Urban Ecology Education: Innovative approaches

For the most part social action and implementation of policy depends on what we know. Therefore, existing and innovative pedagogies in the education of students, practitioners and decision-makers in the context of the urban forests are crucial to its current and future shape. In today’s rapidly growing urban centres our understanding of the epistemic frameworks in which we know urban forests further clarifies our understand of the way reflexive action and professional practicum define and recreate urban forests.

Moderator: Steve Alsop, Professor, Faculty of Education, York University

Steve Alsop is a Professor in the Faculty of Education and Department of Science and Technologies Studies at York University, Canada. He co-ordinates the graduate diploma in environmental sustainability education. Steve has held a series of academic positions including associate dean, academic director, coordinator, honorary professor, secondary and primary school teacher. He has a wide range of research interests exploring the social and political organization of scientific and technological knowledge, pedagogies of science and technology, and environmental sustainability. He lives in Toronto.

Keynote speaker: Dr. Greg Smith, Lewis & Clark Graduate School of Education & Counseling, Portland, Oregon, US - “Educating Students to Become Citizen Stewards”

Place-based education aims to deepen students’ relationship with their community and region by integrating local knowledge and practical experiences outside the classroom into their school day.  Its aim is the cultivation of citizens who feel enough connection to other people and the environment to want to care for and sustain their health and well-being. This educational approach is especially successful when young people are given the opportunity to participate in local inquiry and problem-solving projects that are valued by others. After providing a definition and rationale for place-based education, this talk will focus on a number of examples of non-formal and formal educators who are demonstrating the impact teaching and learning in this way can have on communities, students, and the land that supports them. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for example, staff at the Urban Ecology Center work with local schools to restore neglected urban parks. The result has been beautified natural areas, reduced crime rates, and improved student achievement. Similar impacts are seen in public schools in Oregon, Texas, Maryland, and Massachusetts that have founds ways to engage the energy and intelligence of children and youth in efforts to improve the environment and strengthen communities.  

“I’m a native Oregonian strongly hooked to the Pacific Northwest. As an undergraduate, I attended Oberlin College and the University of Oregon. After working in a variety of different jobs, I decided to become an English teacher in my mid-twenties. After completing an M.A. at Southern Oregon State College in Ashland, I taught high school for nine years, initially at Ashland High School and then at a small Friends boarding school in Northern California and a school for struggling students in Honolulu. Convinced of the value of situating education in strong communities, I returned to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where I tried to figure out ways to extend what I had learned while teaching in small private high schools to the public education system. There, I had the chance to work as an educational researcher for five years. I got my first teaching job in higher education at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, where I helped coordinate the Teachers for Alaska Program. When a job opening at Lewis & Clark in the early 1990s presented me with the opportunity to return to Oregon, I applied and I have been here ever since.” (from website)

Sierra Frank, School Programs Manager, EcoSource - “Complexities of Urban Ecologies”

An exploration into the complexities of our urban ecologies, in essence, is the telling of stories about relationships and reciprocity. Whether we investigate urban spaces through a lens of theory, policy, practice, or storytelling – all environments rely on the healthy interaction of numerous components to function and thrive.  In the same way, education functions through dynamic and multifaceted relationships and the interplay of theory, policy, practice, and stories.  By creating pedagogies that engage learners in meaningful connection between place, subject matter, and each other (both human and more-than-human) we can create a deeper awareness of the intricate environments we inhabit. Investigating the importance of collaborative, equitable, and experiential education and to creating deep and meaningful relationships with our people, places, and politics, Sierra will unravel lessons she has learned in her work to create vibrant, healthy, and just urban ecosystems.


Sierra Frank is the School Programs Manager at EcoSource, a non-profit environmental organization located in Prot Credit, Mississauga. In her position she oversees a variety of dynamic educational programs that focus on sustainability, waste reduction, and teacher professional development. Through this work she is dedicated to collaborative, equitable, and experiential education and to making a difference in the world. Sierra sits on numerous committees including Education Alliance for a Sustainable Ontario, Peel Safe and Active Routes to School, Sustainability and Education Policy Network, and is assembling a Peel Environmental Education Working Group.  With extensive experience working within the education and non-profit sector, Sierra is devoted to forging deep and meaningful relationships within her community. Sierra obtained a Bachelor of Environmental Studies from York University and a Bachelor of Education from OISE.

Adrina Bardekjian, PhD Candidate, Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University - “Uncommon Clear Cuts: Innovative Approaches to Teaching Urban Forestry”

Existing urban forest education models tend to focus on technical, applied expertise and often do not provide critically inclusive perspectives to reflect the links between the social and ecological complexities found in urban settings. By integrating theoretically driven participatory learning activities in environmental education programs, students benefit by challenging their surrounding landscapes. At the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, the Alternative Campus Tour serves as a pedagogical tool to engage students and community members to critically examine conceptions of space and community. It began as a major assignment in a first year undergraduate course called, “Taking Action: Engaging People and the Environment.” By walking the campus as “tourists” and talking about the campus as “tour guides,” students learn and converse about the historical context of their university. This participatory learning process gives them the opportunity to explore and contest how the space is or could be used by members of the university community; and, it allows them to envision new stories about the campus space by deconstructing their biases towards urban ecology. Using a woodlot on campus as a launching point, this paper explores how, in a broader context, the Campus Tour assignment enables students to think critically about urban forests, their physical and symbolic meanings, their socially constructed natures and how nature's agency can begin to take precedence in our learning processes. For the past decade, over 2,500 students, teaching assistants, faculty and community members have participated in the Alternative Campus Tour. Most recently, we have been awarded $20,000 from York University’s Academic Innovation Fund to continue the project and engage surrounding communities. Transdisciplinary practices in urban ecology can only be achieved through a critical, inclusive and participatory education. The Alternative Campus Tour invokes imagination and engages students where they study and provides them with deeper insights and considerations on urban nature that they can then take into their lives.

Adrina Bardekjian is a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University in Toronto. Her research centers on exploring and communicating different stories, views and perceptions (or narratives) of the urban forest with respect to policies, practices and representations, and the social psychology surrounding human behaviour towards sustainable urban green spaces and arboriculture. She is a researcher, writer and educator, and works with a number of organizations on a diversity of projects and initiatives. For more information, please visit: www.adrina.ca .

Lois Dellert, Artist and Former Deputy Chief Forester of British Columbia - “Raising Ecological Awareness through Art Education: The Case of the Environmental Totem Project”

This talk uses a case study from my Art Education practice to demonstrate how the creation of site-based art can be an innovative and powerful way to raise ecological awareness by engaging youth in issues related to their environment and their understanding of it. My art practice is strongly influenced by my career in forestry and academic research in environmental studies.  For example, the modern Western worldview of nature-as-machine presupposes that nature can be either re-engineered to perfect it or preserved to protect it. Both situate nature as object, separate from us, and both assume it can be controlled.  In contrast, I believe nature is that which surrounds us and which includes us: from forest to cultivated fields to city environments.  I take an ecological view: the world is a chaotic and complex system that can not be understood by taking it apart, studying it, and then putting it back together.  It is a multi-dimensional web of dynamic relationships between a large number and variety of components that form, re-form and sometimes transform in unpredictable ways. In the Environmental Totem project, Grade 6 students were asked to observe the differences between the garden and the forest ravine on the grounds of their inner-city school and then to express what they observed as visual representations.  These designs were set in concrete columns or "totems" constructed on the school grounds, 3 in the garden and 3 in the forest.  

For the past 15 years, Lois Dellert has been a practicing artist using sculpture to raise ecological awareness and to question nature as other. She has led several community-based and Art In The School projects and has several permanent site based sculptures in schools in Toronto and southern Ontario. She lives and works from her downtown Toronto home. Previously, she was the Deputy Chief Forester of British Columbia and has written several papers on issues of sustainability.  She has a BSc in Forestry (University of Alberta) and a Masters of Environmental Studies (York University). 

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