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AAG Meeting Highlights

April 16, 2011

They should have put these up at the entrance...

Whew…it’s been a whirlwind of ideas, inspiration, amazing people, way too much espresso, and willingly submitting my brain to death by clobbering with the knowledge stick. My life has been on a literal hold for the past week–my apartment is a wreck, I haven’t done any homework, I am way behind on correspondence, and I practically missed my own birthday. This is because I’ve been downtown at the convention center for the past four days from 9 or 10 in the morning to sometimes 8 at night, doing nothing but listen to brilliant (and not so brilliant) geographers talk about their research and the future of the discipline. Why did I run this academic gamut of epic proportions? Well…mostly because I felt like if I were to skip out on a session I would have missed the presentation that would give me a huge insight, or a nugget of an idea that would take root to be my next project, or a chance to meet a geographer who shared similar interests. It also felt important to go because the meeting took place in Seattle this year, and it would have been a waste not to seize on the opportunity to emerge myself completely, if only for a week, in the discipline.

The whole experience for me was absolutely incredible. Though I learned an obscene amount, I think the big take away for me was just a massive appreciation for academia, particularly those academics who ground their studies in reality, and who build an application of their research into the study from the get-go. Those papers that I found most compelling found a way to use their knowledge to better the world that we claim to describe as geographers instead of getting stuck in the ethereal realms of academia. Though I appreciate and understand the need to push the boundaries of the discipline and bring it to new heights with theorization and new knowledge production, I think it is critical to understand where that theory or new knowledge fits into the world–what place it has and how it could be used to better ourselves, our friends or family, our community, our city, our state, our country, our world. Or as Chey puts it, “kick around in the dirt”, get your hands dirty.

So, without further ramblings I’m going to give you my highlights from the meeting in chronological order. If anything you see sparks your interest, I encourage you to comment or email and we can discuss it further.

Tuesday, April 12th

From University of Michigan, Josh Newell‘s paper presentation on “The Forgotten and the Future: Reclaiming Back Alleys for Sustainable Cities”. This was probably my favorite paper I heard about. I thought it was totally genius. The researchers studied alleys in Los Angeles, doing physical audits, spatial analysis, focus groups and working with communities to better understand how the underutilized spaces of alleys could be repurposed to fit into a sustainable future for cities. Dr. Newell talked about how these spaces could be transformed by urban planners to offer solutions to storm-water runoff, walkability, cooling of the urban-heat-island effect,  and greenspace poverty. With their spatial analysis they found that the huge majority of alleys in the city were in the low-income, low scocio-economic areas of the city, predominantly south LA, which also happened to be the area of the city that was the most park poor and lacking green space. The researchers offered the solution of converting these alleys into walkable, grass-covered spaces that would contribute to a more sustainable urban future. Here is the abstract, if you want further summary. My favorite nugget in this presentation was when Dr. Newell talked about looking for spaces in our environment, built or otherwise, where various social goals can overlap, much in the way a Venn diagram diagram works, except in a social, spatio-temporal framework instead on a two dimensional page. In the example of the alleys, environmentalists are concerned about the urban heat island effect and looking for greenspace to cool the urban environment, health-advocates are looking for more places for urbanites to walk, planners are looking for spaces to alleviate storm-water runoff, advocates for race equality are looking for more parks in low-income areas of the city. Where these goals, which are entirely of human construction and without corporeal existence, converge is in an a tangible, underused space within the built environment. That–I find totally fascinating and it got me asking myself–are there others?

The Presidential Plenary: Geography in the Changing World of Education: Opportunities and Challenges. This was a panel on the future of the discipline that was coordinated by the president of the AAG and I found it really interesting from an undergrad perspective. The three presenters were, Duane Nellis, the geographer president of University of Idaho, Maresi Nerad, Director of the Center for Innovation and Research in Graduate Education at University of Washington, and Orlando Taylor the President of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology in DC. Each shared their perspective on where we were headed as geographer, but I’m not going to get into any sort of depth about them, I’m sure you can do the research if you are really interested. I will, however, tell you what I took away from it, and that is this: we as geographers are uniquely placed to lead the surge for more interdisciplinary education. It’s no secret–the world is becoming almost exponentially more complex, interconnected, and flatter, and that kind of radical change calls for a more interdisciplinary education. It’s not enough anymore to be specialized in one particular area, we need to be reaching out and taking multiple approaches to problems instead of fixating on a particular methodology. Geographers are well suited to this approach by the nature of our study–we span all disciplines and approach them all with a spatial perspective. In many ways the resurgence of geography was the result of this need for professionals and academics to look at problems from a multidisciplinary angle.

Wednesday, April 13th

Joshua Campbell on “GIS 2.0 and 21st Century Statecraft”. Joshua works for the State Department in the Humanitarian Information Unit (HIU), and his research is in the area of  “the changing face of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), or more specifically how Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial (FOSS4G) and Web 2.0 philosophy are fundamentally changing GIS.  The reformulated GIS is different enough that it deserves its own designation: GIS 2.0” I wouldn’t really do the presentation justice by giving you a summary, but in it’s essence it was about the changing face of web-based technologies with new social media platforms and the potentials of data sharing. Here is a little excerpt from his abstract  “The role and value of crowdsourcing and participatory GIS for addressing data deficiencies; Empowering volunteer technology communities, and integrating their efforts with the wider humanitarian community; CyberGIS and the role of semantic interoperability to support geographic data discovery and sharing”. It was totally inspiring and opened my mind up to some of the incredible potential of participatory data accumulation which is a big area of interest for me. He will be posting the slides from his presentation at the AAG within a few days so keep an eye out for those on his website and also check out some of his other presentations at

Rick Miller from UCLA on “Ghosts and guts in Rangoon: views on urban violence“. This paper was of particular interest to me because I love both photography and Rangoon, having travelled there a couple of years ago. It was not a disappointment, and the discussion that followed the presentation with the rest of the panel and the audience was really lively, focusing on the intersection of art, the cityscape, and geography. Miller’s paper specifically focused on the low-angle oblique photograph that is so engrained in the way we envision violence in cities. We see it everywhere from the shots of the lone rebel in Tiananmen Square to the Wikileaks video of Reuters news staff gunned down by the US military. Miller also highlighted a favorite photographer of mine, Felice Beato, a British photographer who worked in the East during the colonial period. I highly recommend his work…check it out. Also if you live in Los Angeles, go check out the exhibit at the Getty Center on his work that is going on right now.

Victoria Lawson‘s presentation on “Towards a Critical Poverty Studies: Middle class poverty politics across the Americas“. Dr. Lawson is a former president of the AAG and a professor in the Department of Geography at UW. We are lucky to have her–she is totally brilliant. This was the first time I’ve seen her speak and she was a force of nature. I will let her speak for herself, I would just butcher the abstract. So here it is–“A critical global poverty studies begins from comparative and connected analyses of processes of impoverishment and inequality across minority and majority worlds.  I argue for a relational analysis of poverty that takes seriously the spatially varied intersections of political-economic and cultural political processes in shaping understandings of poverty (Goode and Maskovsky, 2001; Mosse, 2010; Lawson, Jarosz, Bonds, 2008; 2010).  I suggest that different political responses to poverty across the Americas arise from spatial and historical variations in political-economic causes of inequality, in how the governance of poverty is being restructured and in a cultural politics of class/race difference.  Employing a transnational comparative methodology I discuss the role of the non-poor in contesting or acquiescing to the inequalities produced by economic restructuring.  I focus on middle sectors in Argentina, Ecuador and the US during the crisis-ridden nineties and oughts to examine how place-specific articulations of neoliberalism (as a material project of dispossession and a political project of demobilizing those labeled as poor) shape the ways in which middle ‘classness’ is framed and disputed.  This exploration focuses on the nature of agency around neoliberal economic restructuring by asking what are the poverty politics of middle classes and how do they unfold across space?  I conclude by arguing that critical poverty studies must apprehend the ways in which poverty politics are constituted through place and in the articulation of places with processes of political-economy, governance and cultural politics.”

Thursday April 14th

Joe Hannah on “Critical Family Histories: the Disruptive Power of Rediscovered Narratives“. Ok…maybe I’m a little bias on this one. I have Dr. Hannah for a class this quarter and just think he is really cool. But at the same time I was able to take a step back from this presentation a little and look at it, and what I saw was…refreshing. It was so grounded, so personal. He used his education and the perspective that he has earned through that education to tell the story of two lineages, one his own and the other the family history of a slave that his ancestors emancipated. It was a personal narrative, but he used that narrative to critically assess social constructs of whiteness and power relations. As we have talked about before on this blog, we are natural story tellers us geographers, and personally I think it is an important part of our work to tell the stories connecting people and place, and how the interrelations of those both reflect our social structures and how we are shaped by them. Dr. Hannah did just that and it very, very effective.

Ok…that’s enough. I’m burned out, and if you made it this far I’m sure you are too. This is getting crazy long, and I’m leaving out two days and some great presenters I saw on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Maybe that gives you an idea of just how huge the meeting is and how much there is to see and learn. And…as we are fond of saying this month…the data is coming…………promise.

I also want to note here that there were many other researchers involved in the papers that I mentioned, and you can follow the abstracts to see a full list on each paper. I merely mentioned the paper presenters at the conference.

One Comment leave one →
  1. squirebrown permalink
    April 16, 2011 4:23 pm

    i’m bitter. and jealous. but also psyched for you. and for the secret you were able to discover regarding…well, never mind. umm…i vote for a follow-up post in the not too distant future. with at least a friday/saturday recap. i know we will discuss this but, still…i like having it in written form for reference. and maybe i’ll do a “if i had been able to go here is what i would have tried to see” post.

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