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Community-university engagement: the Philippi CityLab in Cape Town and the challenge of collaboration across boundaries


Debates about the role of the university in society have been going on for many decades. There have been several calls for a more “engaged” form of scholarship which applies itself consciously to the pursuit of applied knowledge which can contribute towards solving some of the most pressing societal challenges. Closer collaboration between universities and community groups has been identified as a central component of this form of scholarship. This paper interrogates the literature on the role of universities in society, with a specific focus on university-community partnerships, and discusses the experience of the Philippi CityLab in Cape Town, South Africa to shed some light on the complexities, challenges and rewards of university-community interactions. The case of the Philippi CityLab confirms many of the pre-requisites for “successful” collaboration between universities and communities as identified in the literature. The paper argues that the ideal of a more engaged scholarship is certainly worth pursuing and that there is no doubt that South African universities do have a role to play in terms of working with communities to find workable solutions to the myriad of development challenges which they face. However, the experience of the Philippi CityLab also shows that stakeholders should not be naïve about the time, effort and investment which these kinds of engagements require and the difficulty of establishing, maintaining and sustaining genuine, mutually beneficial university-community collaborations. Furthermore, a truly engaged scholarship requires a significant transformation of the institutional context within universities in order to not only facilitate and support, but also reward research which seek closer collaboration between universities and communities.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    African Centre for Cities “Integrated Sustainable Human Settlements Research/CityLab Concept Note, February 2008 and Overview of the African Centre for Cities” CityLab, 4 October 2010.

  2. 2.

    Service-learning requires university students to participate in community projects in exchange for course credits.

  3. 3.

    The Cape Flats consist of a number of township areas in Cape Town established during Apartheid as a result of forced removals of black and coloured people from areas designated for the white population.

  4. 4.

    For a more detailed account of the historical development of Philippi, see Adlard (2008) “An introduction to Philippi”. Unpublished paper.

  5. 5.

    See Anderson (2009) “Philippi Community Profile—Final Report”, South African Education and Environment Project (SAEP) and Erasmus and Mans (2005) “Philippi Transformation Research Project” The Unit for Religion and Development Research and Transformation Africa, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa for a detailed demographic profile of Philippi.

  6. 6.

    The Urban Matters programme was initiated in 2008 as an initiative of Catholic Organisation for Relief and Development Aid (CORDAID) and Philippi was identified as the core focus of the programme. Urban Matters uses a multi-stakeholder collaborative approach to neighbourhood development in order to develop innovative, replicable and practical shared solutions to address infrastructural and social issues in poor neighbourhoods. The Urban Matters initiative was also implemented in Kisumu, Kenya and San Salvador in El Salvador.

  7. 7.

    Samora Machel is an area in Philippi.


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This article is based on work undertaken as part of the work of the Philippi CityLab, which forms part of the CityLab programme of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town. The African Centre for Cities’ CityLab programme is funded through the Mistra Urban Futures network (which is funded by Mistra the Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency), the Provincial Government of the Western Cape (Department of Human Settlements) and the City of Cape Town.

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Correspondence to Mercy Brown-Luthango.

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Brown-Luthango, M. Community-university engagement: the Philippi CityLab in Cape Town and the challenge of collaboration across boundaries. High Educ 65, 309–324 (2013).

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  • Community-university collaboration
  • Scholarship of engagement
  • Boundary work
  • New forms of scholarship
  • Applied research