Rediscovering the social purpose of planning: the Westfield community-university partnership

Guest post:

Jason Slade is a PhD student in the Department of Town and Regional Planning at the University of Sheffield, researching the usefulness of storytelling to people who want to intervene in how their places change and develop. He has broad interests around story, democracy and local knowledge.

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The Department of Town and Regional Planning’s Community Engagement Initiative was launched in October 2013 and involves staff and students working with residents in Westfield, a disadvantaged community in South-East Sheffield, to help them plan a sustainable future for their local area.

Westfield has received £1m in Big Lottery funding to invest in neighbourhood improvements over the next decade and Lee Crookes and Andy Inch have been involved in establishing what is intended to become an ongoing, long-term partnership between TRP and the community that endeavours to provide mutual benefits for local residents and both staff and students in the department. The initiative represents a means of exploring the potential contribution of engaged action learning and research as a core feature of planning education at Sheffield, and as a contribution to the development of the engaged university.

In its first year a group of 20 student volunteers worked alongside residents to develop a range of consultation activities and events. Significant initial achievements included the visit of Professor Ken Reardon (University of Memphis) and Dr Laura Saija (University of Catania, Sicily), the development of joint student-community training events, and the joint development of key action research projects to contribute to planning efforts in Westfield. In the spring semester this activity was supplemented by the introduction of the module Community Planning Project. This offered student volunteers the opportunity to engage in credit-bearing reflective learning through a combination of university based seminars and practical engagement, which involved developing a schools outreach programme to assist the wider project. This outreach programme encouraged young people to contribute ideas for improving the local area whilst endeavouring to raise aspirations to the possibility of higher education.

In the summer of 2014, with funding from the University of Sheffield’s Engaged Curriculum Fund, I was engaged to undertake a research project, Better learning through engagement? Evaluating year one of Community Planning Project. The question driving the project was how we even begin to evaluate engaged learning, given its differences from conventional classroom based learning and a perceived thinness in current evaluation models in HE (more information about the project and its findings is available on the Engaged Curriculum blog). In addition to its central research questions the report was also an opportunity for reflection on the previous year’s work and fed into planning for the current academic year. Central to this has been community development worker Marion Oveson’s joining the department to co-ordinate student engagement in Westfield, making sure we maximise how useful and successful our activities are in providing benefits for both students and residents.

This year students have continued to be involved in activities such as litter picks and a successful community-led campaign to keep Westfield surgery open when threatened with closure. It has also seen our cohort of volunteers expand to include post-graduate taught students, who have worked alongside undergraduates to explore possible approaches to tackling the priority issues in Westfield. This work, presented to residents in poster form, successfully facilitated much important reflection and discussion.

In addition, Lee and Andy have also secured funds from the Higher Education Innovation Fund, working with the Town and Country Planning Association and Westfield Big Local, to research the scope for university supported community-led planning efforts to make a difference to life on the Estate. This funding was partly used to hold a series of three workshops which helped to identify key issues, collate them into a profile document and establish a vision for change.

Collaborative work is continuing as residents move towards formalising their plan, delivering and reviewing it. We can be optimistic, then, that there can continue to be productive learning on all sides as the project moves forward. In addition to the continuation of our current work we hope to see residents and students contributing to the Teaching Excellence in the Social Sciences conference here at the university, and the inaugural Westfield International Planning Conference, which will take place on the estate in Shortbrook School. We hope to share some further insights from the project on this blog in the coming months.

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