I’ve just got back from this year’s Association of American Geographers Annual Conference which was held in Washington DC. These large international conferences can be very exciting if somewhat overwhelming, with AAG featuring over 5000 papers and around 7000 attendees spread across two giant hotels in the Woodley Park neighbourhood of Washington. As part of the SAPER project I organised a double session themed ‘Planning in theory, theory in planning’, with speakers from the US, France, China, Finland and South Africa. The session was co-organised with Charlie Corwin from University of Illinois-Chicago and Emmanuel Frimpong Boamah from SUNY at Buffalo.
I presented some of the work that has come from the SAPER project where we have used our research data on South African planning education to critique the ideas of French theorist Michel de Certeau. Drawing on a paper that myself, Lauren, Stu and Lorena have just submitted to Urban Studies, the presentation argued that there are some fundamental flaws in the way that de Certeau – a famous theorist of resistance – conceptualised power and particularly how powerful actors have to negotiate between different, often contradictory, agendas.
There were a range of really exciting papers in the session. There’s not space here to discuss them all, but I’ll pick out a couple of highlights. Allie Appelbaum discussed how dealing with potholes was being used by white South Africans as a proxy for discussing political failure and urban mismanagement. Sarah Gelbard drew on personal experiences in the punk scene to explore creativity and gentrification in north American cities. Claire Tollis told us about a fascinating project she ran in Northern France exploring the bottom-up generation of strategies for urban transportation management. Meanwhile Neville Mars, an architectural practitioner, gave some fascinating insights into the lack of joined up thinking in Chinese urban sustainability planning.
Conference papers are often a precursor to journal articles and given the quality of work on show in the session, I’m hoping that we’ll see some of these ideas out in print very soon.
Full details of the papers included in the session:
On November 27th, the SAPER project held its second steering committee meeting. External attendees included: Dr Riette Oosthuizen, partner in planning at HTA Design LLP, Prof. Cliff Hague, emeritus professor of planning and spatial development at Heriot-Watt University and freelance researcher and author, Paul Watson, independent planning consultant and former strategic director for regeneration and development at Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council, Clive Harridge, secretary-general of the Commonwealth Association of Planners (CAP), Rebecca Farr, principal development planning officer at Birmingham City Council, Jacob Bonehill, strategic delivery advisor at West Midlands Combined Authorities, Andrew Close, head of careers, education and professional development at the RTPI and Dr Patricia Noxolo, senior lecturer in cultural geography in GEES.
It was a very productive day, which started with Lauren Andres (PI) and Lorena Melgaço (RF) presenting the results and analysis of the 2017 survey and the interviews conducted in the first semester of 2018 in South Africa. During the morning session, the steering group highlighted the positive outcomes of the survey and interviews and discussed possible crossovers with British planning education for example in regards to the level of satisfaction of professionals with their education and the profession. Wider debates also occurred in line with the competencies of the planners versus the challenges to address, the wider questions behind decolonising knowledge throughout North/South, South/South learning and the issue of race and racialisation.
In the afternoon, the internationalisation of UK planning education was discussed, with Lorena presenting some of the preliminary data collected through interviews and a short survey with British planners. Phil Jones (Co-I) also presented the teaching app pilot conducted between the University of Birmingham and University of the Free State students and the steering group commented on its potential for duplication in core MSc degrees.
The group spent the final part of the session discussing impact and outreach activities carried out in South Africa and internationally. This was an opportunity to present the ‘Good Practice Platform’ developed by SAPER (Phil Jones) for the Commonwealth Association of Planners (https://www.commonwealth-planners.org/good-practice-platform) as well as the prototype discussion board currently designed with SACPLAN (South African Planning Association) to support planners on the ground. Those activities are complementing the range of other impact events and outputs (incl. range of briefing notes - http://www.saperproject.com/resources.html) the team has been attending and producing in the last six months linking up with the relevant institutions in South Africa such as SAPI (South African Planning Institute), DRDLR (Department for rural development and land reform), COGTA (Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs), SALGA (South African Local Government Association), DPSA (Department of Public Service and Administration), and also worldwide such as CAP, World Economic Forum and UN Habitat. Suggestions towards supplementary engagement pathways in the UK were sketched by the steering group members.
The beginning of the academic year has been very busy for the SAPER team.
In September, Lorena Melgaço presented the preliminary analysis of SAPER fieldwork at the UK and Ireland Planning Research Conference in Sheffield. The paper was entitled “Responsibility and resistance: planning for (and with) entrenched inequality”, co-authored with Lauren Andres, Phil Jones, and Stuart Denoon Stevens; it grappled with the pervasive racialisation of the planning profession in South Africa. Drawing on de Certeau’s work on tactics and strategies, the paper highlighted the role of High Education, the maintenance of a business-as-usual approach to the field and the current political context as important obstacles for the transformation of the profession.
The same month, Verna Nel, Rouvé Bingle and Mischka Jacobus were in Lisbon at the International Conference ‘Fifty years of local governance 1980 – 2030’, organised at the Institute of Geography and Spatial Planning. Co-authored with Ruth Massey and Stuart Denoon-Stevens, Verna presented a paper on “Planning practice at local government level in south africa: challenges, implications and new approaches”. Rouvé, Mischka and Verna also delivered another presentation on “Taking the moral high ground” – exploring the impact of local government on ethical planning practices.
Part of the SAPER team attended the Planning Africa Conference, in October in Cape Town. In addition to the range of activities described in two separate posts, the three-days conference was a fantastic opportunity to connect with a range of planning practitioners from across the country and discuss the project with a range of key planning organisations, including SAPI and its (past) president Nthato Minyuku.
Finally, Elsona Van Huyssteen attended the 5th iCities Innovative Planning Education and Research Forum (October 26-28) at the National Cheng Kung University, Tainan, Taiwan.
Lauren Andres and Stuart Denoon Stevens, were invited today to attend the Commonwealth Association of Planners business meeting, in Cape Town. This was an excellent opportunities to discuss core planning issues and challenges across the Commonwealth, the importance of the planning profession at a local, national and international level, specifically with regard to Sustainable Development Goals. A key point that was subsequently discussed is the need for capacity building, shared knowledge across the members and specifically towards countries with very limited planning capacity.
Lauren Andres presented at one of the plenary sessions of the 2018 Planning Africa Conference (15-17 October 2018) some results of SAPER and how they can inform the achievement of the New Urban Agenda (SDGs). The panel was comprised of Dy Currie, Peter Geraghty, Viral Desai and Kristin Agnello. Amongst the key areas Lauren Andres, Stuart Denoon Stevens and Martin Lewis wanted to highlight were first the challenges facing the implementation of SDGs in South Africa due to a) the complexity of policies (by different government departments and levels); b) the significant resource and personnel constraints, which are particularly acute in small to medium municipalities (esp. rural) and c) the fact that SDGs still appear as secondary challenges in contrast to other ‘perceived’ priorities (for example housing and poverty alienation). As to move forward we suggested looking at a more holistic approach to urban planning and development breaking a too siloed approach still in place and also fostering planners’ capacity building (targeting skills needed once in practice and training after graduation).
The SAPER project team held a retreat in Milton Keynes 18-22 June led by Lauren Andres and Stuart Denoon-Stevens in order to develop the impact and publication strategies for the project. This is a very exciting time in the life of the SAPER project as the data collection phase has just finished and the team has been expanded to bring on board Martin Lewis (SACPLAN), Elsona Van Huyssteen (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) and Emmie Smit (UFS) to maximise the potential for impact.
The sessions included a masterclass on impact run by Sophie Hadfield-Hill from the University of Birmingham and a briefing on writing REF papers by Phil Jones. After a very intensive few days the team produced a detailed list of activities and tasks for the final 12 months of the project.
Opportunities were identified for feeding into a new mentoring and CPD strategy for South African planners. Activities at Parliament were planned to help shape South Africa’s forthcoming Planning Professionals Act. The team also sketched out a series of briefing notes and short films around the role of planners, the challenges of planning in a developing world, the future of the African city and the tensions between urban and rural planning.
The SAPER project has created a very large dataset of 212 questionnaire responses and 110 interviews with planning professionals and educators, producing the first comprehensive overview of the state of the profession in South Africa. Following a detailed discussion of the materials that have been gathered, up to twenty potential papers were identified and a writing strategy drawn up in line with REF priorities.
It was also nice for the team to meet face-to-face as a group – one of the problems of working across two different continents – and gain a better understanding of our motivations and constraints. Although it was an intensive few days, the project team ended the week feeling very positive about where the project was going over the next twelve months.
The SAPER team. L-R, Martin Lewis, Emmie Smit, Phil Jones, Verna Nel, Stuart Denoon-Stevens, Mishka Jacobus, Rouvé Bingle, Lauren Andres, Lorena Melgaco Silva Marques, David Adams
The months of February to May have been a whirlwind of SAPER activity. The second phase of our data collection has come to an end and the fieldwork has taken us as far as Cape Town to Bloemfontein, Pretoria, Johannesburg, George and Port Elizabeth. All of this in order for us to conduct in-depth, face-to face interviews with the South African planning community. The group was diverse and included the young and old (and wiser), men and women, multi-racial and multi-sectoral to create a representative sample.
Conversation ranged from the state of the South African planning profession, graduate readiness for the job market, diversity, technology and skills requirements. It was fascinating to sit down with persons from academia, government and the private sector and hear their perspectives on issues that affect both their communities and them personally. Interview after interview we realised how complex and fluid the work of planners is and that a long list of both hard and soft skills is required in order to mould a successful graduate. It was also interesting to discuss how expectations are met in a planner’s daily work in face of the great challenges (and achievements) of the profession.
Altogether it was an extremely successful and engaging experience and SAPER would like to thank each and every participant for their time and insights.
In total we have conducted 96 interviews (89 with South African planners) and all recordings are currently being transcribed and coded, as we speak. Some very interesting themes are already evident and we look forward to the final outputs.
Next up: The South African and UK teams are getting ready for their writing retreat in the UK.
Rouve Bingle and Lorena Melgaço
As we are getting closed to the summer it is time to sum-up our latest activities and flag up what will be coming up. The SAPER team has been extremely busy in collecting data in South Africa. By the end of the month we will have collected up to 80 interviews with a range of urban planning practitioners across South Africa. Coding is on its way and we are looking forward to start writing up our results. While impact activities are also starting shaping up, the team will soon re-unite in the UK for its first writing retreat. More updates and news to come soon then!
Seminar "Think Planning – Think Global Planning Challenges in the Commonwealth" – organised in partnership with the RTPI and the Commonwealth Association of Planners
SAPER partnered with the RTPI and CAP to organise a seminar looking at the challenges faced by planning in the Commonwealth context. We will soon publish a briefing note out of this seminar, with CAP. I cannot resist meanwhile to publish what Louisa Ward, currently one of our students on our MSc Urban and Regional Planning, wrote on Linkedin to describe what she learnt and gained from the presentations and discussions. The seminar was introduced by the RTPI president, John Acres and included presentations from Clive Harridge, Hector Pearson, Philip Clarke, Riette Oosthuizen, Louise Brook-Smith, Cliff Hague and me (Lauren Andres).
In October this year the South African Advisory Group met to discuss various aspects of the SAPER project with our current SA PI Ruth. The Group comprises Peter Robinson, Frederick Kusambiza, Anthony Barnes, Godfrey Musvoto, Aurobindo Ogra, Seana Nkhahle and Mark Oranje
After an introduction to the project, our main aims and objectives, and the progress made to date, the Advisory Group spent the morning debating the strengths and weaknesses of South African planning education in South Africa’s higher education institutions, and discussing how the SAPER project might address these and other concerns that have been raised. The Advisory Group members are leaders in various South African planning fields (practice, academia, local government, and accreditation) and we are pleased to have this rich set of expertise on board.
Some of the points that were raised during the meeting included the following:
· There is a need to more fully recognise that apartheid planning has had an exclusionary and lasting impact on planning practice and planning education in South Africa and that this needs to be addressed. It is crucial that dialogue continues, particularly regarding planning education in the country and the need to train planners to be sensitive to inequality, segregation and socio-spatial challenges as well as the diversity of language, religion and culture in the country.
· There is currently a mismatch between educational institutions and practice and there is a need for the two parties to interact in a more meaningful way. Employers and new employees struggle with expectations and the practical knowledge that the graduate has or has not gained. There is also the need to bring practice into conversation with academics to ensure that a richer more applicable education is provided.
· There is a need to ensure students of planning also have the opportunity to specialise in various niche subjects (such as SMART cities and urban health – for example) over and above their basic planning qualification. This would ensure that the graduate is more employable and is provided with domain expertise and a niche qualification (specialisation) appropriate for a South African/African context.
· South African students have limited options in terms of courses offered within their planning degrees. A different approach may be required that allows for dual specialisation and focal specialisation.
· There is a gap between theory taught and the link to social aspects of planning. The practice of planning itself versus planning for people is something that needs to be addressed.
· There is a need for planning curricula to pay equal attention to academic skills (e.g. theory), technical skills (e.g. GIS and other tools), and soft skills (e.g. report writing, negotiation, and presentation skills). These are all needed for a good curriculum and for planners that are trained to work within a practical planning context.
· Wider skills are also needed such as an understanding of financial modelling and analysis as well as skills related to technology and systems management.
· Social aspects of planning are crucial in the training of planners within South Africa. Planning for and with people is vital and skills are needed in areas such as asset-based planning, trade-offs, wants vs needs etc. Social planning skills are lacking amongst new graduates.
The Advisory Group also provided useful contacts and links to resources that will assist the SAPER project’s aims, and were helpful in providing us with advice on the way forward with our next set of data collection activities and data analysis.