On the Wild Coast

Parks and People: South Africa takes students on a ten-week trip to explore the complex relationships between humans and the environment, engaging complex global problems like community development, resource management, and more.

"What makes [Cape Town, South Africa] fascinating is that this area is somewhat cornered between a mountain and the sea," explains Assistant Professor of Geography Neil Brown, who leads Penn State's Parks and People: South Africa program. 

"And so there's not much space for it to move—neither the vegetation nor the people. You have this competition that takes place." 

It is this kind of competition—among humans, animals, and even vegetation—that provides the backdrop for Parks and People, a ten-week trip from Cape Town eastward across the southern tip of South Africa, also known as the Wild Coast.

Students and program leaders pose for a group photo at the highest point of the University of Cape Town

Parks and People 2015 participants

Parks and People program participants pose for a group photo at the highest point of the University of Cape Town’s campus. 

Image: Parks and People: South Africa

"We've been learning how to define sustainability, because it's kind of a loaded term."—Dara Lewis

The program provides a group of interdisciplinary students the opportunity to explore human-environment interaction in both rural and urban spaces of the country. Through that exploration, students learn to analyze global issues like climate change, resource management, community development, and more.

In many ways, the program is about sustainability. But, as the students found out, sustainability can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

"We've been learning how to define sustainability, because it's kind of a loaded term. I think all of us came in with our preconceived notions about what sustainability actually is," says Dara Lewis, a Geography major.  

"Anything can affect an ecosystem," she continues. "And we [humans] tend to be the ones affecting the ecosystem more because we have a lot more power." 

Fellow Geography major Jacob Marquardt adds, "Something that someone might see as a simple fence that, even though it's covering a vast area, can still really impact nature." 

The focus of Parks and People at its core, says Brown, is to give students a look at the whole environmental system in all its complexity, and interactions in South Africa provide a great example for students to experience that for themselves. 

"The experience of being here, being present, [and] getting my hands dirty is something that you could never possibly get sitting in a classroom."—Jacob Marquardt

He tells his students: "Let's continue to explore so that we understand the full system before we really think about making decisions about how we move forward." 

He hopes they come away from the program with "a context for understanding how to think, how to process information, how to engage with people—and [the ability to] apply this in any part of the world, whether it's in their own personal lives or on a larger scale." 

The students say that the real-world experience of interacting with diverse and complex environments in South Africa provided them with a much more nuanced perspective of the world. 

"The experience of being here, being present, [and] getting my hands dirty is something that you could never possibly get sitting in a classroom," says Marquardt. 

"I think the beautiful thing about Parks and People is that you get to experience real life and real issues outside of your comfort zone."—Dara Lewis

About Parks and People: South Africa

The Parks and People program integrates teaching, research, and service across multiple disciplines related to the management of protected areas, community social and economic development, and public education in ecosystem services. Led by Neil Brown, the program integrates experiential learning with ongoing faculty research and service programs in the parks and the surrounding communities. Brown is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography