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Learning cities: Drivers of inclusion and sustainability

Today, more than half of the world’s population – 3.5 billion people – lives in cities; this is projected to increase to 5 billion by 2030. Cities around the world face acute challenges in managing rapid urbanization, which has a severe impact on ensuring quality education for all.

A learning city enables people of all ages, from diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, to benefit from inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities.

What is a learning city?

Driven by the principle of inclusion, learning cities advance policies and practices that foster sustainable development, notably through lifelong learning programmes that promote equity, cohesion and peace. When local governments empower communities and social actors to engage in the implementation of lifelong learning strategies and programmes, they sponsor the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

More specifically, a learning city is one that:

  • effectively mobilizes resources in every sector to promote inclusive learning,
    from basic to higher education;
  • revitalizes learning in families and communities;
  • facilitates learning for and in the workplace;
  • extends the use of modern learning technologies;
  • enhances quality and excellence in learning;
  • fosters a culture of learning throughout life.

In doing so, a learning city supports individual empowerment and social inclusion, economic development and cultural prosperity, and sustainable development.

How do learning cities support equity and inclusion?

To support equity and inclusion, learning cities for example:

  • promote education and learning opportunities for all, in particular for vulnerable groups who are not in formal schooling or training, enabling them to acquire literacy and other basic/vocational skills and participate in continuing education;
  • offer online learning courses that allow people to attend free lectures on a range of topics relevant to their local community;
  • establish migrant colleges, enabling migrant workers to obtain professional qualifications, thereby helping them to integrate into society;
  • promote intergenerational learning initiatives, encouraging children and their caregivers together to learn together;
  • provide career guidance, particularly for women, to encourage them to pursue higher qualifications that will allow them to assume leadership positions;
  • set up mobile libraries, providing reading opportunities for all, especially people with disabilities, older adults and preschool children;
  • make use of cultural centres that serve as learning sites, thereby bringing together culture, art and learning, and hosting projects run jointly by local educational and cultural institutions as a means of enabling people to access celebrate their cultural identities and to promote intercultural tolerance;
  • establish schemes that mobilize trained volunteers to encourage residents at risk of isolation (e.g. older people, people with disabilities) to participate in cultural activities, workshops, physical activities, etc.;
  • Create ‘civic participation networks’ that encourage citizens to take part in the city’s decision-making processes, supported by the use of social media and modern technologies.

What is the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities?

The UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC) is an international policy-oriented network providing inspiration, know-how and best practice. It is coordinated by the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL). The network supports its member cities by:

  • promoting policy dialogue and peer learning;
  • documenting effective strategies and best practice;
  • fostering partnerships;
  • providing capacity development;
  • developing tools and instruments to design, implement and monitor learning cities’ strategies. 

What are good examples of learning cities?

The UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities currently has 173 active member cities from 55 countries. Although all of the member cities have developed outstanding lifelong learning policies and practices, 10 cities in particular have recently been recognized for their contributions to lifelong learning development in the run-up to the fourth International Conference on Learning Cities (Medellín, Colombia, 1 to 3 October 2019). The 2019 UNESCO Learning Cities Award were conferred on:

  • the Egyptian city of Aswan, which has developed a strategy that integrates a variety of projects, including gardening and water-conservation programmes, in schools, as well as diverse entrepreneurial training opportunities for all groups of society;
  • Chengdu, China, with its innovative programme combining learning with walks around the city, each route focusing on a different subject area such as regional features, traditional cultures and modern industry, demonstrating a smart use of public and non-public resources;
  • the Greek city of Heraklion, which implements the ‘Fit for All’ programme to bring citizens and refugees residing in the city closer together by promoting equity and inclusion through sports and educational activities based on subjects such as local culture and tradition;
  • Ibadan, Nigeria, which, in addition to the ongoing implementation of its learning city plan, recently organized a festival of learning offering interactive and varied activities and workshops for different target audiences, thereby reinforcing the concept of lifelong learning in the community;
  • Medellín, Colombia, for coordinating a number of innovative programmes, including one that has helped to successfully reintegrate over 4,650 school drop-outs by engaging with them on a one-to-one basis;
  • the Ukrainian city Melitopol, which has retrained internally displaced people who were previously engaged in the mining industry, thereby enhancing inclusion throughout the city;
  • Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, for making great strides to improve access to public learning spaces by providing free bus services across four city routes;
  • the Mexican city of Santiago, which provides its citizens with access to a great range of free classes, including robotic courses for children and anti-bullying training;
  • Seodaemun-gu, in the Republic of Korea, for having taken advantage of its many high-rise apartments, creating small learning communities that teach 50 courses each year in citizens’ living rooms;
  • the Danish city of Sønderborg, whose ‘4–17–42’ strategy comprises the city’s four political commitments (environmental, economic, social and cultural), the 17 SDGs, and the 42 features included in the UNESCO GNLC’s Key Features of Learning Cities.

What happened at the fourth International Conference on Learning Cities in Medellín?

From 1 to 3 October 2019, UNESCO GNLC member city Medellín, Colombia, hosted around 650 government officials, city representatives and education experts from around the world for the fourth International Conference on Learning Cities (ICLC). With the adoption of the Medellín Manifesto during the ICLC, members of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities pledged to boost inclusion in their communities in the coming years. The conference, whose theme, ‘Inclusion – A principle for lifelong learning and sustainable cities’, has set the path for a renewed focus on the so far under-researched challenges confronting vulnerable groups, showcased how lifelong learning policies and practices can support the development of inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities.

The President of Colombia joined around 650 conference participants, including 50 mayors, as well as government representatives and experts from all UNESCO world regions, to discover how learning cities are investing in education that benefits everyone, including those often marginalized such as youth-at-risk, migrants, older people, digitally excluded populations and persons with disabilities.

Conference participants also adopted the strategy for the UNESCO Learning Cities network and launched a fund to support lifelong learning programmes in cities around the world.

The fourth International Conference on Learning Cities was jointly organized by the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) and the City of Medellín.

Learn more about the conference outcomes.