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The importance of service learning and community engagement within the GIS pedagogy of the town and regional planning department

There has been a significant increase in the levels of interest within the South African higher education sectors in the experiential pedagogy of service-learning. The Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) has integrated community engagement into its academic planning documents as one of the six strategic directions of the University in response to the 1991 Education White Paper on the transformation of higher education.

The South African higher education system underwent reconstruction after apartheid. Community engagement was included as one of the core responsibilities along with teaching and learning and research. Despite clear policy mandates stipulating the importance of community engagement, it has been largely neglected by universities. The understanding of how universities contribute to individuals and society and the development of community engagement activities in universities is widely debated. The Department of Town and Regional Planning setup a pilot project in January 2013 to investigate ways to engage with communities through service-learning pedagogy. The pilot project was carried out in collaboration with the Flamingo Crescent Informal Settlement community in Lansdowne Industrial, Cape Town, South Africa.

Literature Review

A. Urban Planning Models

  1. The Rational Comprehensive Model
    For twenty years after World War II this model had been shaped and exported from the University of Chicago’s planning programme. For them, it was a given that technology and social science would help make the world work better, and that planning could be an important tool for social progress.At this point of planning history, planning was at its most heroic, as it was confident in its capacity to discern and implement public interest. However, in this model, the planner was unquestionably the ‘knower’ and decided what was best for the public in ‘his” professional capacity. With regards to the public, they were never critically examined, as indifferent classes of people or genders were not considered.Despite community opposition, the model continued to win adherents and spawned new theorists. But, the question is why did this model become the dominant paradigm in planning?

    One explanation is that it was continually taught in planning schools, by emphasizing rational analysis through such courses as quantitative methods and use of computers.

    In the sixties, the model was finally challenged by the groups who were being excluded from the domains and its fruits and by those who were concerned about the environmental consequences of the global drive to modernization.

  2. The Advocacy Planning Model
    The first serious challenge to Rational Comprehensive Model was the concept of advocacy planning, which emerged during the 1960’s in the United States. The change that brought this concept to life was the major riots in American cities in 1964-1965, which had created a climate where the dissenting opinion was to be heard.This new and dynamic approach was initiated by Paul Davidoff, who was concerned that the rational model of planning was obsessed with means and neglected the notion of the ‘end’. Advocacy planning clearly represented an important expansion of the definition of what planners do, and left planners under this model to think about representing the ‘poor’ in the planning process, without actually giving them a voice in the process.
  3. The Radical Political Economy Model
    As debates about participation, mutual learning and empowerment began to gain an audience in the planning profession during the 1970’s, Manuel Castells produced one of the first case studies on the role of planning in the development of Dunkirk. He identified three functions of planning, which included as an instrument of rationalisation; secondly as an instrument of negotiation and mediation of the differing demands of various fractions of capital and lastly as a regulator of the pressures and protest of the dominated class.
  4. The Equity Planning Model
    In the advocacy movement of the 1960’s, one group of planners saw themselves as inheritors of the advocacy tradition and further developed the tradition in the direction of making alliances with and working for progressive politicians. In a sense, equity planners are those who consciously seek to redistribute power, resources or participation away from the local elites and toward the poor and working class citizens. In accepting that planning is the handmaiden of politics, equity planners choose the politicians for whom they want to work with.
  5. The Social Learning and Communicative Action Model
    In 1973, John Friedman described the growing polarity between the planners and their ‘clients’ as a polarity exacerbated by the inaccessible language in which professionals usually formulate plans. The solution that he brought about was to bring the two together to engage in a process of mutual learning. This was done to create a relationship between expert and client through the adoption of what Friedman called transactive style of living. What was so radical about this approach was its shift away from the monopoly on expertise and insight by professionals and acknowledged the value of local knowledge.
  6. The Radical Planning Model
    Radical planning practices emerged from the experience with and the critique of the existing equal relations and distribution of power, opportunity and resources. The goal of these practices is to work for a structural transformation of these systematic inequalities, and in process, empower those who have been systematically disempowered.

B. Defining Conceptualising and Theorising Service-Learning

How to integrate community engagement in Higher Education has been widely debated amongst scholars.

CPUT has included community engagement into its academic plan as one of the six strategic directions of the university in response to challenges of transformation in higher education. Through the establishment of an institutional community engagement and service-learning centre, support is given to faculties and departments in implementing projects. Community engagement and service-learning remains a very under-theorised role at a university and, therefore, not fully understood. Although CPUT has actively embraced community engagement and service-learning at institutional level, faculties and departments have not employed community engagement and service-learning pedagogy to its full potential. Community engagement at CPUT was first implemented in 1993 and began slowly. Since then, the process of institutionalising community engagement has gathered momentum with incentives for staff to implement community engagement projects.

Community Engagement/Service-Learning Pilot Study
There has been a paradigm shift towards ‘community-led development’ in South Africa whereby partnerships are created between informal settlement communities and local government. The purpose of these partnerships is to engage with communities so that residents become active partners in upgrading their built environment. The Slum Dwellers International (SDI) and Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC) are partnering non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in ‘community-led development’.

The Department of Town and Regional Planning at CPUT has formed a relationship with SDI/CORC through the Association of African Planning Schools (AAPS) of which the Department is a signatory.

The Department setup a pilot project in January 2013 to investigate ways of engaging with communities through service-learning pedagogy. The technical skills required for the National Diploma in Town and Regional Planning at CPUT includes the introduction to CAD/GIS as well as the principles of the Global Positioning System (GPS). Students are taught these technologies to assist in the analyses of complex space and social issues for urban and regional planning projects. Students are taught the basic concepts of creating and editing geometry and the management of primary and secondary spatial and non-spatial data. The third year module in CAD/GIS in the Town and Regional Planning Diploma has been identified as the primary module for introducing service-learning pedagogy.

In 2005, the local authority moved people who were squatting in the area to a public open space in Flamingo Crescent as a temporary measure. Since then, the squatter settlement has grown to 95 families. The local authority has provided the community with two water taps and a number of chemical toilets. However, these services are insufficient to sustain the residential settlements needs. ISN and CORC have mobilised the community by introducing a ‘savings’ scheme (Urban Poor Fund International) that works alongside national funds to support grassroots activities that enable partnerships to improve basic services and address shelter needs in the community. Community-led mapping and enumeration of the settlement has enabled the community leaders and the local authority to collaboratively come together and negotiate a development strategy.

A. The CAD/GIS Module Syllabus
The foundational knowledge of the CAD/GIS module consists of a conceptual background in CAD/GIS and GPS followed by its application through desktop software. A geospatial database of features found in the informal settlement was built using heads-up digitising from geo-referenced aerial photography. After this foundational knowledge students were taken into the community.

Mapping fieldwork was spread over six days with approximately 20 hours spent on site. Groups of five students accompanied the lecturer on each site visit. A problem based service learning approach was used where students relate to the community much like ‘consultants’ working for a ‘client’. Community leaders and ISN members worked closely with the students in this exercise. After each site visit, students presented their experience to the rest of the class in a verbal reflection. A notable success of the measuring exercise was the introduction of students to the community and community to students without provoking community members or invading private space. This relationship allowed the community to accept far larger groups of students later in the project which resulted in constructive engagement.

The post site visit involved using field measurements in CAD to produce a fully comprehensive plan, in 3D, displaying all ‘as built’ structures on site. This included spot heights across the site with contours. The geo-referenced CAD drawing was imported into ArcGIS 10 with enumeration attribute data, supplied by ISN, attached to each shack. Drawings were plotted on an A2 sheet of paper and presented to the community leaders on site and displayed in the community office. A printout of the enumeration data collected by the community was also displayed in the community office. All members of the community were able to participate and collaborate in the process by visiting the community office, providing comment and opportunity to ask questions. In preparation for the next phase of fieldwork, students were given an assignment to rearrange the ‘as built’ structures (shacks) in CAD to improve the settlement layout for re-blocking.

Figure 1: Student ‘as built’ drawing of Flamingo Crescent Informal Settlement


Figure 2: Community-Led layout design for re-blocking

B. Reflection and Assessment
Reflection is a way of linking service with learning and was the primary method of assessment. It allows student and lecturers to understand new and challenging situations and examine how people perceive, think, remember and learn things. The reflections were structured in a way that reinforces the module outcomes and assists students in developing problem-solving skills that are innovative and different. Various modes of reflection were used, such as telling, writing and multimedia presentations. Formative assessments were used to monitor students’ progress during the module with ongoing reflection feedback, comment from partners/community leaders, peer evaluation and semester evaluation of the project. Summative assessments were used to test student’s skills in the form of a written examination at the end of the module.

Figure 3: Flamingo Crescent community members and CPUT students working on a new layout design on site


Figure 4: Flamingo Crescent community members, Partners and CPUT students work in the Community Office

As planners, one can no longer use modernisation theory to full effect as the theory has changed immensely under globalisation, which has caused planners to look at exactly what the context of the situation is.

According to Sandercock, various scholars have agreed that within the area of globalisation, there are two important geopolitical shifts in power that one must take into consideration. The first is from nation-state to transnational financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and supra-national political institutions such as the European Union (E.U).

The second is the shift from nation-state to the city state. In essence, this implies that if cities are becoming more important and relevant as political-administrative units, it is in conjunction with their shifting demographic and economic roles.

Therefore, planners need to understand cities as bearers of enlarged fates and realise that one needs to formulate a shared notion of a common destiny within one’s city.