Coming back from my last visit to Blackburn my friend and I gleefully clutched our carrier bag of samosas which would sustain us on the long train ride home. We’d bought them in one of the town’s many Asian run food outlets, made on site, fried that day. It was greedy really as we’d not long filled up on a Greek lunch in the busy food court of the covered market. We could have gone for one of a handful of other international cuisines in that space alone, but the fried halloumi won over the Thai noodles.
Those samosas are the first thing which comes to mind when I think about Blackburn. Quickly followed by the delicious fluffy breads used to mop up spicy chickpeas at Roomali. Or Jamaican veg patties on a sunny afternoon at a canal side restaurant, reggae pumping out for the Red Stripe sippers on the terrace.
Blackburn is the most ethnically diverse part of Lancashire, with more than 30% of residents categorised as non-white. The presence of a significant British Asian population is apparent on any walk through the town, and unmissable in neighbourhoods where the community concentrates.
As I listened to Radio 4’s Food Programme visiting the town – part of a tour of the county’s food traditions – I waited for some mention of this. Perhaps a visit to one of the best curry places, or a chat with a market vendor about their culinary heritage. But nothing. The edible tour was culturally homogenous, celebrating the local and traditional from a very nostalgic perspective with little room for how the area is changing. Those more recently arrived or with one foot in another country were not asked to share recipes they’ve brought to the locality.
Such cultural, ethnic, and often class specific views on what is ‘good’ are common amongst contemporary foodies. Perhaps most astutely described by US scholar Julie Guthman, eat local movements champion very ‘White’ shopping and cooking preferences and overlook the cosmopolitan nature of culinary townscapes.
Of course hot pot and Lancashire cheese are delicious traditions worthy of celebration. But so too are samosas and chapatis. And these too are good food local to Blackburn.
There is a popular idea that to encourage people to care more about the world around them then they need to find ways to ‘reconnect with nature’, to get up close and personal with animals and plants. Activities like gardening have been promoted as a great way to get these kinds of experiences, and so encourage people to reconsider how they relate to the environment. But what does it really mean to reconnect with nature, and how can close encounters with nonhumans change people’s thinking?
My new publication is based on research into these issues in community gardens in the UK, places where people come together to participate in activities centred on directly experiencing ecological processes. The research found a complexity of ways in which people relate to different nonhumans, including taking care of them. But gardening also involved neglect and killing, and did not always result in changes to gardeners’ ethical outlook. The paper concludes that reconnecting with nature through personal encounters needs to be supplemented with reflection on the wider context, including power dynamics which too often allow humans to dominate the needs of nonhumans. Community gardening’s greatest potential to promote environmental ethics may be in brining people together to discuss these issues, and to learn from traditions such as permaculture which centre on inter-dependent relations between humans and environment.
RGS-IBG Annual Conference, 29th August – 1st September 2017, London
Session Title: Finding futures for waterways
Convenors: Dr Hannah Pitt, Sustainable Places Research Institute Cardiff University & Dr Paul Gilchrist, University of Brighton
Blue networks of waterways and canals, once the superhighways of the industrial revolution (McMillan 2016), have suffered rapid decline and mass neglect, then latterly been celebrated by communities of enthusiasts and investors in urban regeneration. As a result “our canals now lead a double life”, acting both as “wet skips” hidden behind derelict industrial buildings, and as tranquil, semi-natural leisure places (Farley and Symmons Roberts 2011). Their defining characteristics make canals unique but hard to place, offering an escape from hectic city life whilst a focus for urban revival, associated with both calm repose and nefarious activity.
“So stark is this double life that you wonder what their future might look like”(Farley and Symmons Roberts 2011: 118).
Connecting urban and rural, combining land and water, acting as route and destination, the double lives of contemporary waterways offer rich geographic territory. Human geographers’ recent moves to reflect the watery nature of place and mobility (Merriman 2016), is dominated by offshore and coastal concerns, to the neglect of inland waterways. In the UK the recent handing of the nation’s waterway assets to a charitable body might be considered to encapsulate neoliberal roll-back of state responsibility. Their future depends on being able to demonstrate public value worthy of investment in the form of community action and government investment.
This session will bring together researchers and practitioners working to identify a future for waterways and canals, providing a focus for discussion of the unique qualities and challenges of inland blue-green spaces.
We welcome proposals for empirical and theoretical papers considering the future for waterways, with possible themes including:
canal heritage as resource for leisure, tourism and education,
waterfront regeneration fuelling economic development or gentrification,
waterways for the wellbeing of people and nature,
networks for digital superhighways and low carbon futures,
blue-green corridors as linear parks,
community action for shared public assets, and
art, artists and artistic research practice taking to the water.
Abstracts of 200 words should be sent to email@example.com by 3 February 2017.
This week it feels like half my colleagues and everyone I follow on Twitter is at the biggest international geography conference of the year. The Association of American Geographers is meeting in San Francisco, meaning hundreds of academics crossing the Atlantic to meet with geographers from around the world. For this is an American meeting in name only, it’s a truly global event typical of the internationally mobile nature of academia.
Around the time the details of the conference are announced each year there is a brief period of reflection in geography forums that it probably isn’t that great that so many people are taking such long flights in the course of work so often and that perhaps we should maybe think about not doing it or maybe doing it a bit less perhaps would be nice. Cue nods. Then cue multiple flight bookings.
It is ‘generally accepted’ that an academic career depends on this kind of travel. Progress is associated with gaining international recognition and becoming one of the world’s leads in your specialist area. Grant programmes targeting those in early stages of their career expect an international dimension to proposals, and ideally a period of time overseas. Flying is a matter of course if you want to get any where.
But of course flying is a massive problem in the context of climate change. We’ve been reflecting on this dilemma at work, with many of us keen to reduce our climate impact. There is something particularly painful about working on sustainability research whilst practising such unsustainable behaviour. We’re not alone in wrestling with this. There’s significant support for a petition on the topic.
One group of climate change researchers has made commitments which seem both significant and realistic. The Tyndall Centre are committed to changing staff behaviour, and working with the particular contradictions of academia. Central to this is encouraging staff to think through why they are travelling, and whether flying is the only option. They acknowledge that not all academics are the same. Someone less established in their career stands to gain more from an international visit than those who already have a high profile. Their process is weighted to reflect this.
The Tyndall Centre knows there are no easy answers. This is a tricky issue. A crucial first step (perhaps there are 11 more??) is to be honest that it’s a problem, and one that isn’t easily solved. Once we’re more open about the problem with academic flying, I think then we need to be a bit more honest about why we fly and how essential it is.
That is why I would urge everyone who has flown to San Francisco this week to take some time to consider this:
Why are we here?
This isn’t about finger wagging because I happen to be at home (where it happens to be raining). I fly for work and holiday. I’ve even flown to the AAG conference. My experience there is in part why I believe asking why we go to these things is important. When I went I met some useful people. I get to put presenting at a major conference on my CV. And I went to New York. I like New York. That was part of the appeal of going.
But afterwards I realised that I spent a lot of time listening to presentations that were dull or irrelevant. Many of the contacts I made are from the UK so I could have met them otherwise. A lot of the sessions I wanted to see were dominated by academics from Europe. I could actually have got a lot of the benefits without flying to the US.
So I would appeal to my colleagues and Twitter community. Whilst you are in San Francisco think about the value of your time there. How essential is it to be there? What did you get out of it? How else could you have got that? Who might have been better sent in your place?
And next time you have the opportunity to travel for work, remember your answers. Then decide if you really need to fly.
I’m writing this on International Women’s Day, reflecting on life as a female academic. Recently reported research focused on the UK and my discipline – geography – shows that sadly there is still some way to go until women stand fully shoulder to shoulder with their male colleagues. So I was glad to read some tips from Jenny Pickerill on how we can negotiate some of the things female academics encounter.
As an addition to her advice I’d like to commend the value of a supportive group of female peers. Since starting my PhD I’ve built up a group of women who turn to each other for advice, support or a bit of a rant. I hesitate to call it a network as this implies something more formalised. What it is really is a group of friends who share common experience, and care about helping each other. Lunch, online chats, drinks after work are ways to talk things through and generally be supportive.
Finding a female mentor is one of the key recommendations women in academia often receive. Whilst I have found this useful and certainly would encourage early career researchers in particular to get one, there is a problem. The more senior colleagues who act as mentors are busy, really busy. They can’t always offer advice when you really need it, and it doesn’t always feel appropriate to take certain things to them. What my peer group lacks in seniority they more than make up for in availability and willingness to help.
Plus our experience is closer to each others. A professor may well have forgotten what it’s like trying to get your first publication. Yes, we haven’t been through it all or accomplished all the things that mark the pathway to the top. But we’re all smart and observant, we’ve got insight. Then as each of us edges up the career ladder we gain a little more experience to pass down.
As Jenny’s advice highlights, impostor syndrome can be a real hindrance to women. Here the peer group offers a real counter-measure. They are great at calling out mis-placed hesitancy or self-criticism, reminding us that we can do it, whatever it is.
So this is partly a shout out to thank what has become known as the Hivemind (you know who you are!). It’s also a call to all bees – Queen or Worker- to look out for each other. And it’s a reminder that time invested in friendships is never wasted, no matter how busy you are.
Fears about the lack of time spent outdoors have prompted high-profile campaigns to encourage a “free-range, nature rich, outdoor childhood”. Now I spent a huge proportion of my youth doing exactly the kind of tree-climbing and roaming this movement advocates. I’ve worked for conservation organisations involved in these campaigns, and I’ve researched how people benefit from gardens. So why do pleas to get children back into nature leave me a little uneasy?
The research featured in the latest news reports was led by Natural England, a government advisory body. The headlines are that 88% of English children have visited the natural environment in the last year, and that 70% go at least once a week. The media of course focused on the negative side of these figures – the 12% not visiting the natural environment. We might accept that, as this is the first reporting of this survey, we don’t know what the trend is across recent years, because there are two bigger questions to consider.
What is nature?
The first is with the very idea of engaging with the “natural environment”. In 1976 the Welsh author and academic Raymond Williams suggested that nature may be the most complex word in the English language. Some ecologists deny humans can ever be disengaged from it as we are part of it. Human geographers have long argued that cities are natural phenomena, made through the combined effort of humans and ecological processes. This might seem semantic, but there are practical implications to the difficulty of agreeing what nature is and where you can find it.
Getting back to nature? Juriah Mosin/Shutterstock
Natural England’s survey counts a range of places including urban parks, mountain or moorland, children’s playgrounds and allotments, although not – perhaps perversely given evidence of how they benefit people and wildlife – private back gardens. Regarding all these places as “natural” emphasises their similarity. But they’re hugely varied and engaged with in different ways so can have distinct benefits. What a child does in a small city playground is likely very different from how he or she experiences the open landscape of a national park.
Rather than thinking of all places with a good amount of greenery as natural and therefore beneficial, we need to distinguish which features and characteristics can have positive affects. By understanding this it becomes possible to plan environments which support positive, healthy engagement.
It’s not where you are, it’s what you do
The second issue is the risk of conflating place and activity. My research on community gardeners, for instance, showed that what one does when outdoors is as significant in terms of well-being as the very fact of getting out and among the plants.
To know what activities to encourage, we need to be more specific about what we actually want to achieve. If increased physical activity is a priority then time spent cycling to school or playing in a safe street may be better than a trip to see the countryside largely from the back of a car – and more readily accessible.
The other reason for a more detailed picture of children’s outdoor activities is to avoid the risk of presenting a homogenising picture which holds up a certain type of engagement with nature as the ideal. Think of hikers in cagoules forging on through all weathers, or peering through binoculars at a barely visible bird. But these pursuits are off-putting for many, and can squeeze out other outdoor activities which might have broad appeal.
The notion of the “great outdoors”, invigorating countryside and bracing fresh air is also highly culturally specific, closely tied to a “white British” identity. These associations can lead non-white ethnic groups to feel excluded from the countryside, and visit less often. The Natural England survey found that children from black and minority ethnic households are less likely than those from white families to regularly visit natural environments. It is not clear how much this is associated with income or living in cities. But the survey shows that even visits to urban greenspaces vary with ethnicity, suggesting it’s not just down to location.
For some people the outdoors simply doesn’t seem that great. Natural England and others have been working to address this by deliberately engaging with minorities to understand why they may be unlikely to visit natural environments. Research available so far suggests that different cultural groups have varied motivations for spending leisure time outdoors, with people of Asian heritage more likely to seek a sociable experience of eating and gathering, for example. So there is more to learn here.
Williams concluded that the word nature has powerful effects on any argument, so we should be “especially aware of its difficulty”. With this in mind I suggest we are wary of all the good that can be masked when we talk about “engaging with nature”. Children can enjoy the outdoors in many different ways and this can start right on their doorstep.
Social scientists are trained to understand people, but increasingly we are challenged to take account of other kinds of beings in our research. One could argue that failure to do so in the past has contributed to human neglect of the environment with damaging consequences. Like other geographers taking a more-than-human approach, I’m keen to explore how my work can pay attention to what nonhumans do and their special ways of being in the world. As a start, I’ve used the notion of being guided by them as expert guides novice, developing Tim Ingold’s thoughts on this into methodological guidance.
My article on this was recently published in Area. The piece draws on experience of doing research in community gardens to explore who and what was showing me these places. Showing is taken to mean a variety of ways in which attention is drawn to the environment, so might be achieved through talk, walking around or engaging in activities like gardening. I argue that by looking to flora as guides, geographers can learn what it is to be a plant and recognise their particular agency. But there are limits to understanding plants in the absence of specialist training or assistance from botanists. I also suggest that this approach requires us to consider the goals of research in a particular light. The aim of research as showing is not to represent nonhumans which leads to difficult implications of attempting to speak for others who are very different from us. Instead it points to research understood as providing guidance for future explorations.