Action Learning in Planning Education


Roskilde University, Denmark


John Andersen, Martin Severin Frandsen, Lasse Koefoed





Planning Studies




#action research #problem-oriented project work #community engagement #art project



In the Planning Studies Program, we have experimented with different course activities often located in urban or rural neighborhoods outside university walls that could support action research with external stakeholders. The courses introduce the historical roots of action research, and present concrete cases of action research in cities and communities conducted with various stakeholders, i.e. community development projects, local councils, activist groups and ‘ordinary citizens’.




Phases for community-based action research

An ideal heuristic and prototypical model for phases in participatory and community-based research can be visualized as follows (See Figure 1 below): 


1. Establishing contact with local stakeholders.

2. Formulation of shared critique and problem definition.

3. Development of problem solutions, alternatives and ‘utopias’.

4. Practical realization of experiments and change initiatives.

5. Evaluation and – if the experiments prove successful.

6. Facilitation of a “robust” network or organization, which can continue the work.

7. Dissemination and ‘upscaling’ of experiments to avoid the ‘trap of localism’.


This requires experiential learning processes with ‘live cases’. In PS, faculty and students initially chose to address the problem of campus-planning at RUC. This gave the possibility to intervene in an already ongoing campus development process at the university. As part of a course in citizen participation, the students organized future workshops about the university campus and study environment. The proposals for campus development from the workshops were subsequently discussed with the responsible unit at the university as part of the course activity. Afterward, some of the students got an internship in the campus planning unit and had the possibility to follow up on the proposals in practice. The process helped to raise a debate on the universities on the possibilities to involve students and staff more in the spatial development of the campus.


Experiential learning through community engagement

On the basis of these experiences, the course took the step further out of university and organized courses on location in collaboration with stakeholders in city neighborhoods in Copenhagen, suburbs outside of Copenhagen and in disadvantaged rural areas. In courses located in North-West Neighborhood (Copenhagen) all activities were based in the local community centre, where the local neighborhood councils also have its office. It is our clear judgment that courses placed on location make a big difference. It gives a completely different ‘nerve’ to be amidst of things, and it creates the possibility to organize city walks, mapping exercises, informal interviews on the streets, and for relationship building and dialogues with local stakeholders and citizens.


The aim of the course was to show how action research can contribute to empowerment and learning among citizens and produce input and proposals for planning based on local needs. The students first will identify local needs and facilitate a shared problem definition among local citizens and stakeholders. The students were trained to analyze development plans for the neighborhood, to design and use different methods for citizen involvement and community mapping, to conduct interviews with local stakeholders, and to develop and sometimes realize small scale initiatives and plans of their own.


Students’ learning is organized under the framework of problem-orientated project work, which in essence can be described as a student-driven ‘apprenticeship in research’, where the students in groups under supervision from researchers conduct small scale research projects. Problem-orientated project work thus gives a good frame for working with action research. The starting point for project work is typically public planning issues and the time frame is 4-5 months. However, this is still a short time frame in comparison with ‘real’ action research projects, where the researcher often engages in longer running collaborations for several years. There is, therefore, a risk that the collaboration becomes a frustrating experience, because the hopes of actually implementing an action or experiment, that is valuable for the external stakeholders, are not met.


Action research based on student’s project group work in local neighborhoods is a powerful tool. It works best when local stakeholders have clearly defined needs and a flexible but robust framework has been negotiated with the university.



  1. Read this article to learn about the theoretical underpinning of action learning, as well as more case of the course: Action research in planning education: Experiences from problem-oriented project work at Roskilde University: Action research in planning education: Experiences from problem-oriented project work at Roskilde University 

  2. Andersen, A. S. & S. B. Heilesen (eds ) (2015) The Roskilde Model: Problem-oriented Learning and Project Work. Springer.

  3. Andersen, J., Frandsen, M. (2018): Planlægning og aktionsforskning. In Andersen, J. (red.) Den ufærdige fremtid. AAU-forlaget (in press)

  4. Andersen, J., Bilfeldt,A. (2017) Transforming public welfare institutions through action research in Denmark. In : International Journal of Action Research. 13, 3.

  5. Brydon-Miller (2011). The changing landscape of arts and action research. Action Research 9 (1): 3–11.

  6. Egsmose, J. (2015) Action Research for Sustainability. Ashgate

  7. Fals Borda, O. (2001). Participatory (Action) Research in Social Theory: Origins and Challenges. I P. Reason & H. Bradbury (red.), Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice (s. 27-37). Sage.

  8. Frandsen, M. S. 2017. Samskabelse som læreproces – en fortælling om et byudviklingslaboratorium og en boligsocial helhedsplan. Phd-dissertation. RUC.

  9. Friedmann, J. 1987. Planning in the Public Domain: From Knowledge to Action. Princeton University Press.

  10. Gunnarsson,E. (eds) (2016): Action Research for Democracy: New Ideas and Perspectives from Scandinavia. Routledge.

  11. Nielsen, A. K., S. B. Ullerup & S. Fløyel (2016). Sanselige eksperimenter – udvikling og afprøvning af et metodisk værktøj, der skal fremme borgerinvolvering i en byfornyelsesproces. RUC.

  12. Sandercock, L. 2004. Towards a Planning Imagination for the 21st Century. Journal of the American Planning Association, vol. 70, nr. 2, s. 133-141.


Cover photograph by Henrik Valeur.