We have been able to reduce poverty in the world, but not inequalities. Cities, despite being efficient vehicles in the fight to defeat poverty, unfortunately also mercilessly reflect all the inequalities of a given society. Public education is crucial to correct inequalities; the assumption is that better education gives access to better jobs and better income may allow a family to achieve a better quality of life. But transferring knowledge and contents within the classroom is not even close to being the main purpose of a public school in the underserved city outskirts of a developing country. Before teaching children how to read and write, a school is also a canteen (a way of guaranteeing nutrition) and a shelter (access to drinkable water, plumbing, and protection from rain that may not be guaranteed at home). But above all a school is mainly a fortress to protect children from urban violence, drugs, and other threats to their physical integrity.
Elton and Léniz have been working with the Caserta Foundation to use nature as a way to introduce a different notion of education into vulnerable children’s experience. The starting point is nature as a relief and escape from the aggressive environment that they have to deal with every day of their lives. They have been exploring a redefinition of the notion of classroom so that a more direct interaction with nature allows children to experience nature as a healing space. Basic architectural elements (roofs, walls, frames, shade, roads) are expected to create a primordial life experience in the rapport between body, community, and geography. It is interesting how the whole history of human settlements is reversed—cities were once the safe place that protected people from threatening nature. For too many people in the world it is now the exact opposite—the city is the threat and nature may be the only way out. What Elton and Léniz are trying to do is identify new paradigms in educational spaces so that this new notion of school can introduce, in many cases for the first time in children’s lives, some kind of self-esteem, making them able to read nature and experience its beauty. This may well be the only notion of culture that makes any sense in city outskirts the world over.
Some people define culture as what you remember after closing a book; in this case culture may be redefined as what you know before even opening one.