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Exploring urban and rural environmental education

Published on 19th April 2020

Exploring urban and rural environmental education

My name is Raichael Lock and I’ve led a very small charity called the Manchester Environmental Education Network (MEEN) for the last 17 years. Working in the inner-city I am what we might describe as a typical urban environmental educator. I am also a PhD student at the University of Manchester exploring the work MEEN does by focusing on what we do, how we do it and how to understand whether what we do makes a difference. But my mission today is different. Having been invited to the first Urban Environmental Education conference I’d like to celebrate the innovation.

After all, the kind of environmental education we facilitate depends largely on the environment in which we’re based and, working with inner city schools with inner city problems, I want to share some of our urban practices today. But I also want to explore why drawing distinctions between rural and urban environments might help us deepen our understanding of environmental issues through exploring their interconnectedness.

Urban environmental education would seem to have more than its fair share of environmental challenges: urban areas have less wildlife and less greenery, less access to fresh food and good soils. What urban life seems to have in plenty is more rubbish, more air and water pollution, and more people and industries adding to the problems.  Consequently, it’s easy to think that urban settings present a deficit model of environmental education. But anyone who has lived in the city for a while knows there is plenty of nonhuman life but most of it vilified there being too many rats, rock doves or cockroaches or,  as plants, they become weeds because they live in the wrong places.
And it’s not just urban wildlife that gets a bad name. Several years ago MEEN ran a project supporting parents to access local green spaces. However, running a focus group with parents revealed a host of issues which prevented them from wanting to walk through the local river valley, despite it being one of East Manchester’s greenest lungs. One parent described the area as dangerous because of rough sleepers; another worried about drug dealers; then there were the dangers of the river itself. Yet the very same parents that had lived locally described their childhoods as being outdoors all the time, paddling in the river, swimming in the canals, roaming far and wide. When asked what dangers they had faced playing out when young they described ‘the world as different then’ and that ‘everyone went out to play’. So what’s changed, I asked? The answer was unclear, involving references to stranger danger and tech. But when asked about recent incidents where their children had been in danger all three stories were road accidents.

Urban environmental education has had to develop distinct streams of activity responding to city focussed issues such as roads, air pollution and energy use. MEEN, for example, is currently working in a partnership programme on both outdoor and indoor air pollution examining exhaust fumes and air fresheners almost in one breath, and, it could be argued that urban environmental education has flourished indoors through Eco School committees saving energy, reducing plastics of food waste. But there are also plenty of urban forest schools in and around Manchester where working and exploring outdoors may not necessarily deserve to be called the ‘big’ outdoors but still creates a hugely valuable experience.

MEEN’s Save Our Soils project demands that young people’s hands and feet get muddy, but in keeping with the notion of urban environmental education as being in deficit, schools have not only impoverished but sometimes contaminated soils and, on occasions, the question that arises is whether these pupils should be handling their school soil at all. And when trying to reveal to young people the amazing life that exists in healthy soils, samples need to be collected from local permaculture sites because inner city school soils are largely dead.

Dotted throughout our projects MEEN tries to include opportunities for urban schools to visit the countryside to enable them to find out where food and the water in our taps comes from or to experience a forest. And this is the delivery of ‘rural’ environmental education where learning from experts based in rural environmental education centres helps urban children engage with the bigger, wilder, outdoors.
However, having set up this notion of urban environmental education as being a deficit model I now want to challenge it.
Firstly, it’s easy to see how practitioners in our field have brought the rural into the urban. There are many urban community farms and gardens that are constantly popping up across our cities; farm animals have been brought into schools; bees have been settled on school roofs; one of my local schools ran their own farmer’s market recently and urban environmental education projects including ponds and hedging in urban settings are on the rise. Another example could include the wonderful St Nick’s centre for nature and green living in the heart of York which by reclaiming an old refuse site has introduced water voles in an unlikely urban setting.

But it’s not just humans challenging the rural/urban divide. Some wildlife is choosing to move to the city with stories of badgers living in the suburban fringes becoming more common. It’s not that long ago there was a clip of an otter exploring the streets of inner-city Manchester on social media. Meanwhile, stressed deer that have been trapped by and carried into our city on urban waterways have to be captured and removed. Then there are the peregrines that having been brought into Manchester to keep down the pigeon population now nest each year on the city’s cliffs. There were even rumours of a population of dormice having been accidently transported into the city with some hedging. And then recently MEEN and an eco team found tiny black beetles munching the schools trees which turn out to be Alder Leaf beetles, who had once been declared extinct but have now reappeared in their Manchester home.

These examples admittedly tell different stories: some highlight animals adapting to the city, others suggest the difficulties of that; then there are the re-introductions, the accidents and then those hardy survivors. But what these stories share is that the urban/rural divide shifts and that urban wildlife encounters are worth discussing. Young people’s tales of seeing foxes, or frogs in the park or squashed hedgehogs on the road have the power to bring urban environmental education to life.

But I want to shift my argument again by asking if water voles can be introduced into an urban setting when they are struggling to survive in our countryside what does this tell us about the rural environment? So very little of our countryside is wild and, as I’m sure we’re all aware, much of it has become a wildlife desert. Even the seemingly wild moors in the Peak District surrounding Manchester are managed whether it’s for grouse shooting, farming or most recently for carbon sequestration: these lands are largely orchestrated by us. And increasingly we are hearing about the countryside having similar issues to our cities: biodiversity and soil health is being devasted through intense land management practices; rural air pollution is on the agenda whether it’s because farms are emitting too much ammonia or nitrous oxides; or whether pollution from docked cruise ships is drifting across whole counties; or waterways being polluted by fertiliser or pesticides; or heavenly holiday hotspots being blighted by summer traffic jams. In fact, much of the world we consider to be non-urban – that place out there called the countryside is almost entirely modelled on the needs of the urban population – whether it’s for food, water, weekend exercise or holiday entertainment.

Take any sustainability subject and the criss-crossing from the urban to the rural  creates a much deeper understanding of the issues. Take energy production: the urban hunger for energy draws on rural interventions whether it’s wind turbines on hills; importing wood chip from distant forests; mining in Yorkshire or nuclear from our coasts. And such interconnections and their impacts can be traced whether we’re educating around food or transport, waste or water, climate or plastics. Therefore, as environmental educationalists wherever we are based, if we are to share anything of value we need to help make these connections and follow the links that entangle rural and urban spaces and places, lives and lifestyles.

So I now want to share three small examples which help to highlight how insightful these rural/urban connections can be.
MEEN was running a heritage project with primary schools and as we walked along a canal we were discussing how the system had been built to bring cotton from across the world into Cottonopolis with the pupils referencing their knowledge on the industrial revolution. I also told them how barges brought fresh food from surrounding farms into the city and how, once the barges were emptied, they were loaded up with ‘the night-soil’ from the city’s buckets and chamber pots, which was taken back to the countryside to be used as fertiliser, a tale which brought gasps of horror. But it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to more interesting themes such as the growing power of horse manure and how too much cow poo causes air pollution. One boy wanted to know if he should poo in his garden to make the vegetables grow, which led to a discussion on the health hazards of human poo, how it is treated, (no one had any idea where it went) and how the sludge can eventually be used as fertilizer for rural soils or even as an energy source. Much of this interaction remained as a discussion but even so it opened up areas of learning which fascinated the pupils and made all kinds of urban/rural connections prompted by the pupils’ curiosity about their daily lives.

This next example is more of a think piece about urban/rural links. As an environmental educator I work with lots of young people planting seeds, trees and plants which are sourced from rural nurseries and asking where they come from are key questions for understanding rural/urban connections.Can I ask how many people here have a bird feeder? How many of you have introduced one into school? It’s wonderful because bird food sustains our ‘garden’ birds - although of course, once upon a time they would have been woodland or scrubland birds who have happened to adapt to urban life. But let’s consider the impact of providing bird food: it will have come from a rural location having been harvested, transported, processed, possibly treated, packed and delivered as bird seed, which is then put in a plastic feeder. A quick internet search shows monoculture farming producing fields of seed which we buy to feed urban birds. The part of me that gives a group of young people a bird feeder and the responsibility to feed them is thrilled by the opportunities this presents. And yet from a sustainability point of view the cycle seems almost absurd. It’s not that I’m against feeding garden birds but examining the environmental, economic and social impacts of the rural/urban connections around feeding birds raises interesting questions. Farmers make a living from producing bird food by selling it to us – but what does this mean for rural wildlife and what is the collective bird food carbon footprint? By tracing the connections we can get to some interesting answers and, in response to this exploration, one urban school decided to plant a berry-rich hedgerow so eventually the feeder would be replaced.

This last story is based on a conversation I had with a rural environmental educator recently who described visiting a small village school to talk about farming. I find this story interesting because the assumptions we both held about rural living were completely upturned.
She had assumed that young people living in the countryside would have an understanding about where milk and meat comes from. However, their knowledge and understanding was, at most, tenuous. These young people with relatively affluent parents such as doctors and teachers lived in a beautiful rural setting but had never been to a farm. With a little more investigation she discovered the pupils were being driven to and from school, and if they went out they were driven to a friend’s house or to participate in team sports. And none of them had ever had a close encounter with a cow even though a herd roamed the field right next to the school.

What does this tale imply? That people who inhabit the countryside are no longer country folk but rather well-off city folk wanting a taste of the good life? Is it proof that it’s not just urban children who might think milk comes from a plastic bottle? It also means that although I have suggested that rural and urban environmental education are undoubtedly different because of the landscapes we inhabit, as environmental educators it is clearly important for us not to make assumptions about how to work in those specific environments.

In fact it is important for environmental educators to remember to criss-cross between the rural and urban – firstly, physically by, if possible, exploring both rural and urban landscapes or by bringing the rural into the urban or taking the urban into the rural. One fairly straightforward example of this has been where urban and rural Eco School teams have visited each other to explore each other’s environments.
Secondly, though we need to think through the cross-border impacts of these apparently different worlds and use the interconnections between them as critical environmental educational tools. Such interconnections and entangled examples can be drawn from history because these interconnections have always existed; but through such criss-crossing  we can also examine and possibly improve our current practices.

Lastly though, as the final story shows, we need to be prepared to be surprised and allow our assumptions about rural/urban boundaries to be challenged.


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