Design + Pedagogy = Fit Cities

Associate professor of social-ecological history and design, Parsons the New School for Design

As always when a new issue arrives, I turn to “Notes from Metropolis” to find out what is on Susan Szenasy’s mind. Invariably, a dialogue starts: my thoughts engaging with hers. This time, I can’t resist writing, as my research of the last few years may add a missing component to her “Design + Policy = Fit Cities”.

If we want a shift in mind-set, with a goal of encouraging physical activity and healthy lifestyles, we should look at changing the mainly sedentary way we teach designers. How can students who are taught with an emphasis on the mental as opposed to the visceral be expected to understand what it means to design a “fit city”?

My research and classroom experiences have led me to believe that modern educational practices and digital technologies—which emphasize multitasking disembodied (and often abstract) symbolic information—need to be balanced by visceral knowledge. Studies by the neuroscientist Frank Wilson suggest that without visceral learning we are increasingly finding it difficult to make choices in a world filled with complex phenomena such as climate change.

I have also found that modern pedagogy positions students to believe that they are separate from their own bodies as well as from nature. Students are taught to understand themselves as if they were observing a third person. They describe their ideas and experiences using he, she, it, or they, rarely using the first-person I or we. Their teachers tell them to disregard what their senses and emotions reveal. They are instructed, instead, to privilege rationality and the products of digital technologies, even if those contradict their own experiences. After a late night working, their attention in class wanders when we discuss climate change, nonsustainable food systems, and other life-threatening disturbances of natural systems necessary for their very survival. Amazingly, though students have little sense of themselves or nature, we expect them to be resilient and design sustainably in the face of unprecedented, disruptive ecological conditions—we expect them to design “fit cities”!

Where is my research and experience taking me? Current studies in neuroscience, somatics, and phenomenology indicate that the conception of homo sapiens as a species outside of nature yet capable of learning to live in alignment with nature is a fallacy. The central question of my work, the Embodied Pedagogy Project, is: Can we expand our understanding of homo sapiens, which means “wise man” or “knowing man” in Latin, to include tacit knowledge? The result of my work is to develop practices, exercises, and other teaching techniques to support students’ learning to design that “fit city” you describe.

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