Urbanism for eight-year-olds

It turns out eight year olds are also plugged into conversations about urbanism, affordability and neighbourhood change in Vancouver.
Lindsay Causey of independent school Stratford Hall is teaching a unit on “how we organize ourselves.” Students are learning about decisions we make as a society and their impact on people and the environment. They’ve touched on human geography and urban issues.
Ms. Causey picked up a Metro one morning that had my story “Goodbye to the Vancouver we know?” on the growth of rich and poor enclaves in the region and a loss of diversity and mobility.
She read it to her class.
“Heavy stuff for Grade 3, but somehow we manage to navigate it,” she said. They just read a story about polar bears and climate change and talked about what it’s like to be displaced. “In a nutshell, we’re exploring cause and effect relationships.”
Ms. Causey invited me to visit her class to talk cities and change. Curious what eight year olds thought of Vancouver, I accepted.
Stratford Hall, an urban school, is three separate buildings across two blocks on Commercial Drive. Students and staff recently lobbied city hall to make their stretch of Commercial a school zone as they cross the busy arterial daily to use Clark Park. (There are no changes yet.)
George, one of the students in Causey’s class, filled me in on what the area was like before urbanization – going back over 200 years.
George lives nearby, and he put together a booklet of maps with his dad that chronicled local transformations. It was a personal project, not homework.
“My favourite is a hand-drawn one [from 1865] because it just looks so cool,” he said. “I couldn’t believe you could get this map without using a computer. How did they even get a picture of this?”
The maps include one of Vancouver’s Indigenous communities before colonization and one that shows Commercial Drive when it was Park Drive, before merchants rallied for the name change in 1911 to create business buzz.
George was surprised to learn about the history of Trout Lake, where he often goes to play.
“I thought Trout Lake would be just a lake,” he said, “but it actually filled boilers.” The lake supplied water to the Hastings Mill in the mid-1800s.
The class and I chatted about how different families have different needs and make choices about spending based on what they can afford. What if they can’t buy a car? What if only one parent works? What if you only have one parent?
I asked the class if they thought Vancouver was affordable.
They were divided.
“It depends on who you are,” said Quinn.
Meghan complimented the SkyTrain. “It brings you to places if you don’t have a car!”
Stratford Hall students are no stranger to the SkyTrain, which runs right by their windows. When it halts on the tracks due to snow, students wave to the stalled passengers.
Rachel brought up another bedrock of urban life: neighbourhood “third places.”
“I like The Mighty Oak.” It’s a mini grocery store and café. “I can walk there by myself,” she said.
“When you don’t know someone, you’re just sitting there drinking your coffee. But if you know someone, you can start a conversation with the person who you know, and then their friends come in and you start a conversation and then you all become friends! That’s how my uncles got to know each other. You can get to know your friends’ friends’ friends!”
The students also asked questions about homelessness. They’ve seen people sleep at Clark Park, where they play daily.
“There was a man who was sleeping in a tent in a sleeping bag but then he went away,” said Rachel. “It was sad.”
There’s a lot of change happening in the city that can be hard even for grown-ups to digest. Ms. Causey’s takeaway for her students?
“Question why things are the way they are,” she said, “and come up with creative solutions when you see a potential problem or inequality.”
It’s lesson for ages eight and up.

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