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Sustainability and construction are two words that you don’t often hear together. Like Thanos and Iron Man, the built environment has long been the arch-enemy of the natural world. 

But what if there were a way to use the built environment to positively impact people and planet? And what if we could educate the next generation of leaders in the construction industry to do it differently?

Now that’s got us excited! 

In March, with generous support from Sygnia Asset Management, we kicked off a very special Sygnature Skills Programme in partnership with Go For Gold, an initiative that’s helping young people from under-resourced communities enter the construction industry. 

Fifty-five Grade 11 Go For Gold students applied to participate in the Sygnature Skills Programme, and, starting in March, they have been giving up their Saturdays to learn more about sustainability and how the built environment can help achieve sustainability in cities. 

While we love interacting and learning with students in a classroom context, it’s often so much more enlightening to see the concepts and principles in practice, to be immersed in the real world outside and to truly experience and cement an understanding that enables deep learning. 

In the June holiday, we took 41 of our Go for Gold students on a two-day learning journey to explore Cape Town’s water catchment areas. The outing, dubbed “Places in Spaces”, provided students with an appreciation of how the city’s catchments and natural river systems are used and impacted by the built environment. 

The first day of the Learning Journey explored how a river works naturally as four-dimensional systems. Starting at the natural, upper reaches of the Liesbeek River, near the entrance to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, students took a guided walk through the Bishopscourt greenbelt, observing how riverside homes had impacted the river narrowing its path or “lateral dimension”. At one station, students braved the icy water to observe the diversity of life below the surface and to measure its health. 

Learning Journey begins

Learners gathering outside Kirstenbosch Gardens to begin their Learning Journey

The group then ventured to the lowland reaches of the Liesbeek to see the impact of these upstream reach changes which, combined with an increasingly dense built environment, raised the challenge of increased lowland flooding. Here stormwater management and rehabilitation specialists explained how efforts to create floodplains to both absorb larger flows of water in the rainy season were also providing habitat for wildlife, even in urban settings. Much to their delight, this explanation was accompanied by a rare siting of an endangered otter enjoying the rehabilitated portion of the lower Liesbeek. Experiential education at its finest!

Learners exploring the lower reaches of the Liesbeek River

Ending their first day with a visit to Edith Stephens Wetland Park helped students understand more about how City’s stormwater management is inextricably linked to its natural rivers and wetlands. This “triple challenge” – biodiversity conservation, social and recreational use, and ecosystem use for services – are the complex management questions facing those managing the built environment. 

Understanding the City’s stormwater management at Edith Stephens Wetland Park

Day Two of the learning journey was generously hosted by Hotel Verde at Cape Town International Airport. Starting with a period of reflection, learners discussed their key insights and learnings from the previous day before exploring the concept of biomimicry, the value of natural spaces in cities, and how cities can help drive sustainability. 

Anton Cartwright presenting a session on how cities can drive sustainability

The students then got to see what sustainable construction looks like first-hand with a tour of the ecological features of Hotel Verde. Dubbed a ‘green hotel’, Hotel Verde has integrated principles and practice into every area of the hotel, from design to construction and operations. This is evidenced in their effective use of greywater recycling in their lush grounds, their natural filtration system for the swimming pool and the kitchen garden that grows fresh salads and vegetables. Automatic sensors for lighting in all spaces reduced energy use even though energy was generated using renewable geothermal sources.

Learners take a tour of the green hotel, Hotel Verde

The learning journey finished with two interactive exercises, where students drew upon their newly gained knowledge and experience to reflect on the success of different river engineering structures in dealing with the “triple challenge”. 

Learners using maps to analyse the City’s existing water infrastructure

Similarly, they had to don the cap of advisor to the Land Claims Commissioner, to recommend how best to take forward a land claim settlement alongside a natural river system that involved the dilemma of managing all these trade-offs, including those of equity and social justice.

The whole experience cemented the foundations of an important understanding of the systemic and interconnected nature of our world. It highlighted the nature and value of the services that our natural ecosystems deliver. And it emphasised to each student just how important it is to incorporate ecological principles in the design of systems to achieve greater sustainability through the built environment. 

Learners sharing their reflections on the Learning Journey

The learning journey really opened the eyes of many learners, some of whom asked: “Why is this not in our school curriculum?” A number of students said that the experience had challenged them to think about their lifestyle choices and their impact on the environment, while others noted that the Sygnature Skills Programme would impact the way they viewed their work as future engineers.  See below for some of the comments made by learners.

We’re excited to see how these young learners impact the built environment in a positive way in the future. 

Would you like the Sygnature Skills Programme to run at your school or organisation? Get in touch with us on info@routes2resilience.org

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