A more human scale to the maps

August 25, 2006

Nick Smith finds the Royal Geographical Society expanding its frontiers.

Delegates to this year's annual conference at the Royal Geographical Society will notice something interesting. The front door of the society's beautiful 19th-century red-brick home in London is now the back door.

Signs will redirect regulars expecting access through the old black wooden doors to a new set of doors in a glass pavilion on Exhibition Road. Home to Imperial College London, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and some 20 other world-class institutions, the road is known locally as "Knowledge Street". The society has had to rotate itself 90 degrees to the east to feel the benefit of being part of this elevated community. Previously, it faced north, looking out over a busy London arterial route.

By turning to face Exhibition Road, the RGS (with the Institute of British Geographers, to give it its full name) is publicly declaring what has been known in the society for years: progress is being made. Although adding some new doors on another side of the building may not seem much like progress, they symbolise for Rita Gardner, the society's director, her mission to open up the society "visually, intellectually and physically".

She reckons that the society has suffered unfairly from a bad reputation, with people blithely dismissing it as a stuffy and elite gentlemen's club. It is largely due to her efforts since she became director in 1996 that this impression has changed and it coincides, she says, with "a changing image of geography".

This evolution in geography has its roots in the fact that the "golden age" of geographical exploration, which involved drawing maps of undiscovered places, is well and truly over. The society was founded 176 years ago with the aim of promoting "the advancement of geographical science". In those days, that meant that geographers went literally to the ends of the earth to observe, document and map the planet, often as outriders of the British Empire. To Gardner, these were "remarkable physical feats of exploration that remain awe-inspiring".

But today there are no more blanks on the map and, with a few odd exceptions, we know where everything is. "The subject has moved on," Gardner says, "to an understanding of social, economic and environmental processes and how they spatially shape and change our physical, cultural and material worlds, and the interdependences between them, locally and globally."

According to Gardner, what geography addresses today is not blanks on a map, but "blanks of understanding". She explains: "Understanding the causes, consequences and how to manage the enormous environmental and social changes that have an impact on our small planet, from the global to the local level, may make the difference in our survival".

Gardner, who was awarded a CBE for "services to geography" in 2003, has a distinguished academic background that includes a 17-year stint at King's College London and Queen Mary, University of London. And although academic geographers will know her for her achievements in the field of geomorphology and for her work in Nepal, her real influence these days is as a strategist. The repositioning of the entrance is part of a £7.2 million project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund to provide public access to the society's archives of images, maps, artefacts and manuscripts.

She has also developed the society's role in the education sector. "In April, we launched a £2 million Action Plan for Geography in schools. A partnership with the Geographical Association, a teachers' body and the Department for Education and Skills, this is a once-in-a-generation chance to enhance the teaching and learning of geography in all schools," she says. As part of the plan, Gardner has taken on a formal role as adviser on geography to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills and is heavily involved in the process of curriculum reform.

Gardner says that geography in UK universities is "vibrant", with 34,600 higher education students. In schools, the subject is compulsory until age 14, and it is a popular GCSE option at ages 14 to 16. With a broadening range of options available to GCSE and A-level students, it is only to be expected that individual subjects will lose some of their market share, and there are signs that this has happened in geography - hence the action plan in schools. Gardner says she wants to push the idea of geography as "a broad-based preparation for career development", adding that 80 per cent of graduate jobs do not require a subject-specific degree.

She says: "As the former chief inspector of schools said, 'there is no subject more relevant than geography'." It is vital, in my view, that young people leave school with an understanding of the wider world and their place within it."

She is keen to point out that the subject covers many of today's most urgent global and social issues. Does this mean climate change? "Contemporary global issues are much broader than climate change alone in that they extend to issues of economic globalisation, migration, development and environmental degradation," she says. "All are profoundly geographical. Geography has always been concerned with understanding the challenges facing societies and environments. The difference today is that many of these issues now have a broader resonance with the wider public and policymakers."

The Royal Geographical Society annual conference takes place from August 29 to September 1.

Paper work

The conference will hear 1,000 papers including:

The challenge of multiracial Britain and avoiding the "downward trend where we are becoming strangers to each other" Trevor Phillips, Commission for Racial Equality

The failure of climate change schemes, comparing the European Union, Japan, Canada, the US and China Andy Kerr, Edinburgh University

Research on the geography of naming, based on the use of family, personal and place names to understand people's ancestral origins and their interrelations with human and physical geography Richard Webber, University College London

How natural disasters between 1981 and 2002 killed on average more women than men Eric Neumayer, London School of Economics

How biological "buffers" such as coral reefs and mangrove forests attenuate hurricane and tsunami impact, and implications of sea-level rises Tom Spence, Cambridge University

A paper on floral tributes, binge drinking and the Ikea riot of 2005 William Merrin, Swansea University

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