How can we improve and maintain urban metabolisms for generations to come?

Inviting young people into the conversation: growing populations and rapid city expansions.

A number of prominent news outlets have published articles and think-pieces to suggest that young people are increasingly unaware about where their food comes from. It is claimed that children and young people are no longer engaging with nature, nor are they curious about how the natural environment works.

Where does cheese come from? How does water get to your taps? How do avocados grow?

Professor Peter Kraftl conducts research with young people across the globe and believes that such headlines fail to reflect diverse realities. It matters, he says, because potentially patronising claims such as those above can lead to the voices of young people being omitted from important conversations about the future.

“How people experience, consume and interact with food, water and energy is at the heart of designing sustainable cities and towns,” says Professor Kraftl. “If we are planning for the future, our role is to ensure that the next generation have a voice in shaping that. What we have found throughout our research is that their understanding of, and desire to protect, their vital food, water and energy sources is far greater than the headlines might lead you to believe.”

With a growing global population, and cities seeing rapid expansion, there is an increased pressure on ‘urban metabolisms’ – the essential systems that support the people within those spaces. The research done by Professor Kraftl and colleagues uses the voices of young people to help maintain and improve those urban metabolisms for generations to come.

A different perspective

Professor Kraftl’s appreciation for the marginalised voices of young people began during his PhD.

He explains, “My PhD was not about childhood at all, it was about architecture. I was interested in ecological, sustainable or green architecture. It just so happened that one of the buildings I was studying was a school and the children, essentially, roped me in to their reality. Being in that environment turned my PhD on its head. Instead of it being about the design of buildings it became about the inhabitants of the building. I wanted to know how people felt about the spaces, what they did in them, how they made meaning there.”

That introduction to young people’s perspectives sparked an interest in children’s geographies and the alternative viewpoints that come from young people who invest and interact in places in different ways. 

His move to the Centre for Children and Youth at The University of Northampton in 2004 was an opportunity to explore how those views might challenge the established ‘adult’ preconceptions. Since that point, much of his work has been guided by the challenge of how we design spaces that are more appropriate for young people. 

“It was at Northampton that I was lucky enough to meet Professor John Horton, with whom I have been collaborating for many years,” says Professor Kraftl. “Our work includes a series of projects on children’s play in urban space. Many of our cities have these bland, plastic playgrounds with little thought for the primary users of the spaces – the children themselves. As adults we just transition through them. So to study these areas more fully, we have developed innovative approaches to children’s geographies, with a real focus on nonrepresentational thinking.”

Much geographical research is underpinned by trying to make sense of the world around us – the tangible built and natural environments and how people interact with them. Since 2000, there has been a movement towards nonrepresentational thinking. It is, simply put, a desire to tackle the less easily explained questions, the complex intertwined aspects of the world and, crucially, how we feel about our world as actors within it.  

“Nonrepresentational thinking forces us to think innovatively about our approach to research. How we feel about spaces, why we act the way we do within the - these are complicated questions. So you have to look to develop alternative methodologies in order to answer them, and in a way that gives people a chance to articulate their personal experiences. For a children’s play area this is one thing, but the same principles apply when you look at vast city regions. It is just a matter of scale.”

Shifting focus to Brazil

Professor Kraftl is now at the University of Birmingham. Alongside colleagues from the University of Leicester, University of Northampton and UNESP (Brazil), he is using the same alternative methodologies to research children’s and young people’s geographies in Brazil.

“I had been working with Dr Sophie Hadfield Hill, another long term collaborator of mine, and we had just finished a UK-based project looking at children’s experiences of living in newly built, large scale, masterplanned communities,” says Professor Kraftl. “We asked if they were child-friendly spaces and, if not, how they could be changed. Sophie had just completed something similar in India. We saw the opportunity to investigate sustainable urban change in Brazil and thought it was too good to pass up.”

A link was developed with Professor José Antônio Perrella Balastieri at UNESP in Brazil. Rather than a social scientist, he is an energy engineer who leads a Brazilian research group on the energy/water nexus in Brazil. 

“Those early conversations were really interesting,” recalls Professor Kraftl. “Yes, he comes from an engineering perspective, but he is deeply interested in societal questions. How do you build an energy system that efficiently and effectively supports the community as a whole? This was not going to be a group of engineers coming in and simply providing ‘solutions’ that are unaware of social issues and problems. That was very important to us.”

After initial exploratory projects and networking visits, the group secured a full research project (funded by ESRC and FAPESP under the Newton Fund) that would broaden their link and investigate the intersection of three of the most pressing developmental challenges for Brazil (and indeed many other countries) – food, water and energy. The heart of urban metabolisms.

Getting to grips with the nexus

A move towards nexus-based analysis and understanding of complex urban metabolisms pre-dates the UN Sustainable Development Goals set in 2015, though does align with a desire to develop more sustainable cities.

“About a decade ago, a series of policy initiatives outlined that, in order to properly broach sustainable development, we could no longer work in silos,” says Professor Kraftl. “We could no longer have solutions for energy being managed separately to our flooding prevention plans, or even our systems for food provision. Cities in particular have these vast, complex systems of systems. There are intricate connections and they flow through, in and out of our cities.”

That shift proved useful in giving a holistic view to city management and design, but the top-down perspective often left plans devoid of the human element and the reality of people’s lived experiences of these places. 

“Yes, complex mathematical modelling and computational analyses are good ways to look at trade-offs between systems, but they risk removing the people within these spaces as if they are incidental. There are actors with varying levels of power, finance and access to any number of services. It is crucial to reintroduce human experiences before implementing any changes.”

That is where the research group comes in. They challenge the traditional modelling by exploring  young peoples’ actual experience of food, water and energy in their everyday lives. The work itself has spread beyond São Paulo and into the rural areas around the huge city, but with the same fundamental question. How appropriate is this model of the food/water/energy nexus ‘on the ground’?

Alongside surveying young people aged 10-24, they work with teachers, non-government organisations and stakeholders within the nexus itself – looking to connect the high-level modelling with the voices of real people through the crucial practitioners and organisations.

Professor Kraftl summarises, “We see ourselves as the connective tissue between policymakers, practitioners and young people.”

It is a role that includes the highly complicated task of collating the diverse voices of many young people.

Uncovering nuance in the everyday experience

The survey of over 3,700 young Brazilians remains one of the largest-scale research surveys ever done with young people. 

“We had to work really hard to get a representative sample in what is a really diverse country,” says Professor Kraftl. “It really was a huge amount of work. The surveys themselves are quite detailed, and where access to the Internet was troublesome, we would have to revert to paper copies and feed that data in ourselves.”

The survey was followed up with a qualitative piece of work with 50 young people. This began with an initial interview about the role of food, water and energy in their everyday lives, before the cohort were given a mobile phone and app that enabled them to take pictures of their interactions with the key food/water/energy processes throughout their day. 

The final stage was to sit down with them and explore those outputs, before mapping their experiences and images through a visualisation exercise that could help them to outline their own interpretation of the nexus.

Professor Kraft explains how these in-depth posters contained one or two surprises.

“With this bottom-up perspective of the nexus, we found ourselves getting so much more nuance than we had seen before. It was incredibly valuable. Instead of thinking about the food, water and energy nexus as being seemingly quite well defined, young people talked about a diverse range of things. One young university student talked about how she bought a bike, and how that changed everything. It enabled her to shop at the supermarket, it became safer for her to get to and from places, it saved her energy. For her there was this much more complex nexus with this simple bike at the centre of it. It makes you think, maybe a cycle lane could ease pressure on food/water/energy provision?”

Another unexpected finding came from political stances taken in the responses, a finding that seems all the more relevant in light of significant political change in Brazil this year.

“We were quite deliberate about not asking political questions,” says Professor Kraftl. “Yet, young people used these interviews to talk about social justice, to talk about how the state needs to ensure that all young people have access to food and water. They were clear that the current political and economic ‘crisis’ within the country was having an effect on the nexus – and that it was something we needed to be aware of.”

“Perhaps the most surprising thing of all was their ambivalence towards social media. We so often hear about how it is a damaging and significant influence on young people, but they actually saw it in a much more balanced way. They thought that social media can be useful in accessing multiple viewpoints in a country that has become used to mediated political messages through media, but at the same time they blame it for an increase in consumerism and individualism. They see that as almost anti-Brazilian. When they were talking about food, for example, a large number favoured Brazil’s national dishes over anything else. We were quite surprised by these critiques of consumerism. Maybe we shouldn’t have been.” 

“Knowing how people really identify with food, water and energy – and what matters to them – transformed our understanding of what becomes important in designing sustainable systems for the future.”

As a ‘connective tissue’ between the younger generation and the stakeholders involved in planning the spaces of the future, the group believe the findings can provide a platform for smarter, more sustainable systems.

They are continuing to work alongside planners to embed the recommendations in designing the food/water/energy nexus in Brazil.

Educating young people for sustainability

The importance of seeking out opinions that challenge preconceptions is evident throughout Professor Kraftl’s research. 

This is underpinned by (Re)Thinking (Re)Connection, the subject of a new paper from the group published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.

“One of the major concerns, especially in the global north, is that young people aren’t connected with nature anymore. They don’t know where their food comes from, their water, their energy. They don’t spend enough time outdoors, they’re not mobile or active and so on. There are also a lot of critiques of that of which I’ve been a part of, but we wanted to take it outside the global minority north and to Brazil to see what that could tell us.”

In Brazil, there has been a move towards what is broadly known as Education for Sustainability. Brazil has a diverse education system delivered by different means (private education, public education, NGO sponsored education) – and so there are different models of Education for Sustainability. At the heart of all of them, though, is a move to reconnect young people with nature. Part of the research project involved working with the educators themselves to see what can be learned from the diverse teaching methods.

As seen in the nexus mapping project, young people were very knowledgeable about the water systems in their lives, or how energy can be saved. It sparked the research group to argue for a global rethinking of how we ‘reconnect’ children with nature across the world, putting greater emphasis on understanding the systems from the perspective of young people.

The challenge now is to embed the findings across the diverse range of educations providers in Brazil, and the group are developing educational tools that can be adopted in the classroom setting.

Beyond Brazil, it speaks to a broader question about the adoption of methods for Education for Sustainability.

“The current Education for Sustainability model in the UK is not problematic, per se. But it could more informed by the more dialogical Brazilian model that is rooted in listening to the communities themselves and building it from there. The young people are interested, but they need to be engaged in a manner that reflects their own experiences.”

Professor Kraftl is already working towards providing a more global evidence base with an ongoing project between Canada, Australia and the UK, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The UK element will include experimental approaches to energy education in Balsall Heath, Birmingham.

Professor Kraftl concludes, “The conversations I have had with young people give me great cause for optimism. More often than not, they are acutely aware of the problems in their communities and it is just a matter of engaging in a dialogue and involving them more in the process. After all, it is their future we are planning for.”

 Notes:

The work discussed is in collaboration with Dr Sophie Hadfield-Hill (University of Birmingham), Professor John Horton (University of Northampton), Dr Ben Coles (University of Leicester), Professor José Antônion Perrella Balastieri (UNESP - São Paulo State University) and a number of other colleagues.

Explore

Discover more stories about our work and insights from our leading researchers.

Culture and collections

Schools, institutes and departments

Services and facilities