Here, comparative studies are important to check fitness of transferability, reveal the differences in formal (governance) and informal institutions that might impact outcomes of projects and policies in different contexts.

READ the official UTC Report


Article by Roberto Rocco 
Photo Credits: Roberto Rocco (CC), Pexels.com (CC)