UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Outcomes of webinar on 3 June

19 June 2020

As part of its ongoing series for members of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC), the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) hosted a webinar on 3 June to exchange views on culture and education during the COVID-19 pandemic. An introduction to the topic was provided by the Culture Commission of UNESCO, followed by presentations on cities’ initiatives by representatives of Puebla in Mexico, Wyndham in Western Australia, and Pécs in Hungary.

On behalf of UIL, Christina Drews opened the webinar. She explained that the culture sector has been hit hard by the coronavirus and, in many countries, is not considered systemically relevant. This has presented artists, theatres, cinemas and museums with a huge challenge. However, there is still a need for the arts, as social media posts of people playing instruments and performing in lockdown has shown – and not everything that we value about culture can be captured through digitalization. There is now a need for creative solutions involving low-contact forms of cultural expression.

Current school closures present an opportunity: while physical distancing has to be maintained in schools, there may be the option for half of the pupils to remain in school while the other half visit cultural learning institutions, such as museums, on an alternating basis. Ultimately, procedures and measures for infrastructure support are needed and cultural education must be made crisis-proof.

UNESCO Creative Cities Network

Ms Denise Bax, UNESCO Creative Cities Network (UCCN) Secretary, described the complementary role that has been played by culture and education in response to the immediate health crisis. Her presentation focused on different initiatives utilizing the power of culture, creativity and artistic education undertaken by UCCN members in response to COVID-19.

The aim of the UCCN is to promote cooperation between cities that have identified creativity as an important element of sustainable development. It has so far collected over 100 initiatives in response to the crisis from cities around the world. The city of Bogotá, Colombia, for example, developed a project to reinforce social and intergenerational ties during the confinement period; Terrassa in Catalonia, Spain, launched a film initiative to highlight how film literacy can be used to combat the pandemic; and Hangzhou, China, launched a storytelling and digital technology project. Ms Bax closed by arguing that art is an essential component for the holistic education of all individuals, and announced that an online meeting looking at how creative cities can emerge from the COVID-19 crisis will take place at end of June.

Puebla, Mexico

Mr Luis González-Arenal, Commission for Innovation and Design, Puebla, Mexico, introduced the commission as a centre for the distribution of opportunities in design, creativity and learning, as well as an office for external relations with UNESCO and other cultural organizations. A major initiative promoted by the commission during lockdown is ‘Generation 500’, which is an open platform of non-formal learning targeted at preschool teachers, parents and children; it focuses in particular on emotional intelligence. The initiative ‘everyday heroes’, meanwhile, celebrates the contributions being made by essential workers, including those who work in the waste, health and public transport sectors, during the pandemic.

Mr González-Arenal believes that a creative city is a learning city and that working across networks is invaluable. He also stressed the power of webinars to raise awareness of non-formal learning and promote it as a perfect complement to formal learning. He concluded by contending that we have to rethink the way we have been learning: now, he said, is the perfect opportunity to change learning methods because we have seen that schools, as a physical place of learning, are outdated.

UNESCO learning city of Wyndham, Australia

Ms Jac Torres-Gomez, Learning Community Officer, Wyndham City Council, Australia, explained that her work is guided by a local ‘learning community’ strategy, which has several core areas: celebrating, advocating, facilitating partnerships and collaboration, and innovating learning. Internally, a #StayConnected programme for staff has included peer-support training, departmental music playlists on Spotify, virtual exercise sessions and the sharing of healthy recipes. External programmes and events are organized through #WyndhamTogether, which features live Facebook chats with the community, ‘Check In and Chat’ sessions for vulnerable community members, and support with running cultural and educational programmes online. Free digital library memberships have been made available across the city, as has free remote tutoring sessions for students, educational games for young children, and online stories for pre-schoolers. A ‘Virtual Learning Community Forum’ has aided the preservation of social ties and a number of online engagement events have taken place. Community-based events, such as a virtual art competition, have also taken place, and the upcoming Wyndham Learning Festival will be adapted so it can take place remotely.

UNESCO learning city of Pécs, Hungary

Mr Balázs Németh, Associate Professor of Adult and Lifelong Learning University of Pécs, Hungary, Global Learning City Programme of Pécs, began his presentation by stating that COVID-19 has strengthened Pécs’ commitment to the development of the learning city initiative and cultural education. Pécs, in collaboration with UIL, hosted the ‘Learning Cities and Culture Working Together’ conference in 2018; during the COVID-19 pandemic, cultural and music festivals have been organized virtually. For example, the Zsolnay Cultural Quarter’s activities have moved online and it is now possible to take a virtual tour of the Cella Septichora, an early Christian burial site. Janus Pannonius Museum, which houses one of the largest collections of Hungarian modern art, is also developing its digital resources. Finally, the University of Pécs is organizing virtual lectures and presentations for the fourth Learning Festival of Pécs in September 2020, the theme of which is ‘Learning together: Culture and community’.


Ms Marie Macauley (UIL) opened the debate by asking participants to give examples of how collaboration across sectors can be used to promote cultural learning in cities. Mr González-Arenal said that public spaces rich in heritage can be used to bring different groups together. Ms Torres-Gomez added that local councils should be seen as conduits for partnerships, bridging together organizations and institutions such as local arts associations and schools. Mr Németh argued that cultural community education centres must be encouraged to reach out to vulnerable populations and enable them to participate in programmes. Ms Bax brought the session to a close by concluding that culture and education are among the main pillars of the human experience and, while the pandemic has deeply affected cultural institutions, cities have been developing innovative solutions to the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

GNLC webinars

The online event was part of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC) webinar series ‘UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19’. Devised as an opportunity for members of the UNESCO GNLC to share successful local initiatives during the pandemic, the webinars regularly attract hundreds of city representatives and other stakeholders. Cities from different world regions give presentations and participants engage in thought-provoking debates about how best to deal with the current situation – namely, how to mitigate the pandemic’s worst effects and, in some way, seize unexpected opportunities. Click the links below to read summaries of the 13 previous webinars.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Strategies for educational, social and economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Outcomes of webinar on 27 May.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: New partnerships in education governance during COVID-19. Outcomes of webinar on 20 May.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Prisons and prison education. Outcomes of webinar on 13 May.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Open distance learning. Outcomes of webinar on 6 May.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Mental health, health and well-being. Outcomes of webinar on 29 April.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: The cases of Évry-Courcouronnes (France), Chefchaouen (Morocco), Mayo-Baléo (Cameroon), and the Association internationale des Maires Francophones (AIMF). Outcomes of webinar on 23 April.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Measures developed by cities for migrants and refugees. Outcomes of webinar on 22 April.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Higher education institutions’ support for local communities. Outcomes of webinar on 15 April.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19. The cases of Mexico City (Mexico), Bogotá (Columbia), Lima (Peru). Outcomes of webinar on 9 April.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Family learning and community support. The cases of Gdynia (Poland) and Cork (Ireland), as well as insights by experts from Germany and Pakistan. Outcomes of webinar on 8 April.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Equity and inclusion. The cases of Espoo (Finland), Chengdu (People’s Republic of China), Swansea (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). Outcomes of webinar on 1 April.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19. The cases of Osan (Republic of Korea), Wuhan (People’s Republic of China), Turin (Italy), São Paulo (Brazil). Outcomes of webinar on 24 March.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19. The cases of Shanghai and Beijing (People’s Republic of China), Fermo (Italy), Kashan (Islamic Republic of Iran). Outcomes of webinar on 19 March.

Watch our video interviews with mayors and other representatives of UNESCO learning cities on responses to COVID-19 at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLivu_GCiL2mjYQOp64hcvzGNsC75QKSLw.