Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Transition to sustainable building - does government policy help or hinder?

Following up on our previous blog posts (here) about green and sustainable building, this post describes a paper we’ve recently had published in Geoforum and which can be downloaded for *free* until the end of February 2015 (here).

Our paper explores recent changes which the UK government has made to how new buildings are encouraged to be ‘green’ or not.  Previously, the Code for Sustainable Homes was a voluntary set of guidelines which ‘measured’ how sustainable new homes were, based on whether they included solar panels, water recycling, bicycle storage and so on.  Now, the government has decided to abolish the Code for Sustainable Homes, and replace it with revised Building Regulations which means that instead of Code Level 6 (the highest and most sustainable) being the standard for new homes, it will now be Code Level 4, representing a significant change in how ‘green’ new homes should be.

The building sector is interesting due to its high contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and associated concerns over enhanced global warming and climate change – as a result it has been the focus of governments who want to engender a shift towards greener ways of working and building.  Building homes and buildings differently could reduce our dependence on unsustainable products and materials.  Based on our research with green building companies, materials suppliers and architects, we argue that despite attempts by government to engender a full-scale shift in mainstream building methods, the relevant legislation is framed in ways that will not engender any substantial changes.

Photo courtesy of Pure Renewables.
Policies such as the Code for Sustainable Homes and the new revised (2013) building regulations encourage a particular approach to sustainable building which relies on technologies such as ground source heat pumps and solar panels rather than trying to change how people live in their homes (for example, how many televisions people have, whether they use a tumble drier and so on).  This sort of approach fails to address the kinds of lifestyle changes advocated by early green building pioneers, leading householders to rely on ‘smart house’ solutions without necessarily having to engage in behavioural change[i].  In addition the Code for Sustainable Homes only provides an assessment at one point in time and fails to address post-occupancy behaviour[ii], which may actually increase energy use as energy savings and lower bills encourage people to purchase new appliances which they can now ‘afford’ to run.

Despite general agreement on the shortcomings of policy, respondents had conflicting views on how green buildings should be defined, and on the best ways to implement such green buildings.  Respondents were critical of current UK legislation, and argue that its narrow conceptualisation fails to adequately encourage, or recognise, what they would consider to be green building forms that will contribute to substantial reductions in carbon emissions, nor does it respect locally appropriate building methods.

For our respondents, technologies such as solar panels were seen as very low on the list of priorities for green building and were seen as the ‘‘very icing on the cake once you’ve done everything else’’ (Interview, Material supplier).  By contrast, the aim of our respondents was to minimise energy demand at the outset and then look at how to further reduce that demand. The consequence was that they saw certain technologies as undesirable – ‘‘there’s certain things that we probably wouldn’t consider, which again are a bit greenwashy, like heat pumps particularly, air-source heat pumps particularly, they’re evil!’’ (Interview, Green builder).  For example, the respondent argued that air-source heat pumps could use more electricity than they saved at times of the year where there was a substantial difference between internal and external air temperatures (such as in the UK) meaning more energy was required to heat the air.

Solar panels on balconies, Vauban, Freiburg (Photo: Lara Güth)
In our paper we attempt to show that the process of changing current established practices towards more sustainable forms is a difficult process, even where there have been attempts by government to encourage such transformations through legislative action.  At one level, it can be argued that, as with other areas of green practice, such as organic food or renewable energy, there has been a shift towards greater environmental consciousness in the building sector. Thus, as one of our respondents noted:

‘‘I think that’s what the green movement, in a wider sense, has done; it’s kind of made things that were seen as a bit fringe and not quite acceptable, they’ve made them more acceptable.  They’ve made them more ‘every day’. . .you know, it’s not a strange thing anymore to talk about heating your house via the sun’’.  [Interview, Materials grower/supplier]

Brian Waite's straw bale house taking advantage
of warming winter sun (photo courtesy of Brian Waite)
However, the shift has so far been fairly minimal and taken on specific (technology-based) forms.  Far from inducing a ‘paradigm shift’ the regulatory framework in the UK for green building has effectively encouraged the adoption of an ‘eco-technic’ approach with an emphasis on technological, rather than holistic, solutions.  This tends to result in a rather business-as-usual approach rather than radically changing how we think about our homes and buildings.  We have also seen how, despite continued interest in encouraging green building, policy has not created the kind of regulatory certainty anticipated by the previous Labour government to drive change. Instead, UK zero carbon housing policy has been plagued by disagreement and inconsistency[iii].

Given the level of expertise that exists in niche organisations such as the AECB, as well as the demonstration effects of large scale building developments to zero carbon and Passivhaus standards in countries such as Germany, Austria, Sweden and Switzerland, there is scope for a major government-funded demonstration programme and/or to mandate higher standards for carbon reduction, such as the Passivhaus standard, in order to encourage greater levels of sustainability in the mainstream building companies. 

Low energy housing, Darmstadt, Germany (Photo: Kirstie O'Neill)
We conclude that, in policy terms, we should perhaps not be thinking of trying to create one single scenario for transitioning towards more sustainable homes, but to open up ‘possibility spaces’ for experimentation with new ideas and practices of green building. It is likely that there will be no ‘one best way’ to a green building sector, but a range of scenarios, which may cohere to incorporate different ways of achieving green building (as argued by our research respondents) and which would better respond to different geographical places.  Rather than rigid legislation, the role of policy should be to create the space for experimentation through collective means involving lots of different people as well as encouraging engagement with the people who actually live in the buildings.  This would recognise that processes of transitioning involve real world contestation, complexity and chaos rather than the more linear progression envisaged in UK Government policies for the building sector[iv].

[i] Reid, L.A., Houston, D., 2013. Low carbon housing: a ‘green’ wolf in sheep’s clothing? Housing Stud. 28(1), 1–9.
[ii] Greenwood, D., 2012. The challenge of policy coordination for sustainable sociotechnical transitions: the case of the zero-carbon homes agenda in
England. Environ. Plann. C 30, 162–179.
[iii], Accessed 13.03.14.
[iv] Raven, R.P.J.M., Verbong, G.P.J., Schilpzand, W.F., Witkamp, M.J., 2011. Translation mechanisms in socio-technical niches: a case study of Dutch river management. Technol. Anal. Strategic Manage. 23 (10), 1063–1078.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

How do plants cope with changing temperature?

By Dr Lindsey Atkinson (@LJA_1)

Plants have evolved many specialised adaptations to enable them to live in a wide range of conditions but what happens when their environment changes?

Plants are sessile organisms, literally rooted to the spot, so if the conditions where they live become unfavourable they cannot move to a more favourable area.  For instance, they may be subject to changes in water or nutrients supply, light or temperature:  here I want to focus on temperature in particular. Plants experience climate with some seasonal variation but they may also be exposed to short-term fluctuations in temperature due to local weather conditions. These changes in temperature impact on the plant’s growth, function and development (phenology). In the long term adaptation may occur, or there may be a change in the range in which the species can live. However, in the short term, plants need to adjust to the local conditions to ensure survival, growth and ultimately reproduction.

It is important to understand how plants will respond to climate change as this will have impacts on biodiversity and also on crop productivity and quality, and hence food security.   In addition plants are major determinants of CO2 turnover in the atmosphere (Schimel et al. 2001) through the processes of photosynthesis and respiration.  Both of these processes are sensitive to temperature, with rates increasing with increased temperature. However, there may be an adjustment in the rate of the process to compensate for the initial change in temperature; this is known as acclimation and may moderate the response.

We can use our knowledge of how changing temperatures will affect photosynthesis and respiration at the leaf level of individual leaves to scale these processes up to predict the responses of ecosystems to global change.  For example, we incorporated thermal acclimation of respiration into a coupled-global climate vegetation model. The results indicated that while incorporating acclimation of respiration had little effect on predicted global atmospheric CO2 levels, the response varied between biomes which could have land use management implications (Atkin et al. 2008).

Arabidopsis thaliana  grown at 23oC in
controlled environment conditions
Even in a warmer world plants may experience a sudden drop in temperature: this could occur in the autumn at the onset of winter, or due to a late cold-spell in spring.  We wanted to know whether plants could continue to grow in these conditions so we grew Arabidopsis thaliana plants at 23oC and then shifted them to 5oC (Atkinson et al., 2014):  following the shift the growth rate was initially reduced to less than one third of that of warm grown plants.  However, growth subsequently recovered with the development of new leaves in the new conditions after about 14 days.  These new leaves had a cold phenotype which was important in the recovery in carbon metabolism in the cold.  The development of the new tissues was supported initially by use of stored nitrogen and relocation from pre-existing tissues but later by nitrogen obtained from the growth medium. This indicates that both the nitrogen status of the plant and the external nitrogen supply may be important in the acclimation of photosynthesis and respiration in the cold. 

The paper is available online at

Atkin OK, Atkinson LJ, Fisher RA, Campbell CD, Zaragoza-Castells J, Pitchford JW, Woodward FI, and Hurry VM (2008) Using temperature-dependent changes in leaf scaling relationships to quantitatively account for thermal acclimation of respiration in a coupled global climate-vegetation model.   Global Change Biology 14: 1-18 
Atkinson LJ, Sherlock DJ and Atkin OK (2014) Source of nitrogen associated with recovery of relative growth rate in Arabidopsis thaliana acclimated to sustained cold treatment. Plant, Cell and Environment Article first published online: 7 Dec 2014 | DOI: 10.1111/pce.12460
Schimel DS, House JI, Hibbard KA et al. (2001) Recent patterns and mechanisms of carbon exchange by terrestrial ecosystems.  Nature, 414, 169–172.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

International Student Mobility: The Role of Social Networks

By Suzanne Beech (@suzanneebeech)

I have a new paper online early with Social and Cultural Geography, it is the second to come out of my PhD thesis on international higher education and the factors which influence students in their decision to study abroad. This paper focuses on one of the biggest factors effecting student mobility (and many other forms of mobility as well) - the role of social networks of friendship and kinship. It looks at the experience of 38 international students studying at three UK universities who were either interviewed or took part in a small focus group between March 2011 and February 2012. Each of the students that took part was enrolled on a diploma seeking programme of study (i.e. their period of time overseas was for the duration of their degree, rather than related to a temporary exchange or sojourn abroad). They came from 23 different countries and were studying both at undergraduate and postgraduate level. While I did not explicitly ask them about their socio-economic background it is likely that, given higher education mobility is often a very expensive pursuit, they came from relatively well-off backgrounds.  What was common to every one of the students that took part was the centrality of their friends and family in making their decision, their social networks were key to their mobility.

1.        What is a social network?

Social networks in this context are not limited to online social networks like Facebook and Twitter. The social networks in which my research is interested are much broader than this. At the most basic level they represent the multiple people (or actors) that a person communicates and interacts with in their day-to-day lives sharing resources and information in the process. Your social network is therefore anyone who you know well enough to engage in conversation, even if that conversation takes place along very limited lines. Any one person can, therefore, have hundreds of people in their social networks and can be part of numerous (sometimes overlapping) social networks e.g. your family could be one social network, your work colleagues another, the people in your tutorial group another and so on. International students, like everyone else, are part of complex networks of individuals all sharing information with one another. John Urry (2007; 2003) has written about how these networks shape mobility by creating connections between people through which they are able to share their experiences of being mobile. Members of a network are therefore able to tell others of the benefits of engaging in mobility and how to become more mobile themselves. It is therefore through networks that mobility often takes place.

2.       How do social networks influence mobility amongst international students?

My research shows that social networks operate in two ways in relation to international students. First, they can offer explicit advice and encouragement. This is perhaps less common than you may think, certainly most students did not admit to seeking out advice and encouragement – perhaps because international student mobility is often considered (at least socially) an individual activity where you go out and forge your own lifecourse – but there was evidence of some students actively turning to others for advice. Aimee from Canada for example spoke to people in her field about the value of an overseas degree, Subash and Sachin (from India) both turned to Facebook to find people who had also studied their course in the UK and Lily (from Malaysia) talked about the importance of being able to discuss her course with current students when on an open day.
More common, however, was the concept that social networks were about sharing the lived experiences of overseas mobility. In this context their social networks did not so much offer them advice and encouragement instead they began to normalise the process of going overseas. Asan (from Nepal) discussed how in his school it was normal for almost everyone to study abroad, suggesting a huge “95 per cent” went overseas (this is possibly an exaggeration, but whether literal or not it is clear that lots of people chose to do so). Marianna (from Greece) wanted to have the same experiences that a friend had when she studied in the UK. Hazel (from the USA) watched friends go backpacking in Europe and wanted to have a similar experience. As Urry (2007) suggests, they had built a greater awareness of travel which had normalised engaging in long term mobility, leading to point 3…

3.     Social networks establish cultures of mobility.

What is interesting is that these networks become self-perpetuating to an extent. More people study overseas and share their experience (either explicitly or implicitly) with their social networks. This then introduces more people to the idea of studying abroad, some of whom will explore the option and choose to study outside of their home country, who will then share their experience with their social networks and so on, and so on, and so on, and so on, and so on, and so on. It effectively establishes a culture of mobility amongst international students which normalises the process of studying overseas.

There was evidence of the importance of social networks amongst every student who took part in the interviews and focus groups for my research. This suggests that these relationships are critical to mobility. It did not seem to matter where the students came from, or their level of study, social networks were somehow active in all of their decisions’ to study overseas. They had created cultures of mobility for these students which had normalised the process of studying overseas.

My paper on International Student Mobility: The Role of Social Networks is currently online early with Social and Cultural Geography and is available for download here.


Urry, J. (2003). Social networks, travel and talk. British Journal of Sociology, 54, 155–175.

Urry, J. (2007). Mobilities. Polity Press: Cambridge.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

‘Paradise tax’: the price Hawaiians are prepared to pay for living near volcanoes

'Paradise tax': the price Hawaiians are prepared to pay for living near volcanoes

This week we have a guest blog by Jazmin, a PhD student in the Department of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences at Hull. She is interested in the links between social, cultural and physical mitigation construct factors to the adaptation of volcanic risks.

By Jazmin Scarlett, University of Hull

The destruction caused by the lava of Kilauea are grabbing the attention of the international media. Last week, footage showed this eruption claiming its first house in Pahoa and people began to question whether to try to halt the flow of lava and how you might go about it.
But the daughter of the family’s home that was destroyed was remarkably sanguine about losing the family home:
If you’re going to live on a volcano, it’s about her (the Hawaiian Goddess Pele), not us … if she wants her land back, then get out of the way. I like to call it ‘paradise tax’.
The volcano is part of their culture. Pele is such a dominant force in Hawaiian’s lives they tend to accept the possibility that it might erupt. For a lot of Hawaiians, their respect for the volcano god appears to override their fear of eruptions.

For instance, the now-displaced family is building another home on older, solidified lava. Hawaii is entirely volcanic due to being situated on a hot spot resulting in a continual output of volcanic material. As far as I am aware, the family did not have insurance. This shows their ability to bounce back and recover from a hazardous event.

Not everyone responds in the same way. Some people are scared, some panic or remain anxious. And yet Hawaiian people have dealt with Kilauea’s almost continuous eruption for more than 50 years now. Over the course of many generations, they are actively learning about the volcano and the risks it poses.

Hawaii hasn’t lost many lives to the lava of Kilauea – mainly because the lava flows are slow (due to a combination of its properties and the land it flows over) – slow enough, at least, for people to respond in time and adjust to the situation (for example evacuating like the Pahoa family did a month before their home was destroyed) but also because of the combined efforts of the public, the civil defence and government authorities.

To date, Kilauea has destroyed more than 200 properties, many roads and claimed the lives of four people in modern times. Historically, the largest number killed by a Mount Kilauea explosion was in 1790, ranging from 80-400 people, a number still being debated.

Someone’s got your back

The civil defence teams, with the combined efforts of volcanologists and all those involved in keeping the people safe, have experience in how to deal with and adapt to the ever-evolving situation. A recent update shows a collective calm and professionalism, presenting the information in a way that Hawaiians can comprehend.
The risk of property being destroyed is neither exaggerated nor underestimated. The authorities explain the risk by presenting as much information as available – and Hawaiians tend to trust that the authorities are being realistic. This feeds into how people learn and assess the risk to themselves and their properties.

Business as usual

At present there appears to be little chance of halting the advancing lava flow. The properties of the lava and external influences, such as the steepness of the terrain, mean that the point at which the lava flow might stop naturally is not yet apparent.

What has been shown in news bulletins are the more runny lava flows that volcanologists call “pāhoehoe” (the “hoe” meaning “to paddle” in Hawaiian) but this is not representative of the reality of the eruption which is producing more viscous, slower moving lava (or “aʻā” as it is known locally). As in Italy and Iceland there have been attempts to stop lava flows in Hawaii but with mixed results. For instance, according to a report in NPR,a US$2m engineering project successfully diverted lava flows near Mount Etna in 1983. But a similar attempt in Hawaii in 1955 and 1960, however, failed because of lack of proper understanding of the situation.

Given the effectiveness of the volcanic hazard management system in place in Hawaii, I have no doubt that such attempts will be made if they are reasonable, through the combined efforts of volcanologists, engineers, the civil defence and a guaranteed investment for the project.
But in case the Hawaiian authorities don’t succeed in halting or diverting the eruption and the flow of lava, we mustn’t underestimate the power of Hawaiian culture and belief to deal with such volcanoes. Living in such parts of the world, disaster resilience is not an urgency but a way of life.

The Conversation
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Between a rock and a hard place - a lecture on Sci Comm

Review of the George de Boer biennial lecture given by Prof. Iain Stewart, Professor of Geoscience Education, University of Plymouth. 
A guest blog By Dr. Lara S. Blythe

Prof Iain Stewart, geoscientist and TV personality, was the guest of honour at the University of Hull on Wednesday 29th October, invited by the Department of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences in collaboration with their geology society, the Harker Society, to mark the reinstallation of geology as a degree programme after ca. 25 years of absence. Prof. Stewart presented the George de Boer biennial lecture entitled ‘Between a Rock and a Hard Place’ to an audience of well over one hundred people.

Photo by Rebecca Williams
The title, one might think, is not unfamiliar territory to the professional geologist. However, in this case we should think again. Caught between our science and the public, science communication and more specifically, geoscience communication is something that traditionally we scientists have had a bad reputation for. Good then that the Professor of Geoscience Communication at Plymouth University, whose interests are the cultural and social effects of geology, should give us his take on the matter.

Geology, from the perspective of the public, can be likened to an omnipresent invisible subject, which only becomes visible when necessary: at times of crisis. One issue almost immediately brought to the fore was the L’Aquila case in Italy, where a number of senior scientists and officials were sentenced to six years imprisonment for their 'inability to predict the earthquake' that killed 309 people in 2009 (Hall, 2011; Davies, 2013). This case, akin to several aftershocks, has reverberated through the scientific community and highlights the need for a better relationship between geoscience and the public where good communication is paramount.

Even though being a member of the scientific academic community and being in the public domain may seem like a contradiction in terms, the incentives for academics to communicate are clearly present and, in the face of recent developments (e.g. fracking) are increasingly necessary. For me, academia and science represent a true ecological niche whose inhabitants, as Prof. Stewart explained, approach geological events in almost a complete opposite way to the public in order to understand them. Although this niche is seen as typically attracting introverts obsessed with rocks, in short an ‘odd bunch’, these scientists in fact have a responsibility to interpret their research to the public and inform them about the world.

As Prof. Stewart pointed out, why should the public be interested? and how do we get through to a public that may not even be interested? Combined with poor understanding and many misconceptions, science is not popular amongst the public. Why ever not? I hear you ask; because it contains too much erm, science. Too many details and facts that are in essence, boring.  However according to Stewart, and co-author, Ted Nield (2012) people are interested in other people, a point towards which we need to direct out efforts to communicate effectively. Geoscience is both an applied and a visual science, attributes which enable an interesting and ‘audience grabbing’ story to be told out of an otherwise ‘dull’ subject. Take for example, one of Prof. Stewarts Earth Science broadcasts on the BBC – Journeys to the Centre of the Earth, which links Sedimentary, Metamorphic and Igneous rocks through the building stones used by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans respectively. This series used a visual art to connect history with geology and its applications, and it proved a hit.

Used to fascinate and spark an interest rather than educate, geoscience communication in ‘quiet’ times facilitates the important transfer of information in times of change and crisis. The public know what geoscience is and know where to find out more information for themselves. As the phoenix of geology and geoscience rises from the ashes left behind at former departments country wide, so (geo)science communication must grow into a new world where academics and the public learn to first respect, then trust, and finally communicate successfully. 

Dr. Lara S Blythe. 

The lecture is available here.

Davies, L. 2013. L’Aquila quake: Italian judge explains why he jailed scientists over disaster. The Guardian, World News, 18 Jan.  
Hall, S. S. 2011. Scientists on trial: At fault? Nature, 477, 264-269.
Stuart, I. S. and Nield, T. 2012. Earth Stories: context and narrative in the communication of popular geoscience. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, 124, 699-712.

This City Belongs to Everyone

by Chris Skinner

Recently, I was tasked with designing five workshops for our Foundation Science programme to introduce Geography specific material to those students planning on studying it in the future. For one of these workshops I plan on looking at our city, Hull, and its surrounding area, asking how, as Geographers and researchers, we can get involved in understanding and influencing these. I want to demonstrate to my students that whatever your research area you can be invested in your local area.

William Wilberforce House - The Abolitionist was born in Hull
(© Copyright David Hillas and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

I began by hijacking a Departmental staff email discussion to ask "what do you consider to be the most pressing geographical issue facing Hull?", and I found the responses interesting, highlighting how different research specialisms cause people to think of our local area in different ways. So interesting, I wanted to share some of the responses here with you.

Myself,  I would say flooding and the increased pressure caused by rising sea levels. This was shown clearly by the storm surge of December 5th 2013 - the tidal barrier at the mouth of the River Hull had just 40 cm left to spare and the minimum sea level rise predicted by the IPCC to 2100 is 40 cm. Obviously, the city will need to invest in better defences or other solutions. I wrote about this in a previous post.

In mainly short replies, several of the Physical Geographers here agreed in their responses -

"Flooding!" - Professor Lynne Frostick

"Climate/Environmental change, sensu lato." - Dr Jane Bunting

Holding back the tide - Hull's Tidal Barrier
(© Copyright Andy Beecroft and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

Professor Jack Hardisty, however, saw an opportunity to establish the city as the heart of the "Energy Estuary" as the most important issue. Many agencies are working very hard and with great success to create a hub of sustainable energy in the Humber, both in the construction of infrastructure (like the development of the Siemens off-shore turbine factory in Hull), and the generation of power, such as tidal generators.

Professor Jeff Blackford suggested "Economic inequality and lack of social mobility" to be the big issue, and he was supported by many of the Human Geography researchers.

“A combination of its structural economic legacy, urban austerity, and environmental situation” - Professor Andy Jonas

“Flooding and relatedly, the feeling that the place was abandoned and left to rot in the aftermath of the 2007 floods.” - Dr Briony McDonagh

I like this quote from Briony as it highlights how the issue identified by the Physical Geographers, the flooding, is intrinsically linked to those emerging from the Human Geographers. The flooding in 2007 needs to be understood in the physical sense to find out what caused it and how it can be avoided in the future, but also the impacts on people and their perception of the city and its place in the country needs to be understood. I find Hull has a sense of abandonment by the rest of the country that was either started or was reinforced by the bombing during the Blitz (and subsequent lack of reporting) - this same sense emerged post-2007 that the city was ignored in favour of other areas after the flood. Indeed, the major flooding on the 5th December 2013 slipped under the nation's radar somewhat too.

The National Film Theatre on Beverley Road was listed in 2007. It was bombed and burnt out in 1941 and was never repaired - it is one of the last remaining visible bombsites from the Blitz.
(© Copyright Paul Glazzard and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

“The challenge of overcoming Hull’s negative (and inaccurate) imaginative geographies – on the receiving end of too many Hull or Hell jokes…” - Dr Suzanne Beech

However, one issue raised by Professor David Atkinson provoked a discussion. Here's his full response -

“The effects of the city of culture award before, during and after 2017

Hull as an under-bounded city (and current wrangles to fix this)

The elusive nature of place and ‘Hullness’”

A different resonance - Whereas the rest of the country had iconic red phone boxes, Hull's were white (although the tourist office still sold red phone box souvenirs)
(Image by RM21, from en.wikepedia under Creative Commons Licence)

I want to pick up the issue of Hull as an under-bounded city. What does this means? It is down to the way the city boundaries are drawn that exclude some of the sub-urban areas around the city, like Cottingham and Willerby. These areas are more affluent than much of the city and are not included when drawing statistics for the city, or contributing towards Council Tax to run the city's services (which many of the residents in those areas will use). This is a relatively uncommon situation and negatively skews many of the statistical indices for the city and reinforcing its negative reputation in the country. There are plans to rectify this, but as you can imagine it is not popular in those areas that may go from being within the East Riding of Yorkshire region to being with the City of Hull.

Professor David Gibbs also felt this was the major issue and highlighted some of the controversy, suggesting that this would be an interesting topic to look at as part of a workshop.

“I agree with [Professor Atkinson], the under-bounded nature of Hull and the debates between Hull and the [East Riding of Yorkshire] would be good and lots of on-line debates to tap into on press websites – see the Hull  [Daily Mail] website for a good deal of lively debate in the comments section!"

This issue was also picked up by Dr Kevin Milburn. Here is his full response -

“For a long time it seems the city’s location has been a handicap (or at least perceived as being such), to which I must also lob in the relatively poor transport connectivity of the city, especially to other cities and towns in the North. It feels like it would almost be quicker to get to, say, Grimsby or York, by unicycle than public transport. Now, however with renewed interest in the opportunities offered by the estuary, most obviously demonstrated by the recent Siemens investment announcement, perhaps Hull’s peripheral location might actually start to be something of a plus point. The city’s isolation/'end of the lineness’ – and supposed subsequent uniqueness – was interestingly used as a positive by the Hull 2017 bid team.

I also agree with the points raised re. Hull’s boundary and the impact this has on where Hull finds itself on national league tables re. schools, poverty, unemployment rates etc. I find it bizarre that somewhere like Romford can be considered, administratively at least, part of London (it doesn’t get more Essex!) and yet Cottingham, for example, is not part of the Hull metropolitan area.”

HS3 - Could a high speed rail link between Manchester-Leeds-Hull improve the city's connectivity?
(Image by mattbuck, from en.wikipedia under Creative Commons Licence)

David Atkinson raised further points that might contribute to the sense that Hull is dislocated from the rest of the country, something picked up above by Kevin - 

"- a lack of central government funds to assist with reconstruction after the war

- the sudden collapse of the fishing industry in the 1970s and 1980s, and the failure of national government to protect Hull's interests (as perceived by the locals)

- the decline of some other, traditional, heavy industries with limited central government assistance in the 1980s-2000s

- the rising sense that other cities and regions could sneer at Hull (reaching its height in the 2003 'Crap Town' accolade)"

I found this exercise really interesting and really insightful, and I look forward to seeing how the people involved above shape their future research in order to investigate the issues they've highlighted. I can't speak for the others, but I am sure it is true, but I love this city, my city, and whilst we're not blind to its issues and problems, we embrace its wonderful character and personality which, honestly, is unlike anywhere else in the world - that's partly why we won, and were so proud to win, the City of Culture status for 2017. Nothing sums it up better than the bid video - This City Belongs to Everyone.

I think my students are going to find the responses useful and I plan on having an enjoyable and lively discussion about them during the workshop.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Remembering a loyal Malawian colleague and contemplating the challenges of mortality for collaborative research in Africa

By Elsbeth Robson

This blog is prompted by the tragic death of my valued colleague and collaborator at the Centre for Social Research of the University of Malawi – James Milner. On 2nd September 2014 James was involved in a road accident while conducting fieldwork in the north of Malawi. He was hospitalised and later died in Mwaiwathu Private Hospital, Blantyre on 7th September 2014. The James I knew and miss was committed to his work, his family and his church.

James’s sudden death is a huge shock and loss to his family, friends and colleagues around the world. He worked as an economist for the Government of Malawi for five years and 19 years as a research fellow at the Centre for Social Research, University of Malawi. He studied as a postgraduate at Williams College in the USA and York University in the UK.

I worked with James on an ESRC-DFID funded project investigating young people’s use of mobile phones in Africa (available here). He joined the project team in 2012 and quickly became a valued colleague for his dedication, loyalty, dependability and thoroughness. We last undertook fieldwork together in January earlier this year when we spent several weeks running a large questionnaire survey with a team of research assistants. It was demanding work involving long days in remote communities, rough roads, heat, occasional malaria and even reluctant respondents at times. Our evenings were spent closely quality checking piles of completed questionnaires and closely monitoring research assistants’ performance. James’ contribution was vital to ensuring everything went smoothly.

During fieldwork we usually travelled as a team together with a driver and several research assistants in a Toyota Landcruiser and as I always do I regularly reminded everyone to wear a seat belt and encouraged those reluctant to use the seatbelts because they were dusty, difficult to adjust and uncomfortable that it is better to ‘Arrive Alive’. I am a passionate believer in the virtue of seatbelts having been personally in two vehicle accidents (overturned minibus on US fieldtrip; collision in Germany) where seatbelts saved lives and because I might have been orphaned as a child had my mother not been wearing a seatbelt in an accident at high speed on a UK dual carriageway. It is painful for me to know that last month James was not wearing a seatbelt and was flung from the vehicle sustaining injuries, while the front passenger (a visiting researcher from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine) and the University of Malawi driver who were wearing seatbelts escaped relatively unscathed.

I took this photo in July 2013 during the qualitative fieldwork phase of the mobile phone project. James (wearing glasses, 3rd from left) is standing together with our hardworking team of research assistants during a break from transcription of interviews at the College of Medicine Guesthouse in Blantyre, Malawi.

While mourning the loss of a colleague James’ untimely death prompts wider reflections on the unevenness of the playing field between academics in/of the Global North and those in/of the Global South. It is a stark reality that life expectancy in the Global North (UK average life expectancy is over 80 years) far exceeds life expectancy in the Global South (like expectancy for Malawi is about 55 years). This bare demographic fact has major implications for trying to build and sustain long term North-South academic research collaborations.

It is more than poignant that on the weekend of his death James was expected to be travelling to the UK to present at a DFID-ESRC event in London with a collaborator from Durham University.  Sadly, during the past three decades of my career James is not the first academic collaborator I have worked with in Africa who has died before old age. An academic geographer at University of Malawi, as well as two team members (one a young researcher) in Ghana at University of Cape Coast all died during or shortly after we worked together on collaborative international research projects. None of these died in road accidents I believe but HIV/AIDS is one of the top causes of adult deaths for both Malawi and Ghana along with stroke and heart disease which also kill plenty of people in UK too. I can recall only one colleague in UK I might have collaborated with if he hadn’t died of cancer in his 50s. Other UK colleagues continue to be academically active into their 70s and 80s.

Where the death toll from road accidents in Africa are concerned expatriates are also not immune. I knew two British geographers and long term Africa residents who died tragically in car accidents in Kenya and South Africa. Their contributions to research and teaching which might otherwise have been expected to continue for several decades longer were curtailed.

Mortality on Africa’s roads is shockingly high - Malawi has the 3rd highest rate of deaths from road traffic accidents in the world (here) exacerbated by poorly maintained vehicles and dangerous driving habits.

Are my experiences of the tragic loss of colleagues typical for researchers who work in the Global South and try to build up long term collaborative relationships? I suspect these experiences are not unique and there are similar challenge for those who work in Africa and other poor countries.