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Early learning

A new education pack for children aims to make urban design more enjoyable, but does the moral ruin the fun?

Many readers will have vague memories of sitting in a dusty geography classroom, studiously marking out a city's central business district, residential areas and so on with coloured pencils. A new initiative from Derbyshire County Council promises to make studying the urban environment a more gripping experience.

Architect Karl Cooper and education specialist Jane Featherstone have collaborated on this colourful resource pack for seven to 11 year olds.

There seem to be two distinct motivations behind the initiative. The first is the commendable aim of encouraging greater public interest in urban design.As the authors note in the teachers' booklet, people tend to see the environment as a fixed thing over which they have no control.

The public should certainly be encouraged to think critically about these things, to appreciate good design and to understand the political processes that make the built environment.

Beyond the banal observation that 'children are the citizens of the future', however, it is not clear why seven to 11 year olds are the most appropriate target audience for such a campaign. This brings us to the second motivation: indoctrination. While the pack sets out various aspects of urban design that children are to learn about, it is also clear that there is a specific agenda they are expected to adopt.

This is most obvious in the title of the pack, Designing Sustainable Neighbourhoods. It is taken for granted nowadays that children are taught environmentalism at school. Geography lessons are dominated by the doctrine of sustainability, and the curriculum more broadly equates environmental thinking with virtue, so that children are sent home to lecture their parents about recycling etc. The Designing Sustainable Neighbourhoods pack fills out the catechism to include accessibility, variety, safety, readability and friendliness. Quiet at the back, please, as we look at each in turn.

Accessible neighbourhoods

On the face of it, this is perfectly sensible. Urban areas and buildings should be easily accessible to people, including those with disabilities. In fact, though, this lesson is really about the joys of walking to school.

Children are asked to assess their journeys to school and consider any obstacles they encounter on the way.

This seems a good way to get them to think about the built environment, but the moral lesson is never far away.

Then they have to think of good points and bad points about walking ('I feel healthy') and driving ('Mum smokes in the car').

Variety within the locality

Variety is to urban design what diversity is to culture. Not just a good thing, but a 'Good Thing'. This lesson looks a little less fun, focusing as it does on explaining the meaning of the term 'land-use'.

Essentially, it is commending Richard Rogers' urban idyll of the 'compact city', with a variety of land-uses happening in the same place. The pedestrian evangelism is joined here by the promotion of a Sesame Street-style neighbourhood spirit, but without acknowledging that the world isn't really that fluffy.

Safe streets

This is Jeremy Bentham's 'Panopticon' for kids. Children are asked how they feel in various different urban environments. The key to feeling safe, they learn, is 'see and be seen'. For adults, this would be positively sinister, but even for children it is one-sided.

At no stage is it pointed out that there might be a trade-off between safety and fun. In fact, fun is redefined. Forget roaming the streets unsupervised and getting into trouble - who would want to do that when they can stay in the classroom and play an educational board game?

Reading your neighbourhood

In this lesson, children are asked to think about landmarks and other distinctive features in the urban environment, and, to be fair, 'readability' is quite a nice way to think about the built environment. In part, though, this is an extension of the variety lesson; the more political aspect is the insistence that every neighbourhood should have a 'sense of place'.

The idea seems to be to instil in children the concept of territoriality, though presumably gang fighting is frowned on.

Friendly buildings

This lesson is to show children how particular design features have particular effects. Again, it seems like a good objective, but the focus on friendliness is a little suspect. Do we really want all our buildings to be 'friendly'? This means buildings are to have lots of windows, obvious entrances and fit nicely into their surroundings - building 'manners' apparently. But surely some buildings ought to have a bit more gravitas. This brings us back to an earlier point: the built environment is not just for children. For all its preachiness, the pack does look like fun, and no doubt the kids will, in time, develop their own ideas about the issues.Ultimately, however, we need to recognise that initiatives of this kind will do less damage to children's education than to the credibility of teachers and urban design professionals.

Derbyshire County Council schools' education pack, Designing Sustainable Neighbourhoods, is available from www. derbyshire. gov. uk or by calling 01629 580000.

Dolan Cummings is editor of Culture Wars (www. culturewars. org. uk)

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