When local transformation calls for open schooling
Developing Økern Center in Oslo, Norway is a possibility for the students and teachers to engage in real and local sustainability challenges and urban development.
(Photo: Léva Urban Design).
In the midst of Oslo's largest urban development area, you will find Kuben Upper Secondary School. As they come and go from the school, around 1,800 students pass by an area which is currently undergoing major transformation. Over the coming two to five years, what is now a construction site will transform from an area characterized by warehouses and industrial buildings into an urban area with housing, shops, and other mixed-use buildings. To give an indication of the size, estimates suggest that around 30,000 to 40,000 new homes will be built and around 50,000 to 100,000 new jobs will be created.
Teachers across Norway are currently faced with having to implement a new, cross-disciplinary curriculum centered around the three pillars sustainability, democratic participation, and health. At Kuben, teachers and students have seized the opportunity presented by so profound a local transformation to turn an urban development area into a real-life laboratory where they can encounter, study, and work with concrete local sustainability challenges.
Kuben has zoomed in on one particular area called Økern Center, which will be the heart of the new development. Together with researchers in the SEAS project, they have begun a conversation with the center’s developers and urban designers. Between these various actors, a fascinating story is beginning to emerge. Original plans had designated the area to become Norway’s largest shopping mall. However, 12 years of planning and organized resistance in the community have left their mark. The developers at Steen & Strøm and Storebrand scrapped the original plans and presented an entirely different project, one much more connected to the local and social contexts and with the explicit ambition to become “Europe’s most sustainable city development.”
As of 2020, the collaboration between developers, designers, students, teachers, and researchers is still in its early stages, but has already taken its first steps. The students have so far been invited to reflect on and envision what is important to them, and how their needs and visions could concretely influence the plans of the center and the surrounding area.
Early on in the conversation, students identified traffic and mobility as a core sustainability challenge, a concern shared by the local community. They also voiced a concern to create social meeting places and activities for youth in the area.
This collaboration has sparked many ideas for solutions among the students, including a student-led café in the area, organizing cloth swaps, or a student-run cinema with a focus on different themes. It has also inspired teachers to link this hub of interlocking experiences to their teaching.
Most importantly, perhaps, this collaboration has already become an opportunity for the students to experience agency and a deeper understanding of the opportunities and barriers for influencing how the city they live in develops.
The coming months will see a more focused co-creation process, in which students will further develop their ideas for a thriving local community in collaboration with teachers, researchers, city planners, and developers. Stay tuned!