Article from A&B 10|2022 issue
Working at the grassroots in the context of understanding modern and future cities
Our future will not be determined by how we teach history, Polish or even math, but by whether we can better understand our natural surroundings. Will we make the effort to educate ourselves to live in a modern city, to understand the social, climatic, technological challenges involved. This is too serious a problem to be left to schools, much less educational authorities, and perhaps even any possible political authorities.
We are living more and more in cities. This trite statement needs to be clarified. For it is not just about the ratio of rural and urban populations, but about the fact that even the former spends a significant part of its life in the city, using educational facilities, health care, the network of stores and service establishments, going to the park or swimming pool. What's more, we are living increasingly active and fulfilling lives in cities. If we consider the perspective of not five or seven years, but, say, a century, or even the post-war period, we can see a change in the scale of leisure time at our disposal, as well as in the offer of urban services, entertainment, facilities. The Fordist city with its rhythm of factory shifts and school hours is a thing of the past. We are in the city all day long. Over the course of our lives, we change apartments many times and get to know different neighborhoods.
In Czech Prague it is easier to find food for the pocket of the "common man"
Photo: Tiia Monto | Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0
Add to this the changes derived from our mobility. Residents of smaller centers can use a nearby metropolis on an almost daily basis, rural residents can use a county town and the nearest large center. We visit other cities, using them more and more consciously.
This revolution, which is associated with the widespread habit of "urban living," is—unfortunately—not noticed by any segment of the educational system. And this is all the more important because we are a society with a short urban tradition. This results not only in the weakness of the bourgeoisie, but also in the absence of an urban plebeian tradition. Unlike in the Czech Republic—to compare ourselves with our neighbors, not the countries of the western part of the continent—we don't use urban gastronomy as massively and don't willingly spend time away from home. In Prague and other cities, you can find some food around every corner for the "common man's" pocket, an amateur orchestra plays in the parks on Sundays, and you can meet your neighbors at chess or cards.
In Poland, we do not yet use urban gastronomy as massively
Photo: Kgbo | Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0
In our country, many people—even those belonging to the middle class—consider eating out too expensive. A barbecue is still a better idea for a social gathering than a shared evening at a garden restaurant. This leads to situations where cities come to life slowly, while smaller cities die down in the afternoon, with Sundays basically alive only where there is some commerce. For most cities, the process of urbanization is no longer linear and obvious.
This is because urbanization is not about increasing the number of urban residents. It is primarily a transfer of customs. From spending time in a coffee shop to the way you walk your dog. The custom of walking the dog is typically urban, although nowadays it is sometimes transferred to the countryside as well. But cleaning up after the dog differentiates between small and large cities. So does the idea of creating separate dog parks or placing garbage cans for dog waste. Anyway, this has always been the case. A hundred years ago, small towns climbed on their toes to have a middle school and a newspaper. In the middle of the last century, the object of aspiration was a stadium, a swimming pool, a sports hall, a community center. In the case of larger cities—a theater and concert hall. In the era of transition—a private university and a shopping mall. And these were always followed by adjustments in habits, new habits and opportunities.
Every change in the city forces learning new ways of behavior in space
photo: Warsaw City Hall
Every change forces adaptation, learning new ways of behavior. But the changes accumulated over decades make it necessary for us to learn not the details, but to understand the whole. Along with the consequences of the lifestyle adopted. Those we talk about loudly: climatic and ecological, and those we mention a bit more quietly: psychological, political, defining our relations with people and the possibility of building our own identity.
Can cities be taught? Certainly one can open one's eyes to them. It is not worth teaching like physics, chemistry or geography. Rather, the way one conducts cultural animation—somewhat informally, rather on the ground and with careful listening to what students have to say. So the answer that "school" should take charge of teaching the city will not only be impractical, but overly dismissive of everyone else. The school can be one place, and that's on the condition that there is a teacher who believes in the sense of urban education on his or her own, and not on the basis of instructions from the Ministry or the Board of Trustees.
Eating out is widely considered too expensive, this makes cities come alive slowly or die down in the afternoon
Photo: Naruciakk | Wikimedia Commons CC0 1.0
Especially since city knowledge can help in several important ways. Making residents more aware of their interests, opportunities and rights. Strengthening a sense of agency and shared responsibility for the immediate neighborhood. Identifying tools of influence and ways to bring about change. This is not necessarily what the government—all things considered, local or central—so eager to reduce education to preparing students for the labor market, would want from education. The stakes at stake are cities that are better used and constructed. Cities that are sensibly debated, rather than superficially "consulted." And finally, resilient not only by the strength of formal structures, but also by social cohesion and integration.
Of course, education is also important if we would like to develop urban participation procedures. However, it is worth arguing with the position of some experts who link the shortcomings of education to a lack of understanding of their proposals. It would be a fallacy of participation and education to consider teaching residents the experts' value system as a prerequisite. Therefore, opening eyes is more important than programming behavior. It's not so much consulting as finding out what is worth asking residents meaningfully, so that grassroots urbanism doesn't boil down to what the author of an excellent book on the subject, Lukasz Drozda, calls the nightmare of participation, a set of ineffective or by design sham procedures.
The easiest way to teach the city's past is to fit it into ready-made historical narratives. The change is visible to the naked eye, it is easy to recall its former image using a photo or postcard. The city has gained lighting, a railroad connection, a factory, a theater—each of these things can simply be recounted. Each one changes a bit the way you look at the city. It is worth going beyond the presentation of local landmarks, especially those visited by tourists, to leave the historical sites discussed to boredom by guidebooks. Telling the change can be a simple task of reaching into the memories of adults—parents, grandparents, neighbors—asking what the city looked like. What the market, the train station, the park or the local factory looked like. Where the buses stopped, and where vegetables and fruits were traded.
Because the truly revolutionary thing is to see the change live, to open your eyes to the modern city. So as to talk not only from the position of an observer, but also a potential participant. To think about the possibility of influencing the actions of authorities and the behavior of other residents.
Street art as a tool for informal education—Mental Health Congress Gallery, Warsaw (left)
and Martyna Gill and Pawel Ponichter's mural dedicated to women, Kopernika Street, Lodz (right)
Actually, one should think of it as a kind of education for conflict and cooperation. While the latter is not in doubt, the former—it may seem strange. But if we want citizens who will oppose the processes of appropriation of space by capital, who will know what they expect from city authorities, what challenges should be met by the growing urban public sector, and what only third sector organizations can do—then they need to be told somehow. Show examples of effective opposition to senseless tree cutting, putting up fences across paths that residents have used for years, ways to solicit convenient pedestrian crossings, or rules for parking on the estate. And talk about it with children, young people, knowing that the political world of adults peeps in as keenly as they eavesdrop and learn all the "ugly words."
For getting to know the city is also a step into adulthood. The first one is made when we shape our own way back from school, when we spend—in a way not controlled by adults—some part of our free time in the city. But nothing prevents the education we are talking about from supporting this cognition. It clarified who is responsible for the shape of the city as it is. Another layer of urban adulthood is the aforementioned recognition of conflicts and differences. From the simplest ones, which are tensions between pedestrians and bicyclists or scooter users, as well as between all of the above groups and car drivers. To the most difficult ones, which can most simply be described by differences in class and wealth. The difficulty here is that, even in the adult world, we are reluctant to talk about it, and we don't have ways of speaking neutrally or kindly about these differences.
But somehow we have to start. That's why, in a larger city, it's useful to talk about "good" and "bad" neighborhoods, places you'd like to live in and places you'd like to get away from. Almost always such a conversation reveals differences in wealth, but also differences in generations, aspirations and lifestyles. This conversation can start with an innocent question: is it nice to live near a mall or near a river, far from the main street, or far from the center at all? Can everyone afford every apartment? Among students, I meet many non-believers who will not get a mortgage. Who will never be able to afford an apartment in an apartment building. Another interesting class theme is the differences between the city and the modern countryside and the question of the presence of people who don't live in the city. As strange as it may sound, school is a place where it is quite easy to have various types of "segregation"—often related precisely to the place of residence, commuting to the city of study and so on.
Gdansk, Motlawa River—water as an element enlivening the city space
Photo: Anna Stasiak | Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0
Paradoxically, such a discussion is a better introduction to civic knowledge than what the "official textbooks" of the subject offer. It also allows one to look at the city through the lens of concern for solutions that serve others. Urban activism must be rooted not only in selfishness, but also in empathy. And this is mostly the case with urban movements. And while they are developing for the time being in larger cities, they can be launched for those in the county or even smaller ones, with slightly different questions as a starting point: does our city have to die down in the afternoon? Are there good places in it, and thanks to whom or why were they created? Does downtown space have to be dominated—and it usually is—by parked cars?
Another aspect of education for adulthood is support for students who come to college in a city larger than their own. Often they are distrustful enough to navigate a small part of it for years, along strictly defined paths. What's more, if you don't count the guides to the monuments, there's virtually no institutionalized help in getting to know the city they're in.
Let's repeat again the basic condition for good urban education: the key here is to open eyes, to propose a conversation and its topics, and not to close them quickly in descriptions of familiar concepts. Rarely will any young person be fascinated by a scholarly lecture on gentrification or urban sprawl, instead, most will surely close themselves off from yet another concept given on faith. It's a bit like killing visual sensitivity by learning about styles, and literary curiosity by discussing readings with key words.
I want to utter the credo of a pessimist at this point. Apart from a dozen or so academic centers, today we can afford urban education at most at the elementary school level, that is, providing a wide audience with basic knowledge. Rather to get used to thinking about the city, to make people aware of dependencies than to offer more complex explanations. As a consolation, we can tell ourselves that the city can also be learned in adulthood. And once started, this education does not have to end at school or college age.
It is important to weave such an "educational intercity" in all ways and, where possible, somehow institutionalize it. However, under no circumstances starting from the level of the ministry, curriculum minima and subjects. It is also worth remembering that education must proceed simultaneously at several levels—and requires paying considerable attention to the "teachers," that is, those who will work with the youth. It is on their knowledge and sensitivity that the success of the whole enterprise depends. Especially since the forms of outreach are to go beyond mere lessons, must be imaginative and adapted to the size and peculiarities of the places that can be subjected to joint observation and conversation.