Closing the Gap: The City Studio as a Creative Method

Mapping resident’s emotions: exhibition designed by Tina Lenz at Stadscamping RAUM, Utrecht (curator Theo Tegelaers). Image Courtesy of Irina van Aalst.
Irina van Aalst and Gery Nijenhuis present the City Studio as an innovative, creative method that transforms the city into a dynamic, multilayered workshop for co-creating knowledge and designing tangible interventions, transcending traditional academic boundaries.
[Ed. Note: This article is part of a dossier on Creative Urban Methods.]

Worldwide, Community Engaged Learning (CEL) has been implemented at an increasing number of universities.1James Kennedy, Back to the Sixties? Community Engaged Learning en de toekomst van de universiteit, November 14, 2022, https://www.uu.nl/sites/default/files/Oratie%20James%20Kennedy%2014%20november%202022.pdf; Anouk Koekkoek, Maarten van Ham and Reinout Kleinhans, “Unraveling university–Community engagement: A literature review,” Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement 25, no. 1 (2021): 3–24. The advantages of CEL are well described in the literature: it helps students to connect theory to the messiness of daily realities, strengthens their social skills, and helps them to be more engaged in social issues, to be more open-minded and to create insight into themselves and their own positionality.2Janet W. Colvin, “Perceptions of service-learning: Experiences in the community,” International Journal of Research on Service-Learning and Community Engagement 8, no. 1 (2020): Article 10. https://doi.org/10.37333/001c.18783; William R. Penuel, Anna-Ruth Allen, Cynthia E. Coburn and Caitlin Farrell, “Conceptualizing research–Practice partnerships as joint work at boundaries,” Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR) 20, no. 1–2 (2015): 182–197. https://doi.org/10.1080/10824669.2014.98833400. A key element of CEL is the mutual learning that takes place: students learn, as well as the partners they engage with. In the bachelor program Human Geography and Spatial Planning (HGPL) at Utrecht University, a new CEL course has been developed, the City Studio, in which undergraduate students collaborate and learn on-site with urban partners (civic initiatives, businesses, neighborhood agencies, social enterprises, residents, etc.) to make a relevant contribution to the future of the city. Reciprocity is central to the City Studio projects: students, local stakeholders, and lecturers exchange knowledge and experiences. Active citizenship is encouraged, collaboration with practice is self-evident, and results are shared with active stakeholders.

In this contribution, we argue that the City Studio can be considered a creative method, as it involves creative thinking and acting to explore new and innovative solutions for urban societal issues. The city is not just a fixed “context,” but comes alive, and acts like a multilayered setting in which citizens, students, organizations, and institutions work together. As such, the City Studio produces not only new knowledge but also invites all participants to intervene with existing knowledge in the urban context. City Studios can be conceptualized as boundary-crossing practices, as students, professionals, and lecturers enter into different sites, into new partnerships, in order to co-create knowledge on a specific urban issue and to design creative and feasible interventions. The concept of “boundary crossing” was originally coined by Suchman and colleagues by which they pointed to the process of practitioners and professionals at the workplace getting in touch with other professionals or stakeholders in unfamiliar settings.3Lucy A. Suchman, “Working relations of technology production and use,”  Computer Supported Cooperative Work 2, no. 1 (1994): 21–39. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/bf00749282. Boundary-crossing entails entering new spaces, new “sites,” with different work cultures, traditions, communication styles, disciplinary knowledge, and often with different agendas.4Sanne F. Akkerman and Arthur Bakker, “Boundary crossing and boundary objects,” Review of Educational Research 81, no. 2 (2011): 132–169.

The importance of entering new sites is also reflected in the approach of the City Studio by working on location, in this case, outside the walls of the university, i.e., with residents or organizations, in urban communities. The City Studio uses a situational approach in terms of learning “in situ” with different actors participating in different ways and actions. Place-based learning in context leads students to become motivated and engaged, and this will, therefore, likely generate greater subject matter interest.5Jesse Hoffman, Peter Pelzer, Loes Albert, Tine  Béneker, Maarten Hajer and Astrid Mangnus, “A futuring approach to teaching wicked problems,”  Journal of Geography in Higher Education 45, no. 4 (2021): 576–593.https://doi.org/10.1080/03098265.2020.1869923. Situated learning follows the work of Dewey, Vygotsky, and others who claim that students are more inclined to learn by actively participating in the learning experience.6William.J. Clancey, A tutorial on situated learning (1995), https://methodenpool.uni-koeln.de/situierteslernen/clancey_situated_learning.PDF. In this situation, students as well as other participants are approached as experts in their own right. Situated learning essentially is a matter of creating meaning from the real activities of daily living where students actively work and learn in an unfamiliar environment addressing real-world issues.7David Stein, Situated learning in adult education (1998), https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED418250.pdf; Miri Yemini, Laura Engel and Adi B. Simon, “Place-based education – A systematic review of literature,” Educational Review (2023), https://doi.org/10.1080/00131911.2023.2177260. They learn through relationships between people and connect their knowledge to informal, and often unintended, contextual learning.

As such, the City Studio is fundamentally different from other, more traditional methods of knowledge production as it is about the co-creation of knowledge and a way to flatten hierarchies, to ensure a diversity of voices is being heard, and give voice to marginalized communities. The aim is to uncover, recognize, and explore specific needs and demands, to design a specific intervention, and aim for change, with students, lecturers, and partners as facilitators.8Rachel  Brooks, Anu Lainio and Predrag Lažetić, “Using creative methods to research across difference,” International Journal of Social Research Methodology 23, no. 1 (2020): 1–6, https://doi.org/10.1080/13645579.2019.1672281. To achieve this, different methods are employed to do research, design interventions, and share information, ranging from narratives (storytelling) to artistic expressions (short documentary; podcasts) and practical tools. Visualizations, for instance, are powerful in transmitting a message and making information more accessible. Artistic expression can be a tool for sharing sensitive information. This helps us to enrich our knowledge of the city and to give meaning to processes such as social inclusion, gentrification, and urban development.

In this contribution, we will first describe the format of the City Studio, and then critically reflect on the implications of this method for knowledge production. We end this paper with a few concluding remarks, looking at the future of Community Engaged Learning.

Design of City Studio

In year 2 of our bachelor’s program in Human Geography and Spatial Planning, all students choose one of the four thematic tracks. Each track consists of four courses: Theories, Themes, Methodology, and CEL. The City Studio is part of the Inclusive Cities track and runs for ten weeks. The procedure is simple: all students start with a joint introductory program on campus in which the how and what of CEL is discussed, including ethics. After this joint start, small groups of four to five students work with organizations on-site in the city and decide on an issue and methodology in co-creation. Themes and issues in City Studio projects are rooted in current urban debates and urban daily life, such as the marginalized position of undocumented migrants and social cohesion in urban neighborhoods. With previously acquired knowledge and skills, students can actively contribute to urban challenges and determine with partners what constitutes a meaningful intervention. On the last day of the course, there is a final presentation and exhibition of all projects with students, teachers, and community partners.

On a weekly basis, teachers visit the organizations and projects on-site and jointly discuss the content and process progress. The course design explicitly addresses teamwork through reflection and feedback. Students report weekly on their findings, their research process, and their own positionality in a vlog. This vlog is structured around a couple of questions: how is mutual cooperation going, and which steps in the research process did you find difficult to do and why? What is the impact on the partner? Being able to reflect on a situation, your own role in it, and that of others is important and contributes to critical learning.9Sarah L. Ash and Patti H. Clayton, “Generating, deepening, and documenting learning: The power of critical reflection for applied learning,” Journal of Applied Learning. Higher Education 1, no. 1 (2009): 25–48. Students expressed positively about the focus on reflection in the course and the vlog as a tool. “You also don’t have to type, and you can sometimes express yourself a little better in words, also with your emotions included,” notes one student. Students see making a vlog as an additional skill: a creative and personal way to present information.

Active citizenship is stimulated by identifying pressing issues together with social actors and by working for change. This is often done through creative and participatory methods.10Elen-Maarja Trell and Bettina van Hoven, “Making sense of place: exploring creative and (inter)active research methods together with young people,” Fennia 188, no. 1 (2010): 91–104. For co-creation and co-research with non-academic partners, the use of these methods is important for mutual understanding. This motivates people to actively participate as co-researchers and share their in-depth experiences and emotions. Examples of such methods are mapping student life in order to discuss belonging, auto-photography to document and visualize the meaning of playgrounds for children, and creating mood boards to design the future university campus together with students (see examples in Box 1). The added value is also that residents become more empowered in their daily lives and can more easily discuss problems in their everyday places with the neighborhood office and/or the municipality.11Irina van Aalst, Stef Dingemans and Gery Nijenhuis, “Community engagement; maatschappelijke betrokkenheid in onderwijs,” Geografie (June 2020): 39–40. An example is a project carried out by students in collaboration with elderly in a neighborhood in the city of Utrecht, Lunetten: through photo walks, citizens could identify and discuss places in public space where they felt unsafe. They documented their stories and shared them with other community members. This resulted in recognition, as some places appeared in multiple stories and also in empowerment, as the final product was shared with the local neighborhood office. However, for this kind of education and the use of these methodologies, it is very important to build a relationship with residents and business owners that makes you recognizable and approachable in the neighborhood. This means preferably a long-term relationship and building on joint projects to make a real impact.

Place-based learning also means a changing role of teachers in CEL education. They are not only a conveyor of content knowledge and methodology but also a facilitator of learning by discussing the projects, being on-site, building collaborative learning environments, and encouraging reflection. It is essentially a relational view of learning to co-create understanding with a diverse set of actors. This is a distinctive educational philosophy emphasizing phronesis, or “practical wisdom”: determining in a given situation and place what constitutes a sensible intervention, combining a grounded knowledge base with ethical consideration.12Elliot W. Eisner, “From episteme to phronesis to artistry in the study and improvement of teaching,” Teaching and Teacher Education 18 (2002): 375–385. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0742-051X(02)00004-5.

Examples of 3 City Studio projects. Image Courtesy of Irina van Aalst.
Mapping resident’s emotions: exhibition designed by Tina Lenz at Stadscamping RAUM, Utrecht (curator Theo Tegelaers). Image Courtesy of Irina van Aalst.
Mapping resident’s emotions: exhibition designed by Tina Lenz at Stadscamping RAUM, Utrecht (curator Theo Tegelaers). Image Courtesy of Irina van Aalst.
Mapping resident’s emotions: exhibition designed by Tina Lenz at Stadscamping RAUM, Utrecht (curator Theo Tegelaers). Image Courtesy of Irina van Aalst.
Mapping resident’s emotions: exhibition designed by Tina Lenz at Stadscamping RAUM, Utrecht (curator Theo Tegelaers). Image Courtesy of Irina van Aalst.
Critical Reflections: Limits and Implications of City Studios

The first year of running the City Studio yielded a wealth of insight into this course as a creative method to co-create knowledge, as a boundary-crossing practice. In this section, we will reflect on this course based on students’ and teachers’ experiences, and input from our partners in the city.

A fundamental characteristic of the City Studio is reciprocity: the knowledge, perspectives, and resources that all actors contribute should be recognized, respected, and valued. All actors involved—partners, students, and lecturers—should be able to gain from the intervention and should be able to learn. To pinpoint the contribution of the City Studio to knowledge production is, however, a rather complex exercise. We see, for instance, quite some output, in terms of final products, design principles, in-depth discussions, etc. We observe that outcomes, also in the longer run, are much more difficult to gauge, as the value lies much more in the process: the lived experiences of participants, including increased awareness. An example of this is the following remark made by a student during the final presentations: “Over the last two years, I studied migration and global development, but it is only now that I really talked with a migrant.” In this case, the personal interaction broadened the worldview of students and did away with stereotypes and possible prejudices. Partners, for instance, commented that they learn from a “young” perspective: “bringing a young generation into our organization, who look at the world and to problems from a fresh and open viewpoint, and often come up with different kinds of solutions.” Others referred to the critical questions raised by the students.

A second observation is that all participants struggle with the space provided to them, to shape their relationship with each other and find their “natural” role in the process. Students, for instance, are very much used to a teaching and learning model in which they are told what to do at what moment and with activities they are familiar with, such as reading articles, writing papers, and studying for exams. They feel quite uncomfortable without strong guidance and want to have clear criteria and a structured setting. This uncertainty is also reflected in their choices for the format of the final product. We strongly encouraged the groups to opt for a creative format (podcast, video) as a final product, as a paper would not do justice to the activities of the projects carried out and is also not an accessible way of communicating research to many participants. Some groups, however, strongly adhered to the classical paper, with a review of the literature on their topic, and a description of the activities implemented because they thought this was expected from them: “Please find attached our proposal for the final product. We decided to write a paper, so we can include the theory in a proper way—this is also what we can bring in as university students.” This also reflects their uncertainty, as in this way, they tend to rely on already existing methods.

Partners struggled as well with their role, in terms of expectations. As one partner indicated: “Usually, the ones who do the research take the decisions, on the method, on the questions—it was challenging for me to do this together, as the students considered me as the expert. A very uneasy position, as I haven’t thought about a topic list since I studied, in the 1990s. But then I realized that we should get rid of all these assumptions, and just start from scratch, being confident that together — with all our knowledge, skills, and life experience we could come up with something useful — something that might not check all boxes of academic research, but definitely having value.” For us, lecturers in this course, this way of teaching and learning, through collaboration with external partners, requires breaking away from the traditional formats of documenting and sharing knowledge. It also implies the loss of control. Usually, lecturers tend to plan every session of a course, anticipating all kinds of issues that might pop up while running the course. In the context of the City Studio, this is impossible, as there is no clear-cut final product and/or road leading to this product. The trajectory evolves during implementation: earlier plans will be adjusted, in order to incorporate new insights. It also means that the process is much more important than the output. The process is part of the design of the course and encourages creativity among all actors involved. Instead of an emphasis on product or output, the focus is more on practical wisdom, determining in a given situation and place what constitutes a sensible intervention. This implies that we, as lecturers, sometimes need to hold back and just need to wait and see how things develop.

This relates to a third observation, the role of emotions. The City Studio calls upon reflection on the emotions, assumptions, and stereotypes of students’, partners’, and lecturers’ experiences. Although this might seem rather obvious — doing research, sharing, and learning from each other, is a human endeavor by definition — it is not very common in our academic tradition to acknowledge, address, and actively use these emotions while doing research. The role of emotions supports the labeling of the City Studio as a boundary-crossing practice. Reflection helped to identify these emotions and their function in the process. Students working with Polish migrants, for instance, became annoyed when they realized communication with the migrants — who hardly spoke Dutch or English — was very difficult. This emotion triggered a search for other communication strategies, with pictures and standard sentences. It also works the other way around: creative expressions can result in emotions, joy, sadness, or anger. Examples are the profiles (a narrative with a video pitch) of young asylum seekers, designed together with students in order to find a job or an internship: the refugees were incredibly proud of this output and shared these with potential employers. Another example is the maps drawn by students, of those places in the neighborhood that are most important to them. The collection of drawings showed a rather dominant pattern: the local Albert Heijn supermarket, the liquor store, and the railway station figured on almost every map. This caused quite some laughter among all participants in the project.

A final remark relates to building a structural relationship with partners and gaining their trust. Partners need to open their doors and engage with students and staff in these projects. This requires quite some investment from their side, without a clear “return on investment”: the outcomes of the project are often not clear, and a project might even “fail” in their eyes (although we tend to avoid that word). Clear expectations management is therefore very important, as partners need to be aware of the possibilities of this form of collaboration, but also the limitations. The existing format of our curriculum, with courses of ten weeks scheduled in specific timeslots, does, for instance, not match the aims and calendar of CEL, for several reasons. Firstly, the relatively short duration of the course, combined with the fact that it is only offered once a year, implies a discontinuity in the relationship with the partners. Finding a way to build a structural and meaningful relationship with our partners throughout the year is high on our agenda, and also something we need to discuss with our partners. Secondly, developing a long-term structural relationship between students and partners requires often more time than the ten weeks assigned to it. Students need time to get familiar with their partner, the way of working, and the professional culture, while partners, at the same time, sometimes struggle with their role in the process. Finally, the use of rather strict timeslots poses some difficulties, as the daily agendas of the professional field are not limited to these timeslots, and the involvement of students in other moments might be useful. Most importantly, mutual awareness is needed on the role of undergraduate students: they are not full-fledged consultants; they are young adults not used to working in an organization, and they need guidance.

Closing the Gap: Concluding Remarks

The City Studio, as a creative method for innovations in academic education, has advantages, limitations, and implications for design, as outlined above. It facilitates “in situ” learning practices and, thus, openness to knowledge from and within the city. Interaction and co-creation take place in a specific setting, and the use of creative methods encourages participatory research and citizen science. In addition, students must critically reflect on their positionality and actions in a place-based context in which they collaborate with civil society organizations. Using vlogs, they hold up a critical mirror not only to themselves but also to the lecturers and co-researchers.

There are many reasons to embed this type of knowledge production in our departmental undergraduate program and to further encourage the critical engagement of all bachelor students in our discipline. Questions like “What constitutes knowledge?” and “Whose knowledge?” are fundamental to this form of learning. It is, by definition, a creative form of knowledge production, since knowledge is developed together with partners and arises in the joint search and exploration of possible responses to current urban issues. This also means that it manifests itself in unexpected moments and ways—serendipity.

Students can thus use their academic knowledge and skills to contribute to future-oriented, societal issues together with external partners and residents in the city. In this way, perhaps this real-life education can close the gap between society, education, and science.

Notes

Notes
1 James Kennedy, Back to the Sixties? Community Engaged Learning en de toekomst van de universiteit, November 14, 2022, https://www.uu.nl/sites/default/files/Oratie%20James%20Kennedy%2014%20november%202022.pdf; Anouk Koekkoek, Maarten van Ham and Reinout Kleinhans, “Unraveling university–Community engagement: A literature review,” Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement 25, no. 1 (2021): 3–24.
2 Janet W. Colvin, “Perceptions of service-learning: Experiences in the community,” International Journal of Research on Service-Learning and Community Engagement 8, no. 1 (2020): Article 10. https://doi.org/10.37333/001c.18783; William R. Penuel, Anna-Ruth Allen, Cynthia E. Coburn and Caitlin Farrell, “Conceptualizing research–Practice partnerships as joint work at boundaries,” Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR) 20, no. 1–2 (2015): 182–197. https://doi.org/10.1080/10824669.2014.98833400.
3 Lucy A. Suchman, “Working relations of technology production and use,”  Computer Supported Cooperative Work 2, no. 1 (1994): 21–39. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/bf00749282.
4 Sanne F. Akkerman and Arthur Bakker, “Boundary crossing and boundary objects,” Review of Educational Research 81, no. 2 (2011): 132–169.
5 Jesse Hoffman, Peter Pelzer, Loes Albert, Tine  Béneker, Maarten Hajer and Astrid Mangnus, “A futuring approach to teaching wicked problems,”  Journal of Geography in Higher Education 45, no. 4 (2021): 576–593.https://doi.org/10.1080/03098265.2020.1869923.
6 William.J. Clancey, A tutorial on situated learning (1995), https://methodenpool.uni-koeln.de/situierteslernen/clancey_situated_learning.PDF.
7 David Stein, Situated learning in adult education (1998), https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED418250.pdf; Miri Yemini, Laura Engel and Adi B. Simon, “Place-based education – A systematic review of literature,” Educational Review (2023), https://doi.org/10.1080/00131911.2023.2177260.
8 Rachel  Brooks, Anu Lainio and Predrag Lažetić, “Using creative methods to research across difference,” International Journal of Social Research Methodology 23, no. 1 (2020): 1–6, https://doi.org/10.1080/13645579.2019.1672281.
9 Sarah L. Ash and Patti H. Clayton, “Generating, deepening, and documenting learning: The power of critical reflection for applied learning,” Journal of Applied Learning. Higher Education 1, no. 1 (2009): 25–48.
10 Elen-Maarja Trell and Bettina van Hoven, “Making sense of place: exploring creative and (inter)active research methods together with young people,” Fennia 188, no. 1 (2010): 91–104.
11 Irina van Aalst, Stef Dingemans and Gery Nijenhuis, “Community engagement; maatschappelijke betrokkenheid in onderwijs,” Geografie (June 2020): 39–40.
12 Elliot W. Eisner, “From episteme to phronesis to artistry in the study and improvement of teaching,” Teaching and Teacher Education 18 (2002): 375–385. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0742-051X(02)00004-5.
van Aalst, Irina and Gery Nijenhuis. "Closing the GAP: The City Studio as a Creative Method". Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 8, no. 4 (November 2023).
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