‘Geography Matters’: A year in review

By Phil Emmerson and Emily Earnshaw, RGS-IBG

On 26th November 2020, the BBC podcast, Newscast’s topic for discussion was the new three tier system of restrictions in England, which saw the North of England placed under harsher restrictions than the South East and London (oh how things can change in just a few weeks!). Within the discussion, one of the presenters, Chris Mason — a geography graduate, and fellow of the RGS-IBG – suggested that to understand the significance of the policies and their opposition, it’s important to recognise that ‘geography matters.’ For saying this, he was gently chided by fellow presenter Laura Kuenssberg, who claimed that every week he and fellow presenter Adam Flemming, another geography graduate, tried to ‘crowbar’ the importance of geography into their discussion.

Yet for regular readers of Geography Directions, this supposed ‘crowbarring’ of geography into the discussion each week, and the insistence that geography matters, will be unsurprising. Of course geography matters. It profoundly shapes every relation we have with the world around us, whether they be physical, economic, social, political, or cultural, and it does so across multiple different scales, from the global to the embodied. Yet the pandemic and its effects have thrust the influence of geography into the limelight, not just within academic circles but also in the public’s imagination. With this has come an increased desire to include geographical analysis as part of how we make sense of the events going on around us all.

At Geography Directions, we have sought to recognize this need for publicly accessible geographical analysis and expertise, through our offerings. Shortly after the pandemic took hold in the UK, we made the decision to revamp the blog, actively seeking out contributions from geographers, and reposting blogs that geographers had written elsewhere, in order to create an expansive resource that might help make sense of the pandemic and its effects. Since we launched this initiative in April, we have published over 100 such posts, bringing a geographical perspective to a vast swathe of topics. The collection we have amassed gives a unique perspective into the worlds of the pandemic, as well as suggestions for possible post-pandemic futures.

Disease vectors and data: understanding the pandemic geographically

A significant amount of research has been done by geographers to understand the mechanisms behind the spread of Covid-19, and the reasons why infection rates may be higher, or increasing faster in particular places. Cities have been at the heart of the covid-19 pandemic, particularly those with high population densities, and have thus  generally recorded higher infection rates than rural locations. Yet social, cultural, environmental, and political factors, such as the propensity towards mask wearing, the ease with which people can work from home, the ways in which lockdown measures have been applied and communicated, and exposures to pollutants have also all been proven to play a significant role in the spread of the disease and the mortality rates associated with it.

Geographical skills and techniques have been central to the analysis of these various factors, with mapping, geovisualisation and other geospatial techniques, such as dashboards, proving particularly effective resources. Mobile apps with embedded geo-data functions have been used to both generate information about possible exposures, and to induce control measures, such as self-isolation periods, to stop further spread; whilst other geographical methods, such as testing waste water, have also been deployed to measure and even predicting outbreaks.

Maps, such as these showing the outbreak patters of cholera in Exeter and London, produced by Schapter (1832) and Snow (1854) respectively, have often been referenced in discussions of pandemic geovisualisations. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Alongside generating and analysing data about the pandemic, geographers have also written for Geography Directions about the need to critically interrogate these data. As Doug Specht and Monika Halkort note,

data can mislead, and understanding how this happens is a huge step in the right direction of using data to improve the lives of millions of people around the world

Many issues have been identified with the data collected around Covid-19. A significant issue has been missing data, whereby people might fall outside of data collection techniques, such as when they fall into data blind spots, or don’t have access to technologies such as apps. Another is where data are poorly applied, such as was seen in the UK with Scottish highers, A-Level and GCSE exam results. And a third is where data are interpreted differently, for example by politicians and scientists, which can lead to poor policy outcomes. For these reasons Kamilini Ramdas and David Taylor suggested that we need to also include ‘haptic’ approaches to data analysis, taking account of people’s lived experiences alongside Bird’s Eye views of spatial patterns.

The spatialities of Covid-19

It has not just been understanding the spread of the disease that has involved geographical analysis, however, with many of its effects also being shown to have starkly geographical patterns and significances. Capturing all these implications here would be impossible, however some significant themes stand out in Geography Directions posts.

First are the economic and infrastructural effects of Covid-19, including the significant downturns in the energy and resource extraction sectors, along with its geopolitical implications, and the strains that the pandemic has placed on the logistics sector, which has had knock-on effects for food security amongst other things. Similarly, strain has been placed on the human infrastructure of the so-called shadow economy, including remittances, microfinance loans, and on those who provide informal services such as care. The need for economic stimulus and recovery has led to hopes for a greener recovery, a green new deal, or financial stimulus that accounts for net zero ambitions, as well as energy transitions and the establishing of more localised food supply networks, including urban farming.

Second, the dramatic increase in homeworking induced by stay at home orders has had profound implications for cities, with dramatically fewer people travelling into city centres than before the pandemic. The immediate impact of this was on transit systems, which saw both a drop in income, and the requirement to install new safety measures. Yet there is increasing evidence of a lasting impact, including the potential ‘hollowing out’ of cities, and associated effects of this, such as the ‘death of coffee shops.’ Alongside this however, some have pointed out potential upsides, including opportunities to build houses on now unused land, and increases in walking and cycling.

The overwhelming story of the pandemic has therefore been one of geographical inequality and unevenness. It has become somewhat cliché to say that the pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing fault lines in our societies, yet the analysis provided by Geography Directions this year, makes it difficult to say anything else. The Indices of the Economic Impact of Covid-19 and the Patchwork of Vulnerabilities analyses add quantitative heft to this argument in terms of economic and health in the UK. Yet, alongside this quantitative analysis, geographers have also drawn on ‘haptic’ and qualitative analyses to suggest that these landscapes of inequality are deeply affected by other social and spatial structures, including around class, race, gender, age, sexuality, and location. This holds true both at the broader scale of the region, such as how Covid-19’s impacts have been felt differently across Latin America, including for indigenous peoples, and within countries themselves, as we have seen in the UK where those living outside of London have generally suffered more severe restrictions with less access to Government support than those in the capital.

Yet it is perhaps within the relations between two specific kinds of places, the workplace and home, that we have seen the key drivers for both material and experiential inequalities. The pandemic has served to divide global labour forces along stark lines: into those who have lost their incomes – and often been physically displaced by this – versus those who have kept them; into those who can work from home versus those who can’t; those facing much more precarious financial arrangements and those who are more secure. Similarly, the pandemic has exposed the deep divisions in housing situations. In some cases, this is in relatively simple terms such as the size of people’s houses or how readily they are able to access outdoor space. In other, more complex ways, this includes those whose living situations are cramped, temporary and precarious; those whose living situations have been impacted by the need to receive or provide care, whether that be to children, or older adults; those whose work involves entering other people’s homes; and in the most harrowing terms, for those at risk from domestic violence for whom a ‘shelter in place’ order may create a dangerous and possibly deadly situation.

The work of geographers has thus been at the heart of providing both analysis of, and potential solutions to, these complex issues and inequalities, and should prove vital in efforts to build a more just world as we emerge from the other side of Covid-19.

What’s next?

2020 has been a year that has been dominated by the pandemic and as such, that is where we at Geography Directions have concentrated most of our efforts, particularly as we have reworked the blog. We hope that our content has proven to be informative, and even enjoyable to engage with. Yet Covid-19 is not the only issue that has been prevalent this year, with issues such as the Movement for Black Lives, Climate Change, the US elections, refugee crisis, effects of the Windrush scandal, UK planning law reforms and Brexit all featuring within our posts, albeit at a lesser frequency.

To reiterate the simple plea of Chris Mason then, Geography Matters.

And it will continue to matter hugely as we move into 2021. The pandemic, its effects and the recovery from it will not go away and will still form a key cornerstone of our content. However, with the COP26 conference in Glasgow occurring at the end of 2021, and with political emphasis being placed on ‘levelling up’ regions and tackling some of the inequalities mentioned above, both in the UK and elsewhere, we also plan to focus effort and attention on issues around climate change, and regional geographies, politics and economics, as well as continued attention to the use of geospatial data, and critical reflections on experiences of and issues related to the geographies of difference, equality and diversity. We will of course very much welcome posts on other issues as well and will continue to publish posts directly linked to papers in the RGS-IBG journals. Alongside this, we will be offering further upgrades to both the blog website itself, including a special landing page which will help schoolteachers filter and access content to share with their pupils, which will be launched in the new year.

All that remains for us to say now is thank you. It has been a challenging year for both of us, with our own set of workplace and home arrangements to negotiate. Yet editing Geography Directions has proven to be a truly rewarding and enjoyable experience amongst that. We would like especially to thank Klaus Dodds and Mike Bradshaw who have helped hugely with the redevelopment of the blog; all of the authors who have written for us this year; and of course all of our readers and social media followers, who have engaged with and shared the content. We wish you all a restful end to the calendar year and look forward to engaging with you further next year.

About the authors: Phil Emmerson is Managing Editor of Academic Publications at the RGS-IBG. Emily Earnshaw is Editorial Assistant for Academic Publications, and Administrative Assistant for Research and Higher Education, at the RGS-IBG. Amongst other things, together they manage and edit Geography Directions.


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