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Deeds not words? Civic engagement and universities

21 September 2015 Author:

I recently attended the annual UK/Ireland Planning Research Conference at London South Bank University. A running theme throughout the keynote of Mark Tewdwr-Jones (Newcastle University) was how the university can give back to the community, which made me think of how we can achieve civic engagement through research.

The Newcastle City Futures: Anchoring universities in cities through urban foresight was the first foresight initiative below national level, and a city-wide engagement and collaboration process in Newcastle that has involved over 2500 residents and representatives of over 50 different public, private, community and voluntary organisations. It involved stakeholder workshops, a Delphi survey, scenario building, a city futures exhibition and an urban room, a recommendation of the Farrell Review. A city model sat behind closed doors in the Civic Centre in Newcastle, so no one would see it - contrary to for instance the London model in the New London Architecture building, something Tewdwr-Jones perceived as a missed opportunity. Tewdwr-Jones argued that universities are best placed to deal with the changes cities face (for example ageing, a crucial issue Newcastle is facing and where it could innovate) and that we need to break down the barriers between researchers and citizens, among other barriers.

In Leading the Inclusive City, Robin Hambleton argues that universities are the “sleeping giants of place-based leadership”. Still, Ernest Boyer’s notion of ‘engaged scholarship’ has flourished in recent years and there has been a surge of interest in promoting the societal relevance of universities and efforts to promote ‘knowledge exchange’ and university ‘public engagement’ in many countries. The Talloires Network, created in 2005, is an international network of universities committed to public and civic engagement. In the UK the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) was created in 2008 to help inspire and support universities to engage with the public. During the Community Planning track sessions at the Planning Research Conference, I heard about other original and interesting ways to engage with the community. One of these examples was Paul Cowie (Newcastle University) and Cap a Pie ‘Town Meeting’ project on understanding community participation in planning through theatre, which won the Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement. Another one was the Rufopoly board game and interactive learning tool developed by Birmingham City University which summarises complex research concepts into a fun and jargon-free game.

Nonetheless, there are still challenges. This resonated with the theme of the editorial and interface of the latest issue of Planning Theory and Practice (PTP) (Volume 16, issue 3), which focuses on the links between scholarship, research and practice (a debate that is not unique to planning). In the editorial (free of access), Libby Porter (RMIT University, Melbourne) raises practical questions such as access to the places where academic research gets published, as they are essentially closed to those outside universities, including practitioners, but also wider questions such as why some knowledge come to be seen as “the evidence base”, while other forms of knowledge are invisible in the worlds of policy; and why is policy and practitioner knowledge not valorised to the same extent as “academic” knowledge. Some practitioner’s interrogations may seem as “obvious” to an academic audience but Porter reflects on the fact that herself has not always done the effort “to translate that knowledge into something accessible, reachable, and workable for practitioners just starting to grapple with the same questions?” This observation was also made in a recent paper titled ‘Not a lot of people read the stuff’ where the authors examine the nature of the research-practice relationship in an Australian urban planning context. The title is pretty unequivocal on their findings.

Porter argues that scholarship takes place beyond the university, and action is intrinsic to scholarly practice. In planning, the community– university partnership approach to education has long been considered as an essential component of planning teaching and knowledge production which can enable better in teaching, learning, research and practice outcomes and be grounded in the realities of communities where universities are locate, rather than disconnection of scholarly practice. However, the design of academic targets around publishing, research income and metrics actually affects the extent to which educators can reach communities of practice, an issue raised by Tewdwr-Jones in his Newcastle City Futures keynote and by Lee Crookes, Andy Inch and Jason Slade raise in an article of the Westfield Action Research Project in the PTP Interface (free of access).

Incidentally, this piece of work was commended as part of the RTPI Research Awards for the Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement. The Westfield Action Research Project is a long-term, transformation-seeking partnership between the University of Sheffield and a resident-led group in Westfield, one of the less privileged neighbourhoods of Sheffield. The title of this blog is borrowed from the title of the article – res non verba – where the authors argue that the development of long-term, sustainable community–university partnerships is one of the most effective ways of rediscovering the sense of social purpose and commitment that planning and universities seem to have lost. This also presents a benefit for students, and can be part of ‘experiental learning’, a concept presented in an article by Christine Slade, Andrew Butt, Jo Rosier and Tim Perkins in the PTP Interface and which focuses on learning in pathways that are varied and challenged, reflecting ‘real-life’ situations and of benefit to both student and local planning practitioners involved. It should be acknowledged that university–community partnerships for planning education are not without their difficulties and challenges, as outlined by several articles in the Interface (for instance through the example of the Gugulethy informal settlement in Cape Town or the scepticism of some residents in the WARP project).

Isolated research and teaching can only go so far in terms of social change. Action on the ground and allowing universities to take a key role in places can benefit all – practitioners and policymakers, educators and researchers, residents and the community.

Victoria Pinoncely is Research Officer at RTPI.  You can follow Victoria on Twitter: @vpinoncely