UCU On Tour


I just returned from supporting a field study visit in New York with a group of students. During the week it seemed the world threw everything at us –snowmaggedons both sides of the Atlantic, staff and student ill health, boys from Stoke determined to ensure no one in our hostel got any sleep, wayward bus companies. The list goes on. We could not seem to catch a single ounce of luck.

And yet. As each unanticipated event hit us staff and students got on with it. The students embraced learning and new experiences with curiosity, commitment and intelligence. My colleagues and I strove to deal with endless problems, keeping the programme on track and the students as happy as possible. We supported each other in ways so far beyond the institutional notion of ‘academic citizenship’ as to make it laughable.

As the week progressed it became increasingly clear how these experiences encapsulated much of what is wrong with the neoliberal university, and the deep problems underlying the ongoing UCU strike.

  • Students enthusiastic to learn, but struggling to see what the vast financial investments they make in education brings in return.
  • Academic staff working at their limits, desperate to offer fantastic learning and student experiences but struggling to deliver against ridiculous expectations.
  • Senior management’s lack of understanding of or empathy for the pressures academic staff are bearing.
  • The most junior academic staff giving boundless commitment and effort in spite of their personal precarity and lack of recognition, security or reward from universities they work for.
  • The importance emotional labour which tends to fall on female academics but remains hidden and under-valued.
  • Professional services staff’s constant struggle to support academics and students whilst working with too little resource and wading through bureaucratic sludge.

As the week progressed my amusement at what we were dealing with became anger. That week has pushed me to the limit and now I’m pushing back.

Roused by inspiring voices I heard at New York’s International Women’s Day March. Swelled by the solidarity of many many campaigners there who knew of our strike and are engaged in similar battles. img_4255.jpg

I previously thought I supported this strike. Now I know I do. Sleep deprivation allowing I’ll be on the picket line tomorrow. I hope to see you there.


Sponsored by the Geographies of Children, Youth and Families Research Group (GCYFRG)


Dr Thomas Aneurin Smith, School of Geography and Planning, Cardiff University: smitht19@cardiff.ac.uk

Dr Hannah Pitt, Sustainable Places Research Institute, Cardiff University: PittH2@Cardiff.ac.uk

‘Unfamiliar landscapes’ are places young people are introduced to, voluntarily or otherwise, by a range of actors. Unfamiliar landscapes include green and blue spaces that many young people cannot experience independently, because they are difficult to access, or because they are not skilled in traversing them: mountains, hills, forests and waterways, but also places that, although familiar, become unfamiliar as sites for formal or informal learning, about ecology, heritage or wellbeing.

Some argue such landscapes only recently became ‘unfamiliar’ to many young people. There has been considerable societal concern around young people’s access to nature, their freedoms to roam independently (Smith and Dunkley 2017). This has led to various claims about possible negative effects of ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ (Louv 2008) on their wellbeing (Witten et al. 2013). Much of this concern focuses on children, rather than the more ‘difficult’ category of ‘Youth’. Equally, such concern neglects the plethora of services and organisations (schools, youth service providers, the outdoor education sector) that have long been introducing youngsters to unfamiliar landscapes. In the age of austerity and accountability these services find themselves under increasing pressure, with likely consequences for whether, how and where youth are introduced to unfamiliar landscapes.

This session will explore how introductions to ‘unfamiliar landscapes’ are caught in a number of contemporary tensions between youth, society and the environment, and how young people navigate this terrain.  Themes include:

  • sanctioning contemporary landscapes as appropriate or otherwise for youth to engage with ‘nature’ and ‘the outdoors’,
  • organisations and individuals enabling youth to acquire skills and techniques for acting in unfamiliar landscapes,
  • contrasting familiar and unfamiliar landscapes, how they are discursively and practically made (un)familiar to youth,
  • ways young people understand and experience introductions to unfamiliar landscapes,
  • the role of youth organisations, professionals and volunteers, including relationships between these organisations and young people,
  • austerity’s impacts on youth provision,  repercussions for youth access to, and enskilling in, unfamiliar landscapes,
  • youngsters’ boredom when introduced to the unfamiliar,
  • the culture of accountability, evidencing and evaluation, and implications for youth provision working with unfamiliar landscapes.

We welcome contributions from both researchers and practitioners who work in the youth or outdoor sectors, broadly defined. We will run two sessions – the first a paper session (15min presentations) followed by a practitioner forum in the form of a round table including invited practitioners from youth organisations and specialist youth workers.

Abstracts for paper presentations (250 words) should be sent to pitth2@cf.ac.uk and smitht19@cardiff.ac.uk by 2 February 2018.

The 2018 Annual International Conference will be held at Cardiff University in Cardiff, from Tuesday 28 to Friday 31 August 2018.

Conference web page: http://www.rgs.org/WhatsOn/ConferencesAndSeminars/Annual+International+Conference/Annual+international+conference.htm



Louv, R. 2008. Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.

Smith, T. A. and Dunkley, R. A. 2017. “Technology-Nonhuman-Child Assemblages: Reconceptualising Rural Childhood Roaming.” Children’s Geographies

Witten, K., R. Kearns, P. Carroll, L. Asiasiga, and N. Tava’e. 2013. “New Zealand Parents’ Understandings of the Intergenerational Decline in Children’s Independent Outdoor Play and Active Travel.” Children’s Geographies 11 (2): 215–229.



You can read my review of Michael Marder’s lovely little book just published in the journal Agriculture and Human Values here. If you’ve not come across his work and are interested in plants or philosophy, and how the two come together then it’s worth a look. IMG_0691[1]

‘Local’ Food

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.





butterflyThere 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.

The article is published in Social & Cultural Geography  which has a paywall but the first 50 people to use this link can access it for free.

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 pitth2@cf.ac.uk by 3 February 2017.

Conference website: http://www.rgs.org/WhatsOn/ConferencesAndSeminars/Annual+International+Conference/Annual+international+conference.htm


  • Farley, P. Symmons Roberts, M. 2011 Edgelands
  • McMillan, I. 2016 Superslowway www.superslowway.org.uk
  • Merriman, P. 2015 ‘Mobilities II: Cruising’ Progress in Human Geography 40(4) p555-564


Why are we here?

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.