It’s been a week since the Jane’s Walk celebration weekend around the world, and I’ve been thinking more about how Jane Jacobs led the way in advocating for a place-based, community-centered approach to urban planning — now called the placemaking movement.
The placemaking movement is focused on strengthening the elements that make places engaging, livable, sustainable, and worth caring about. These are important efforts, and I believe the open and curious minds of children can be a significant resource for strengthening the bonds between people and places throughout their entire lifespan.
Though I have a minor in geography and am an experienced environmentalist, it’s my profession as a business/people manager, however, that allows me to witness the intimate challenges people face every day as they struggle to find meaning and connection in their lives. As a Naturalist (and as you can see in my writing), I am passionate about enhancing the quality of the bonds that form between people and places, and for the health and well-being of both. This interest has led me to study the subject of place attachment from many different angles, and through many disciplines. What makes a person feel a sense of belonging, meaning, and connection in a place?
Most theorists of place attachment agree that childhood experiences of place — both the events that happen there and the environments themselves — play a pivotal role in the development of place attachment bonds throughout their lifespan. As teachers, it is important to remember that just like close observation of a drop of water can show us an entire ocean in microcosm, a neighborhood or a street can tell us much about the world. When that place is also one’s childhood home, it becomes imbued with multiple layers of meaning. Further, when we teach young people to view the places they live as important and interesting enough to learn about, we begin to see that almost any subject that interests them can be studied through the lens of place.
I grew up in an area of Houston, TX called Alief — a place that on the surface might seem drab, uninteresting, or not worth caring about. In all my years of schooling, while I was required to take classes in history, math, science, social studies, the place in which my classmates and I actually lived, however, was never a subject of inquiry. Sure we learned a lot about Texas, but very little about Houston itself, and absolutely nothing about Alief. Everything I loved about Alief as a child had to do with my own experiences in nature, in my neighborhood, and in my community. In fact, all I know about the natural and cultural history of my hometown (even Houston) I learned as an adult, and only after developing a personal interest. Until then I had assumed the entire Houston area was devoid of both life (other than human) and historical interest. I grew up thinking I lived in a boring, ugly place, and I yearned for places to the contrary. Had I been exposed as a child to some of the city’s rich ecology or history in the classroom, I may have grown up with a remarkably different understanding and appreciation of the place.
Here’s my proposal: Imagine that every student were required to take one class dedicated to the study of their local community in order to graduate from high school. This class could be a multi-disciplinary course in which students would create an individual project focused on a particular aspect of their city, town, or neighborhood. In the process of studying the history of a local bike trail, for example, a student might discover its origins as an ancient indigenous footpath and explore community efforts to preserve the trail over the course of many decades. Others might choose to research the art in nearby public spaces, building heights, noise pollution, the quality of water, or the local history of war memorials.
In thinking about these possibilities, I have turned my focus on the peninsula on which I currently live — a community called Mayo — in Edgewater, Maryland, just south of Annapolis, the state capital. In order to complete this kind of place-based educational requirement, students might explore some of the area’s local history like Historic London Town and Gardens, the Gresham House and Farm, and of course the ecology of both the South River and the Rhode River leading into the Chesapeake Bay, to name a few. The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center — located on the Rhode River — conducts a variety of archaeological digs in the area as well.
At the elementary school in my neighborhood, a fifth grade class in 1952 conducted a study similar to what I’m suggesting. It’s a comprehensive look at only a small part of the Mayo peninsula from geographical features to strange discoveries, and it’s currently the only one of it’s kind. Sadly, most locals have no idea about most of the included information until (and if) they read the report by the fifth-graders. How much more could be discovered — and appreciated — if projects like this continued?
The point is that if we turn our children’s focus to their immediate local environment as a subject of study, we are conveying the message that place matters, and giving them the opportunity to focus on their local environment — to learn about it, engage with it, experience it, and share it with others.
What might students learn about within a five-mile radius of your neighborhood?