Triptych: The city as learning environment

“It takes a village to raise a child” is an African proverb. It reflects the wisdom that it is not just the parents who are responsible for raising children, but the whole (village) community. It’s good for children to interact with as many different people as possible in a safe way. This helps them develop social skills and learn about different perspectives.

But it is not only society that should feel responsible for raising children. The city itself should also be a safe and healthy environment for different forms of interaction. First of all, this requires very good school buildings, where as a child you can learn in a pleasant way in a stimulating environment.

But you can also learn much in the city itself. Streetwise and street cred are not called that for nothing. In public space, you playfully come into contact with different situations, both spatial configurations and social connections, and combinations of the two. First fights are fought in the sandpit, friendships are made on the basketball court and first loves are found in the ice cream parlour.

“When you get to know a city, you start to love it, and what you love is what you take care of!”

We begin this triptych ‘The city as learning environment’ with the school edition of the graphic novel METRO O1O, a book about the history of the city of Rotterdam with a look at five future scenarios in 2050.

The book was distributed to around 8.500 first-year students in 62 schools in and around Rotterdam. Not only did we receive many enthusiastic responses from teachers and students, but many schools also started to use the book in their own way: reading chapters in class, a presentation by one of the cartoonists or working directly with one of the accompanying Lesson Letters.

About 20 lesson plans have been developed in collaboration with the Rotterdam Public Library and many other partners in Rotterdam, who are supervising the school edition of the book. Each letter touches on a specific chapter in the book. Pupils will be exposed to a range of topical issues such as diversity, quality of life, inclusion, sustainability, inequity, climate and the energy transition. Over time, the selection of Lesson Letters will be expanded to provide a complete, additional set of lessons.

In part 2 we focused on the Bremen Kids design competition. This was an opportunity for De Zwarte Hond to deepen our urban planning knowledge on the topic of ‘child-friendly city’. The result of this second part of the triptych is an urban design from a child’s perspective.

Car-free streets, playful house typologies, communal courtyards and urban densification: these building blocks lead to greater safety, more space for play and a greater diversity of residents. These types of urban design aspects strengthen social cohesion by bringing together different environments in a migrant neighbourhood, making open spaces safe and encouraging people to ‘see each other’.

Children and young people were involved as full experts in the brainstorming process. We believe that a fairer, safer and healthier city is created when children’s perspectives play a greater role in the design process.

We conclude the triptych with the manifestation, The Future of Groningen’s Schools which started last week. Over the next 20 years, the city of Groningen will invest almost 1 billion euros in renovating and renewing its schools. This is a huge task, but it also offers many opportunities to improve the quality of the buildings, the education, the environment and the social role of the schools in the districts and neighbourhoods for the children.

How can we ensure that Groningen has the best school buildings in the Netherlands? The city has a rich tradition, is courageous and faces a great challenge in the coming years. But these ingredients alone do not make the best building. How do we get there? The team behind this manifestation will work on that next year.

Bart van Kampen is the manifestation’s curator and in this role he is taking the lead in identifying important themes and exploring how Groningen’s ambitions relate to other developments in the country.