Can schools lead the way in improving city life?
The other day, a close friend of mine, who’s a school-teacher, shared an anecdote about one of her students whose parent complained that a classroom lesson involving mangoes was “too complicated.”
Apparently, the kid in question had only ever seen the fruit served in pieces at the dining table, and found the whole fruit confusing. I laughed it off at the time as an amusing piece of hyperbole. I sat in traffic for an hour, staring out at an ugly, grey, treeless city leering from behind a fug of smoke and dust.
I went shopping, and browsed the supermarket aisles that boasted pre-cut fruits and vegetables wrapped in plastic. When I went online, my newsfeed was flooded with memes, because that is apparently how people these days cope with an increasingly stressful and unpredictable world. The story of a child unable to recognize a fruit began to seem less and less ludicrous.
I’m what they call an “elder millennial.” This means I actually have memories of things like rotary phones and entire neighbourhoods consisting of single-unit housing with lawns. I remember when Gulshan had the green roundabouts in lieu of the smart traffic intersections, and when Chandrima Uddyan breathed green life into the city in the spot where Bashundhara City stands.
The apartment boom in the mid-90s, the arrival of the global franchises at the turn of the century, and the start-up explosion that took place in the decade gone by have given us many wonderful perks, but at what cost? Our air is unbreathable, our food is adulterated, and our mental health at breaking point.
As it happens, Dhaka isn’t the only city in the throes of an urbanization burnout. Pretty much all big cities have undergone, or will undergo this at some point or the other. The obvious answer to the dirty air and traffic stress is to create more access to green spaces, and that is the route many cities have taken.
Seoul and Nairobi might be worlds apart in terms of economy and development, but they’ve both recognized the need for green and planted entire forests in their urban areas to give their residents a chance to recharge and stay sane. Of all the big plans for the upcoming Mujib Centennial celebrations, the pledge by the authorities to plant 10 million trees in Bangabandhu’s name is one that stands out for being truly admirable. But is it enough?
We might be suffering from a shortage of space in this densely populated city of ours, but there are programs around the world that are already addressing that issue, and using ingenious technology to tackle a multi-faceted problem at once: By introducing hydroponic farming to schools.
How this works is, the schools install high-tech vertical indoor farming units inside their buildings, which use LED lights and nutrient-rich water to produce high yields of vegetables. The students (who are as young as eight years old) are taught how to grow food, and the school hosts farm sales days where they sell the vegetables. Some schools go on to use the produce to supply their cafeterias with organic food.
The benefits of these initiatives are multi-faceted. In addition to encouraging practical applications of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts, and building problem-solving skills and empathy, one can tailor the program for any age, broadening the scope to include not only basic plant science, but also sustainability, and even commerce and marketing.
There is room to incorporate a competitive element to it, as there is for collaboration. The educational benefits aside, it has been proven that gardening, and working with plants helps alleviate stress and reduce anxiety, and having plants indoors is a great way to reduce indoor pollution.
Perhaps the biggest benefit to city kids in Bangladesh would be to break down classist stereotypes around food production, because food is a universal need, and the availability of healthy sources of nutrition is and should be a collective concern.
Bangladesh already has a growing hyroponic agriculture scene, with groups on Facebook where enthusiasts exchange stats and tips. Some have even included aquariums into their systems to cultivate fish alongside crops. The methods vary, and the systems can be scaled up or down and tweaked to produce not just food, but flowers and medicinal plants.
Now, more than ever, we are in need of informed leaders and policy-makers who can put the sustainability of our future before their immediate consumerist interests.
Although, at present, the initial set-up cost is still a little high, the maintenance isn’t costly, and the rewards outweigh the risks. By investing a little to bring the system, and along with it, the culture, into our schools, we can actually create a whole generation of leaders ready to face the future in a dynamic and sustainable way.
Sabrina Fatma Ahmad is Features Editor, Dhaka Tribune.