Research Summary

A critical urban environmental pedagogy: Relevant urban environmental education for and by youth

The Potential of a New Approach to Urban Environmental Education

The Journal of Environmental Education

Environmental education has traditionally emphasized environmental awareness through focusing on issues such as pollution, degradation, population growth, and natural-resource depletion. However, the authors of this paper argue that such a broad focus is not flexible enough to meet the needs of diverse communities. Therefore, they argue for a more transformative urban environmental education that recognizes the experience of youth in urban settings. They call this approach Critical Urban Environmental Education Programming (CUEP).

The authors hope that CUEP can combat what they see as the negative effects of neoliberalism. They define neoliberalism as the resurgence of extreme free market capitalism, and they emphasize that neoliberalism is a dominant force shaping urban environments. They believe that this dominant ideology has resulted in the trivializing of individual rationality and responsibility, causing harm to people, communities, and the environment. The authors cite the process of gentrification as one example of neoliberalism’s harmful effects. They argue that CUEP helps deconstruct neoliberalism, thus addressing its negative effects.

The CUEP approach has three components: First, students use participatory methods to create a narrative on environment, social position, and identity about a particular place. Second, students work with instructors to understand how social, political, and economic forces interact within the status quo. Third, students are taught to critique the status quo based on what they find in their research.

To analyze the program, the authors relied on their personal experiences during five years of teaching, curriculum development, and participatory research experience with diverse communities in New York City. They examined their own recollections of the program, conversations with participants, and primary sources such as curriculum documents to explore the impacts of CUEP.

Citing examples mainly from the student narratives, the authors concluded that involving students in a participatory approach allows them to produce knowledge rather than simply accept what they are told. They contextualize this finding by describing how students asked new questions in response to their learning. The researchers also observed that the questions often raised inherently political issues and that the students’ narratives often raised issues of socioeconomic inequality.

The Bottom Line

To help students more effectively grasp the dynamics of sociopolitical and environmental systems, educators should help students actively participate in the learning process, analyze the power dynamics to understand the status quo, and critically engage with learning materials. These approaches can help students connect their lived experience with theoretical knowledge, build critical awareness, and generate knowledge.