Should “Urban Studies” be a mandatory high school course?

More than half the world’s population lives in cities, and that percentage continues to grow.  Yet, how well do urban residents understand cities?  Do they know where housing comes from? what about food? or clothing?  How much does they average urban resident know about how cities are governed?  Or what legislation or bylaws affect their daily lives? (and how to get them changed?)

Too often lately I’ve been reading comments or quotes in the newspaper that suggest an otherwise intelligent, well-read person doesn’t fully understand how cities work.

Maybe, graduating from high school should require passing a course that includes (or is substantially) “urban studies.”

Here are some topics that I’ve learned about from life, work (or this blog), that many more people should understand.  And I certainly could have benefited learning about by age 18.  Feel free to add more suggestions in the comments.

1. Housing and housing costs.  Why are houses or apartments or condos in some cities and locations more expensive than in others?   Although there are complicated nuances worth elaborating on in a course, in essence it comes down to supply and demand.  If there are not enough homes where people want to live, then prices tend to go up (whether rents or purchase prices).

Too often lately I’ve read comments that suggest people don’t understand this basic issue.  High housing prices are not caused by greedy developers or landlords.  They charge what people are willing to pay (and most people try to find the best deal).  When the market is flooded with homes (look at many places in the US), prices go down.  When the government stops individuals from building or renting homes for profit, they don’t do it.  And the homes that remain become more expensive.

2. Container shipping by boat, rail or truck is how the food and clothes and other things we need and use in cities get to us.   Trying to stop container terminals, logistics facilities, and trucking routes, for example, without figuring out an alternative ways to nourish and clothe the people in cities, is pointless.  Sure, one location may not be appropriate and citizens can speak out, but they need to suggest alternatives that make more sense and show they grasp the consequences.  Preventing a logistics facility in one area might result in more truck traffic (and pollution) if goods have to be transported further. Similarly, stopping truck traffic on one main street diverts it, and may result in longer routes, more pollution, and higher prices.

3. Congestion.  Although on the surface building more roads seems like a solution, all the evidence points to the opposite.  The more roads, the more vehicle traffic.

These are three topics worth covering in a mandatory course.  Yes, they can be controversial and have multiple political sides–but so do most topics covered in history classes.  A student emerging from high school understanding both sides of the issue (or all three or four sides, in some cases) is far more prepared to be a productive, helpful person making our cities function better than someone who has no idea there even is a side or an issue–than someone who has no clue how the apple in her lunch or jeans on her legs got there.


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  2. Nick Rowe says:

    Your arguments make sense.

    However, consider this knee-jerk response from the opposite side:

    No! What we need is compulsory Rural Studies!

    Since most media people and educators are more concentrated in larger population centres than the population as a whole, there is already an inherent urban bias in what information we receive and what we are taught. Compulsory Rural Studies might offset that bias to some extent.

    Plus, rural people are more likely to spend some time in urban areas than urban people are to spend time in rural areas. This, plus the bias in the media and education systems, mean that urban people can be much more ignorant of rural life than rural people are of urban life. We need compulsory Rural Studies for urban dwellers.

    Send ‘em all off to the farm for 6 months, like in China, and Cuba! OK, maybe not.

  3. William says:

    The social studies I taught combined ecosystem science with anthropology. Ecosystem science divides the Earth into fabricated, cultivated and natural ecosystems that corresponds perfectly with urban, agrarian and aboriginal cultures. I submit, teaching whats within each ecosystem and culture as well as their relationships are equally important.

  4. Nick Rowe says:

    William: OK, I divided the world into two; you divided it into three. I missed your third. Just shows my bias. But then I’m originally a Brit, and the aboriginal British culture is agrarian for an awfully long time! (That’s my excuse).

    But I would question your identifying natural ecosystem = aboriginal. Even in North America, some I think were/are at least partly agrarian.

  5. William says:

    You’re right, Nick. I simply used them as ideal types: great to get a picture of the whole and get some good metrics. In reality, all three (ecosystems and cultures) are a mixture with portions of each in each other. For instance, an aboriginal “house” is a fabrication (or economic development if you prefer). Still, we could measure them quite well with ideal typology. For instance, 30 years ago fabricated or developed ecosystems in the States comprised about 5% of the land area, cultivated about 25% and natural about 70%. Other measurements like energy density were also measured. And, ecosystem science has evolved tremendously in thirty years – and i’ve been out of loop for about twenty.

  6. Wendy Waters says:

    Great discussion. I agree only teaching urban studies would leave things out. And I certainly would agree that high school curricula around North America and the world is full of gaps.

    My point is that if over half the world is going to live in cities it would be nice if people understood them better. In fact, to be good world citizens and good urban citizens I think we all need to understand them better.

    Understanding where food comes from–and where it used to come from–in terms of agrarian history would also be excellent. And how the environment has interacted with human history would also be worthwhile. Maybe high school “social studies” needs a rethink as a curriculum.

    William–I would have loved to have been in your course. I tried blending environmental history with a survey of Latin American history once (2nd year university course), with much less success that you likely had.

  7. skpg says:

    Nothing should be a mandatory course in high school because public schools and public education in general is a corrupt institution. Never mind the fact public schools helped contribute to suburban sprawls. Our education is so corrupt and so bad, the last thing we need is more mandatory courses.

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