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SAPER Project

SAPER Project – The appropriateness, usefulness and impact of the current urban planning curriculum in South African Higher Education (2017-2020)

Funded by the National Research Foundation (NRF) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)


South African Team: Dr. Stuart Denoon-Stevens (PI), Prof. Verna Nel, Dr. Elsona Van Huyssteen, Dr. Emmie Smit; Martin Lewis.

UK Team: Prof. Lauren Andres (PI), Dr. David Adams, Dr. Mike Beazley, Dr. Phil Jones


The SAPER project was funded by the ESRC in the UK and the NRF in South Africa under the Newton Fund scheme. It was developed in close partnership with two planning accreditation bodies, the South African Council for Planners (SACPLAN) in South Africa and the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) in the UK and with the Commonwealth Association of Planners (CAP).

SAPER looked at the appropriateness, usefulness, and impact of contemporary Higher Education urban planning in South Africa. This research focused on the needs and challenges faced by planning practitioners (with a key interest in early-career planners) and the wider implications with regard to the internationalisation of planning education. Urban planning is considered a scarce skill in South Africa but plays a crucial role in tacking spatial and social segregation, inherited from apartheid, while addressing other challenges (e.g. housing provision, health and wellbeing).

This project has been of key relevance to link urban development challenges to pressures inherent to economic development, and the need to address welfare and create more sustainable urban environments, particularly for the poorest and more vulnerable communities. Gaps were identified in training provision, pre and post-graduation and recommendations were developed to better address skill shortages, the unbalanced distribution of planners across the country and find ways to better support and mentor early-career practitioners.  We demonstrated that planners find themselves negotiating between often contradictory and conflicting strategies. This has a significant impact on (international) planning education and practice, especially given that planning education tends to retain a technocratic approach to training, with little to no content on navigating this web of contradictory strategies by different stakeholders.

Non-Academic Outputs and Impact

As part of its outcomes, SAPER produced several briefing notes and reports in partnership with SACPLAN. This included two briefing notes, one on “Bridging the gap: the candidacy phase” and another one on “Matching needs: planner in local government”.

Results from the projects, were widely communicated through the SACPLAN newsletter and in high-level meetings and reached national policy organisations (CBE Transformation Indaba, DALRRD, SALGA, the Department of Home Affairs, and the National School of Governance). One of the earlier outcomes of the SAPER project was the analysis of the SACPLAN registration data. The evaluation and interpretation provided evidence regarding the rapid growth over the past ten years in the number of registrations as well as a clear change in the demographic composition of planners in South Africa. This also clearly demonstrated the profession’s transformation with specific reference to race and gender, typically an increase of non-white planners and more women entering the profession. This work informed discussions on the planners’ accreditation process and particularly the SACPLAN Competencies and Standards Project.

The same information addressing the number of registered planners with SACPLAN by race and gender, were included in a presentation made to the Minister of DALRRD at the end of 2020. The SACPLAN Chairperson also presented this information during the Planning Africa Conference 2018 held in Cape Town, South Africa. Results continue to be widespread in high-level decision-making arenas. The briefing note “Bridging the gap: the Candidacy phase” was used as part of the input to the draft National Implementation Framework towards the Professionalisation of the Public Service (8 December 2020) from the National School of Governance. As noted by the Chief Executive Officer and Head of SACPLAN, Martin Lewis “ Information on registration data were used as inputs to the draft Critical Skills list from the Department of Home Affairs (26 February 2021). The importance of urban and regional planners (and the planning profession) in the value chain associated with the development of property (for various purposes including new human settlements and an array of commercial property ventures) was highlighted. The impact of rapid urbanisation combined with the skills shortages in planning amplified in the SAPER project were included in the submission”.

Some of Mischka Dunn (nee Jacobus)’s findings, whose PhD was funded out of the SAPER project have informed SACPLAN’s registration process discussions (on the 102 week’s practical experience). “SACPLAN now requires an agreement on a training plan (Personal Development Plan (PDP) between the candidate planner and supervisor, revised every six months and sent to SACPLAN to confirm that training is occurring” (Martin Lewis). SACPLAN is currently actively working towards addressing the profession’s resource and skills gaps to address the need to employ registered and qualified planners within the public sector. SAPER briefing notes have been used in the discussions with the DALRRD, COGTA and SALGA. The policy briefs on the shortage of planners have reached the Presidency as Town Planners were included in the list of internships advertised in 2021 along with the Municipal Infrastructure Support Agency’s (MISA) internships.

Finally the SACPLAN / SAPER discussion forum (https://sacplan.org.za/forum/) was launched at the end of 2020, consisting of 10 sub-forums (General; Human Settlements; Land Use Management; Urban Planning; Spatial Planning; Sustainability, SDGs and Planning; COVID-19 and Post-Pandemic Cities; Climate Change; GIS and Technology; Mentoring and Training Programmes; and Students and Early Career). “Under the Mentoring and Training Programmes, the “Urban Reforms online Training discussion forum” was included. This is as a result of discussions with the National Treasury Department on their Urban Reforms training programme (consisting of seven modules – #1 Introduction; #2 Planning Reforms – Directions in Planning Reforms; #3 Outcomes-Led Planning; #4 Infrastructure Led Growth through spatially targeted Public Investment; #5 Strategic Planning Led Budgeting; #6 Key Budget, Fiscal and Financial Reforms; and #7 Rationalisation of Reporting Requirements) that will be rolled out nationally” (Martin Lewis).

For more information and access to online resources, please visit:


SAPER PROJECT – End of project report

Article – Theory versus Practice in Planning Education: The View from South Africa (S. P. Denoon-Stevens, L. Andres, P. Jones, L. Melgaço, R. Massey & V. Nel)

Article – Planning, temporary urbanism and citizen-led alternative-substitute place-making in the Global South (Lauren Andres, Hakeem Bakare, John R. Bryson, Winnie Khaemba, Lorena Melgaço & George R. Mwaniki)

Article – Negotiating polyvocal strategies: Re-reading de Certeau through the lens of urban planning in South Africa (Lauren Andres, Phil Jones, Stuart Paul Denoon-Stevens, Lorena Melgacxo)

SAPER briefing note – Challenges, opportunities and legacies: experiencing the internationalising of UK planning curricula

SAPER briefing note – Bridging the gap: the candidacy phase – October 2018

SAPER briefing note – Matching needs: planners in local government – October 2018

SAPER Briefing Note: Teaching App & Platform – December 2017

SAPER Briefing Note: International Planning Education

SAPER Briefing Note: Results from the SAPER survey with South African planning professionals