2021, Innovations in Research

Can a city be a school?

Access and inclusion in place-based environmental education

Much research in place-based environmental education (PBEE) has focused on addressing and overcoming the barriers to PBEE implicit in modern schooling practices and formal educational institutions (e.g., Gruenewald, 2005). In this presentation, we make the case that while schools may be one important way people/citizens enact place-based educational opportunities, arguably, cities, neighbourhoods, towns, villages—the sites of daily, public life—are more fundamental and all-encompassing sites of informal place-based education for the majority of people in society.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made apparent both the limits of formal educational programs in reaching many groups and demographics as well as the importance of public city-spaces as sites of informal education and learning that are vital to community health and well-being. We propose that in order to address issues of access and inclusion in PBEE, researchers and educators should turn their attention to better understanding the role municipalities play as places for collective and public study.

In order to conceptualize how we may think of cities as educational sites, in which citizens of diverse backgrounds and demographics can openly and fluidly enact informal, public, place-based study and learning, we explore and apply Masschelein and Simons’ conceptualization of the school as an enacted “pedagogic form” (2019). We add to this account by presenting new conceptual tools from bio/ecosemiotic learning theory (Campbell, Olteanu & Kull, 2019) that help account for sites of organism/environment interactions. We apply this conceptual framework to the analysis of three public sites in the City of Vancouver, in order to better understand how people learn informally in public environments and how municipalities can work to enhance and support access and inclusion to these kinds of informal place-based learning opportunities.


  • Campbell, C., Olteanu, A., & Kull, K. (2019). Learning and knowing as semiosis: Extending the conceptual apparatus of semiotics. Sign Systems Studies, 47(3/4), 352-381.
  • Gruenewald, David A. (2005). Accountability and Collaboration: Institutional Barriers and Strategic Pathways for Place-based Education, Ethics, Place and Environment, 8:3,261-283.
  • Masschelein, J., & Simons, M. (2019). Bringing more ‘school’ into our educational institutions. Reclaiming school as pedagogic form. In: Bikner‐Ahsbahs A., Peters M. (eds) Unterrichtsentwicklung macht Schule. Springer VS, Wiesbaden.

Cary Campbell

Faculty of Education

Place-/land-based environmental education, educational theory and philosophy, biosemiotics, ecosemiotics


Cary Campbell

Cary Campbell (he/him/his) is a teacher, musician, and educational researcher. He holds a PhD in Education from SFU and currently teaches in the Faculty of Education, and he is the Director of Research for the not-for-profit organization The Group (multimodal research). Cary has published across disciplines in various journals, such as Studies in Philosophy and Education, the International Journal of Education and the Arts, Biosemiotics, Signs and Society, and Sign Systems Studies.

His research is currently centred on developing ecologically-informed approaches for learning theory and pedagogy. Some recent publications include “Returning ‘learning’ to education: Toward an ecological conception of learning and teaching” (2018) and the co-written “Learning and knowing as semiosis: Extending the conceptual apparatus of semiotics” (2019).

As a researcher, Cary has worked for the International Centre of Art for Social Change (ICASC) and MODAL Research. Cary also teaches music and plays guitar in several bands/projects.

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