MFC, PhD Candidate Faculty of Environmental Studies,
Canadian Urban Forest Network, Ontario Representative
The following article was published in The Professional Forester the official publication of the OPFA Sept 2011 Number 203
As I was reading the initial responses to Bradshaw’s (2011) article in the Globe and Mail about the closing (read re-structuring) of the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto, the weight of its implications struck me profoundly. More than ever the inclusion of urban forestry in higher learning is integral to any (green) environmental education.
This past June I presented a paper at the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences (AESS) conference in Vermont. The theme of the panel for which our paper was chosen was Urban Environmental Pedagogies: Bringing Theory to Practice. I am thankful for the opportunity to share the topic I presented about the complexities we face when reading and thinking critically about our urban green spaces.
For the past three years I have had the good fortune of being a Teaching Assistant and Course Administrator for a course called Taking Action: Engaging People and the Environment, a first year undergraduate course at the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University created by Professor Anders Sandberg. One of the major assignments in this course is the Campus Tour which moves beyond familiarizing students with their physical surroundings to a critical approach that encourages students to interrogate and contest their immediate urban spaces while being self-reflexive about their own positions and opinions. Using a variety of sites on campus, we discuss the historical, political and social climates surrounding campus development and management; the inclusions and exclusions in decision making and representations, as well as the socio-ecological and cultural considerations towards landscapes. The reading of multi-layered narratives presented and explored allows students to engage with their surroundings and make connections with the three course themes: social justice, environmental sustainability and civic engagement.
In our conference paper titled, Reading the Urban Landscape: The Case of a Campus Tour at York University, Ontario, Canada (AESS, June 2011), we examine three sites: a storm water pond, a native species garden and a woodlot. Conversations pertaining to these
sites include debates about water drainage and green infrastructure; native and invasive species; pesticides and health concerns; environmental impacts; and lay versus expert knowledge. The site that I have become most familiar with is the Michael Boyer Woodlot, named after a retired biology professor who was instrumental in preserving the four woodlots currently found on York’s campus. We deconstruct this site by examining several narratives: the scientific, the management, and the social.
The scientific and management narratives, being the most dominant and accepted, have much in common as humans struggle with seemingly opposing concepts of aesthetic appeal, environmentally-appropriate behaviour, cleanliness and safety. In the social, more intimate narrative, we explore personal experiences and relationships with the woodlots. Haunting accounts speak to the mystery as well as the inspiring nature of the woodlots. We discuss creative influences and environmental reflections and how these invoke emotional ties to spaces and places. We connect the cultural, creative and spiritual narratives with social, political and ecological paradigms.
We interrogate this campus woodlot from various perspectives: it can be seen as a place of political activism, a place to learn in and from; a biological remnant, a place that contains specific trees with specific names, a place to study, a place for students to observe and experiment in and do research assignments; a place of secrets, a private refuge: a place to which we can escape, to meet friends, have parties, to read books, to play music… the list is as long as the imagination allows. Though we also explore the political, social and environmental injustices that make-up the multi-layered narratives of the campus sites. The various perspectives we have of nature and wilderness come together in this small remnant we all share as part of the York community.
The main objective to reading the woodlot critically is to raise questions about its existence, wrestle with the multiple political contentions and question the concept of ecological values. What is different today than in Professor Boyer’s time is the seemingly greater emphasis that is placed on campus green space by the student body and the greater public. Campus Tours and specifically tree and woodlot tours on campus are
becoming more prevalent. And yet, with the dissolution of the Arboretum Committee we explore how the university’s interest in greenspace has been redefined. Understanding the functions and services that the woodlots provide to the York community is integral to their successful management; yet, understanding both dominant and alternate stories and the people who tell those stories is equally as integral to their continued sustainability and enhancement.
Thus, a critical approach to urban forest education in higher learning is essential. As I was reading yet another benefits promo for the urban forest, it struck me as redundantly uninspiring that news of urban forestry seldom goes beyond a general celebratory model of advocacy or a negative spin on development pressures. In re-imagining the way we think about environmental education and learning, opportunities for collaboration broaden. Deconstructing human perceptions of normalcy and what constitutes appropriate behaviour through an exploration of various narratives may help to alleviate stereotypes and lead to better, more sustainable long(er)- term strategies for campus planning and student learning.
Bardekjian, Adrina, Classens, Michael and L. Anders Sandberg. 2011. Reading the Urban Landscape: The Case of a Campus Tour at York University, Ontario, Canada. Paper presented at The Association for Environmental Studies Conference for the Urban Environmental Pedagogies: Bringing Theory to Practice Panel, Burlington, VT. June 26, 2011.