Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences

, Volume 8, Issue 3, pp 326–342 | Cite as

Taking it to the city: urban-placed pedagogies in Detroit and Roxbury

  • Richard B. PetersonEmail author


Field-based learning has long been a vital component of undergraduate environmental education, a practice supported by significant evidence that experiential and place-based education can enhance the quality of learning. But how have Environmental Studies and Science (ESS) programs and teachers defined the field locations in which they have chosen to directly involve their students? In this paper, I contend that field-based experiential learning within undergraduate ESS programs remains skewed toward the non-built environment, while arguing that there is much value to be gained from using urban environments as learning spaces for ESS undergraduates. After reviewing the literature on urban environmental education, culling out key themes within ESS and other disciplines and highlighting areas left unaddressed, I discuss the benefits and challenges of including urban-based field experiences in two of my ESS courses. Both involve collaboration with nonprofit organizations, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) in Boston’s Roxbury, and Detroit Summer, a nonprofit engaging youth and elders in social and environmental revitalization in inner city Detroit. I briefly describe the ongoing urban sustainability work of the two organizations before discussing the transformative possibilities such urban-based experiences hold for students, drawing on testimony from student’s writings. I conclude with several questions for ongoing investigation on how to constructively confront, and seek a better balance with, the pedagogical bias within ESS toward non-urban environments.


Experiential learning Place-based learning Urban environmental education Transformative education Environmental justice 



The research and writing of this article was completed during a sabbatical supported by the University of New England College of Arts and Sciences. Many people have contributed to this research in many ways. I am especially grateful to the staff and volunteers of Detroit Summer and the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative for their collaboration in teaching my students what constructive social and environmental change looks like. And I am grateful to my students from whom I have learned more than they might ever know. Thanks to Stephen Thomson, Susan Hillman, and Debra Rothenberg for providing valuable feedback on early drafts of the article and to the discerning and beneficial comments received from anonymous reviewers. All research is a collective effort; however, as the author, I take sole responsibility for the material presented in this article.


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© AESS 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Environmental StudiesUniversity of New EnglandBiddefordUSA

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