What made me curious? Professor Paul Milbourne
Writer, broadcaster and geographer, Nicholas Crane spoke to Professor Paul Milbourne about what sparked his passion for human geography...
Nick Crane: Where did you grow up?
Paul Milbourne: I grew up in Whitefield, a small industrial town about five miles north of Manchester. A place of social contrasts, containing three large council estates and one of the most affluent suburbs in North West England. It was also a place of considerable change; council estates swallowed up swathes of green space and brought with them several thousand people, motorways drove six lanes of tarmac through farmland barely 400 yards from our house. Even with such change, nature remained an important part of life, rugged hills provided an important visual backdrop, footpaths still taking us through open farmland, and the largest municipal park in Europe only a fifteen minute walk away.
How did your interest in geography develop?
Most probably from these early experiences of place and landscape, I also had a wonderful geography teacher at school, who was able to bring the subject alive. Moving away to study human geography at Aberystwyth University developed my geographical imagination in other ways.
The academic content of the course broadened and deepened my understanding of the subject, enabling me to make connections between academic themes and personal experience: urban and social geography emphasised the interconnectedness of social and spatial inequalities and injustices in the urban environment, while a module on landscape and nature opened my eyes to how ‘natural’ spaces are socially and politically constructed to reflect the interests of particular (powerful) groups.
Moving away from Manchester also made me realise how regions and places matter to our sense of identity. Living in a small Welsh speaking town in rural Wales broadened my understanding of the ways in which landscape, culture and language shape people’s sense of place and identity.
So tell me why you think human geography is important?
It shapes our lives in a variety of ways - through everyday interactions with place and environment, movements though physical and virtual space, and the influence of global economic, socio-cultural and environmental processes on our lives. Geography is concerned with how we make sense of our place in a changing world. It examines the ways in which the physical and human environments are mutually dependent – how we continue to shape our natural worlds, and how nature impacts on our everyday lives.
Geography also has an important part to play in addressing what we might refer to as the ‘grand challenges’ of our time, providing socio-natural understandings of climate change and the future security of natural resources, such as water, food and energy.
In other ways, geography is concerned with spatial differences and processes: the uneven distribution of people, jobs, wealth, poverty, services and natural resources across space. This can be seen in the efforts of agencies in the Cardiff Capital Region to regenerate, redevelop and rebrand places in South East Wales.
Looking beyond the academy, do you think human geography has broader relevance?
Geography is particularly relevant to some of the big political, economic, social and environmental issues facing us today. The migration of large numbers of people from war zone countries to Europe is raising important questions about national borders and cultural integration within European cities. Political devolution within the UK has introduced important policy differences between the four home countries, particularly in terms of welfare, health and education. Political debates about the future of energy, natural resources and the environment connect with geography’s concerns with the interconnectedness of the social and natural worlds.
Could you say something about the changing student demand for human geography?
Geography is becoming a more popular academic subject. In August last year an editorial in The Guardian referred to geography as the ‘must-have-A-level’. With thirteen per cent more students taking the subject at A-level in 2015 compared with the previous year – the largest increase of any of the major subjects – the editorial claimed that geography had shed its traditional image as a ‘Cinderella subject’ to become ‘the subject of our times’. The article referred to the relevance of geography in understanding the key challenges facing the world today, helping students make sense of the interconnectedness of the physical and social worlds.
And what about human geography in Cardiff University?
The growth in our geography students has been particularly impressive. Our new Human Geography undergraduate degree course launched in 2013, we have seen numbers of students taking geography increased from 90 to 255. A key reason for this growth is the high quality of our research. The School is currently 44th in the QS World Rankings of Geography.
I’m pleased that the QS measure of citations per paper positions us third out of the top 50 universities for geography, ahead of both Oxford and Cambridge. The School employs the largest number of human geography staff of any UK university with a research footprint that extends to four continents and covers the full range of human geography.
Another reason for the popularity of geography at Cardiff is the way we teach the subject, encouraging critical thinking and development of analytical skills ranging from qualitative techniques of fieldwork to spatial analysis and modelling in real world situations.
Read the full interview
This is a shortened version of the full interview that features in the Summer 2016 issue of Challenge Cardiff, our research magazine.