10 The City as a Living Organism: Experiential Learning in Vancouver

David Zandvliet

EDUC 452: Environmental Education

EDUC 452 is an 8 credit field course that explores the ecology of the City of Vancouver and its environs. I co-teach it in the Intersession term (May/June) with a sessional instructor and/or graduate students for about 28 students who are pre-service and in-service elementary and secondary teachers. It is an urban version of a long-standing environmental education course, now called the Environmental Learning Summer Academy, that Simon Fraser University (SFU) has offered in rural settings such as Haida Gwaii for many years, and forms part of an exploration of the Lower Mainland that began more than 15 years ago.

EDUC 452, modelled on the metaphor of “the city as a living organism,” invites students to consider environmental and sustainability themes for their own teaching practices through a range of interconnected retreats and field experiences. Students are immersed in both the theory and practice of place-based education as it relates to historical and contemporary issues in human-environment interactions and school curricula from elementary to secondary levels. The course models the use of experiential and field-based teaching and learning methods, intended as a kind of “de-schooling” that allows participants to explore the many places in which learning occurs and it disrupts a commonly held view that learning occurs primarily in schools, rather than in the wider community.

Students use a multidisciplinary approach to examine the educational problems entailed in developing human awareness and understanding of the environment. The focus is a sustained, and sustaining, place-based inquiry into how the city functions—as a complex ecosystem, as an interconnected economic system and as a multicultural and vibrant social space to live or work.

Students are challenged to consider a simpler (rhetorical) question of the “living city”; namely, is it a sentient being, and can it “learn” from its experiences? Or, in other words, for educators, can environmental education make a difference here? The answer to this and so many other questions lies in the way that each of us conceives of and nurtures our own home or community and in the way that the educational process unfolds, either at school or in informal settings across the city.

Eco-thinking and Teacher Development

The overarching theory that informs my teaching of environmental education is sometimes referred to as “place-based” or “ecological education.” In my own research I have developed a comprehensive framework, and metaphor, for an approach to education that I term “the ecology of home” (Figure 1 below), and this has informed the approach and content of EDUC 452. In developing a deeper knowledge and understanding of our homes, we go beyond seeking a mere collection of facts and instead challenge the ways of thinking we encounter in our daily lives. With the use of this metaphor, the process of understanding our own ecology (or eco-thinking) might help us to rediscover ourselves and our communities, allowing us to bring these ideas safely back “home.”

An Ecology of Home
Figure 1: An ecology of home

As an ecological educator, I believe that learning is a continuous process that occurs throughout the day while we work or play, not just in school settings, and it definitely occurs here “at home.” The Greek notion of Oikos refers at once to the household broadly conceived, and to the earthly “home.” Figure 1 shows how “home” consists of several components: ecology, economy and ecumene, which together form a multidisciplinary model that considers ecological, social and values-related perspectives that act on local communities and form the true context for teaching and learning.

Ecosphere refers to the physical spaces, indoors and out, that make up the structure of our homes, sociosphere refers to our interrelationships with other people over time that occur within that home, and technosphere refers to the remaining “practices” that occur in the home according to those who “inhabit” them. For me, the point has been to consider these ideas not in isolation but as a complex ecology, and applicable not only to one’s own home, but also to one’s community, professional home or to the planet.

Course Structure and Activities

EDUC 452 students review and critique a range of educational practices guided by this ecological framework. In theory, ecological, socio-cultural and technical factors can act as guides to interpret curriculum, that is, what is to be taught. Since many of our environmental/social problems continue unabated despite our technological “progress,” a further socio-cultural critique of education is required to identify where the connections are not being made. The challenge in teaching this course is to apply an ecological framework that results in the participants engaging these ideas and approaches in their teaching practices that help to effectively address these environmental/social problems.

The course meets only once on the university campus for an information session, and otherwise involves a variety of different field experiences in urban, rural and semi-wilderness environments. It is deeply embedded in the local community as we interact with a variety of locations and community organizations. Throughout each field trip, students discuss their observations and reflections with instructors and fellow students, while writing and journaling about their ideas. Students also create a portfolio, consisting of a collection of artifacts, writings and other items, which they share with fellow students and the instructors during the final retreat at the end of the course.

Each class meeting is, at minimum, an eight-hour investigation into some problem-based or inquiry-driven experience in the field. The field experiences aim to illustrate the primacy of the ecosphere, or ecology, by facilitating students’ understandings that cultures and societies, and indeed the buildings and tools that comprise cities, are embedded in, and not separate from, nature. In this, I find the “living organism” metaphor useful as it brings to the fore the often disconnected nature of people’s lives and the apparent inertness of the city and its structures; it demonstrates that our conceptions of society and technology are embedded here.

Field Trips: Experiencing the City as a Living Organism

1.  Overnight Retreat Outside the City

The course begins with an overnight retreat, usually in a remote location near Vancouver, and involving open-ended inquiry (an experience with nature) while surrounded by the natural environment, isolated from the city. Here, students discuss and reflect on important questions: What does it mean to conceptualize environment? Is the city inside or outside of nature?

Students writing in nature journals
Figure 2: Students writing in “nature journals” at Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve

What is the relationship with environment we seek to address (in our minds and in our teaching practice)?

Students come to know through their experiences that there are multiple perspectives on what informs our notion of “environment.” Student activities can include scientific, artistic, socialistic and ethical perspectives to critically reflect on the direct experiences they, and others, have throughout the course.

For example, Figure 2 illustrates how students use the landscape for quiet reflection on their learning, a necessary stage in the experiential learning process.

2.  City Centre

Other field trips involve various parts of the centre of the city, such as the Port of Vancouver and several downtown communities, including evolving communities such as the Downtown Eastside or Coal Harbour. During these trips, students conduct a community mapping activity by recording observations, interviewing community members and using an arts-based inquiry process. The mapping exercise highlights the city as a “living organism,” as students actively engage and interrogate the way the city functions.

As a group, we discuss observations, questions and challenges that arise, including:

  • Why does the city consume so much?
  • How can we seek to address our own personal roles in this situation?
  • Sequestering of food and other consumables from container ports (and the bleeding of other valuable resources in the process) are the very reasons that Vancouver is located where it is, here on the edge of the Pacific Rim.
  • These consumables are also linked by the complex transportation and distribution networks—the transportation “arteries” that move these resources to where they are ultimately consumed—delivering energy and resources to the city’s “lively” economy.

3. City Inputs

During a series of field trips to the North Shore watersheds and reserves, including the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve (LSCR), students shadow and participate in educational programs with a variety of community partners. While situated in the field, students inquire about the purpose and function of reserves, and they learn how the city (as a living organism) uses large amounts of water.

On the Theme of Water
Figure 3: On the theme of water, Sphagnum moss

Students have the opportunity to critique the social marketing, communications and education campaigns offered by the regional district of Metro Vancouver.

Together we consider our own roles in this situation—asking ourselves why the city consumes so much water. For example, I ask students to reflect on, and journal, their thoughts about the following:

  • While water is essential for life of any kind (simple or complex), what other roles can and should water conservation reserves fill?
  • How do the reserves and watersheds function as parkland, wildlife habitat, demonstration forest and recreational venues?
  • We explore our competing values and link these to opportunities for ecological education or current resource management practices.

4. City Outputs

Having looked at the inputs to the city, we then consider the wastes the city produces through extensive and repeated visits to facilities such as waste transfer stations, landfills, incinerators and wastewater treatment facilities. The magnitude of our unsustainability problem becomes immediately apparent when students see how “the beast” channels and transports its wastes through these systems. We visit landfills located in the ecologically important Burns Bog and the more distant community of Cache Creek.

Students and instructors at the Iona Outflow
Figure 4: Students and instructors at Iona Island sewage treatment outflow. Treated sewage is discharged 4 km into the Georgia Strait

As the city continues to produce and deposit its wastes—like so much defecation—philosophers, such as Michel Serres, would ask profound questions: Is the city simply marking its territory? Or rather, like some primitive life form, will it continue to foul its own home?

5. Portfolio Sharing Retreat – The Assessment

The final module of the course is a retreat during which students reflect on the various learning experiences of the course and share their portfolios of artifacts and writings using an open-ended process. The portfolios, of the students’ own design, are intended to demonstrate their ideas and lessons learned, and the connections they have made between conceptual frameworks of Environmental Education (EE) and their own developing teaching practice.

To guide students in thinking about portfolios I use a “3-P approach”:  portfolios share learning and growth in each of the Personal, Professional and Philosophical realms. Typically, students can share their own learning in relation to personal practices (e.g. what does sustainability mean to them? or how do they manage their own ecological footprint?) while demonstrating how their own thinking about the environment has been mediated by experiences in the course.

Changing notions of professional practice are also nurtured and demonstrated through modelling, discussions about teaching methods, or applied in the development of experiential learning plans for lessons, field trips or course units for various age groups and subject areas.

Finally, philosophical growth is evidenced in students’ reaction to the theory they encounter through prescribed readings or independent research.  Each of these 3 p’s are presented in a tightly woven portfolio which also emphasizes the inter-connection among these important areas of growth in understanding.

Student Portfolio Drawing- the Big House
Figure 5: Student portfolio drawing—the “Big House,” Squamish

Final Thoughts

One student likened the city to a sea anemone perched on intertidal rocks, alongside the body of water we now call the Salish Sea (formerly Georgia Strait). While the city is sessile (in that it cannot move easily from place to place), it can and does extend its tentacles into the surrounding environs.

And as another student so clearly represented (Figure 5), each of us is trying to build a “home.”

“We teach who we are.” – Parker Palmer, founder, Center for Courage and Renewal

In closing, this course is one model of how I enact experiential learning: the city as a living organism. Importantly, I try to model my own personal theories and beliefs about teaching and learning throughout my courses and teaching practice. And, wherever possible, I try to tell my own story, drawing on a range of personal experiences from my career as a home builder, a teacher and an academic. As noted scholar Parker Palmer once wrote: “We teach who we are,” and for me that has been the most important lesson of all.


davidzandvlietDavid B. Zandvliet, Associate Professor, Faculty of Education, Simon Fraser University. dbz@sfu.ca


Experiential Learning Casebook Copyright © 2014 by David Zandvliet. All Rights Reserved.


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