Urban Dirt

Dirt, in its physical and metaphorical forms, plays an omnipresent but undervalued role in urban society. Dirt is often considered something that must be cleansed away, yet it is vital to the urban ecology. Where do cities hide their dirt? Who performs urban dirty work? When did we start dishing dirt about our cities, and why does this dirt fascinate tourists? How much dirt do cities need for food security? Can the smell of dirt really improve your mood?

As we examine answers to these questions, we’ll look at the history and future of urban dirt, exploring how this finite urban resource has been used and abused in our cities. We’ll learn from invited specialists, and get a bit of dirt under our fingernails in hands-on activities involving different soil types.

A $60 discount will be applied automatically for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course, you should be able to do the following:

  • Describe the ways that dirt contributes to the well-being of cities.
  • Identify factors that contribute to the stigma of dirt and those associated with it.
  • Discuss the role urban dirt plays in the ecology of the city (biodiversity, flood control, food security).
  • Explain how tactical urbanism by individuals can improve use of soil in neighbourhoods.

Learning methods

You will learn through a combination of lecture and in-class discussion. For Liberal Arts Certificate for 55+ students: you will write a reflective essay.


Week 1: Dirt, danger and stigma

Although a fundamental part of our cities, dirt is hidden from view beneath pavement. It has been further erased through effective marketing that links good citizenry with cleanliness. The stigmatization of dirt in cities contributes to the urban/rural divide, separating those who associate dirt with leisure from those for whom dirt is life.

Week 2: Death, decay and compost

Serving as unofficial urban parks, city cemeteries are places valued by scientists who study not death but life. As protected nature-spaces, cemeteries and their soil are a safe habitat for some of the less visible life forms in our cities. The green burial movement and initiatives such as human composting will not only enrich the soil but also increase the potential for life in our cemeteries.

Week 3: Urban dirty work

Part of the workforce that cares for city spaces and city folk performs jobs that are stigmatized. Although not all these workers have dirt under their fingernails, their labour falls into the category of “dirty work.” However stigmatized, these workers have interesting views of the city and its inhabitants. What draws people to these jobs, and how do they see the value of their work in urban spaces?

Week 4: “Dishing the dirt” for tourists in our cities

Selling the beauty of a city is not the only way to attract tourism. City tours will often use tragedy, horror and crime stories to lure a particular type of tourist. How are cities framing their dirty secrets, and what kind of dirt would they rather hide?

Week 5: Peeling back the pavement

In an effort to re-wild urban spaces, movements like Depave are removing pavement to create patches of nature where there was once a driveway, parking lot or sidewalk. Other movements follow the advice of Food not Lawns to replace the monocultures in our front yards with food crops. In putting urban dirt to good use, guerrilla gardeners and other tactical urbanists improve the health of soil and the well-being of city neighbourhoods.

Week 6: The future life of urban dirt

What are the greatest threats to urban dirt and how do we protect this valuable resource? In a climate-changing world, what should cities and citizens do to care for the soil in urban spaces? In recent decades, discussion about the rights of nature has moved from speculation to actual rights for non-human entities. A small number of rivers in the world now have legal standing. What is the likelihood of rights for urban dirt, and how might our cities change if urban soil had legal standing?

Books, materials and resources

Reading material (if applicable) will be available in class. Some course materials may be available online.

Academic integrity and student conduct

You are expected to comply with Simon Fraser University’s Academic Integrity and Student Conduct Policies. Please click here for more details. Simon Fraser University is committed to creating a scholarly community characterized by honesty, civility, diversity, free inquiry, mutual respect, individual safety, and freedom from harassment and discrimination.

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