Academic journal article Geography

Geographical Leadership, Sustainability and Urban Education

Academic journal article Geography

Geographical Leadership, Sustainability and Urban Education

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: Geography possesses in its intellectual DNA a unique ability to understand cities. Decades ago, it embarked on this project but was distracted, for a number of reasons. The emergence of a field committed to sustainability has renewed the relevance of urban education. This, the first of two articles, begins to identify what geography has to offer. In the second article, I will suggest in greater detail how the discipline can provide leadership both in schools and in public policy in relation to studies of cities and sustainability.


The purpose of this and a second, linked, article (to be published later in 2014) is to explore the possibility of a realignment of geographical practice. As this is not a minor undertaking, in this article I lay out what I believe to be missing from contemporary geography and, in the second article, I provide a route map towards a different disciplinary focus. Although this may be seen by some as 'angry geography-bashing' (as one reviewer put it) that is not my intention. I am not professionally invested in criticism of the discipline, but I am perplexed that geography's place in both school and the public sphere seems to have been eclipsed in recent years.

The critique offered in this first article is actually part of a broader analysis of urban studies, which aims to show that much of what is taken for granted in the field is no longer appropriate. Urban geography is relevant to this critique, but no more so than several other disciplines. However - and this is the main reason I have written these articles - geography is very much central to what I envisage as a re-structured urban studies. Indeed, the need for this within public policy is so pressing that it has, in my view, the potential to place geography at the forefront of educational practice. The remainder of this article is an elaboration of this bold claim.

Geography and the urban opportunity

First is a brief and highly selective assessment of Anglophone geography in the twentieth century, which, I am keen to show, had the potential to craft a sophisticated field - urban geography - and to provide intellectual leadership within urban studies. However, this did not come about for several reasons.

Geographers were once so concerned with regions that it was very unusual to teach about cities (see Pacione, 2005, for an excellent summary). This situation changed in the 1960s as researchers in the United States began to focus on cities and systems of cities, using quantitative methods to explore economic ideas. Concurrently, researchers in the UK began to look at the internal mechanisms of urban structure and invoked more social and political forms of explanation. Geography was, therefore, uniquely placed: the discipline possessed the potential to see cities within complex urban networks, and yet as part of the landscape in its broadest sense, but these were fated to be disparate endeavours. Since then, urban ideas have not only become more sophisticated, they have also travelled a significant distance from geography's essential concern with place. And, as Pacione observes, 'increased diversity is a source of potential weakness that may lead ultimately to disintegration' (2005, p. 28).1

If we turn to contemporary cities, we find diversity and much contradiction as to what they represent. Figure 1 indicates some of the complexity of how cities are now viewed, identifying three distinct perspectives: green thinking, the brown revolution and neoliberalism (see, for instance, Vojnovic, 2013).

Together, these very different perspectives have produced a complex and even contradictory characterisation of what cities are. This notion of complexity is developed further in Figure 2 (overleaf), which focuses on specifically academic literatures - i.e. world cities, anti-global and climate change perspectives - as they relate to our urban understanding.

When we bring all of these different strands together we see that we have a remarkably confusing tableau: on the one hand cities are seen as a basic component of the global economic project, and on the other is the view that urban development is destroying the planet. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.