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Emerita Professor Alice Coleman, who was a member of the Geography Department at King’s College London from 1948 until 1996, passed away on 2 May 2023, just short of her 100th birthday. 

Alice was awarded a first class undergraduate degree at Birkbeck in 1947 while working full time as a geography teacher in Kent. In the following year, she began her University of London MA at King’s College, graduating with a distinction. Her academic talent was noticed by Professor Sydney Wooldridge, who had been at Birkbeck but had joined the King’s Department, and Alice was appointed an assistant lecturer in 1948 and promoted to a lecturer in 1951. In 1987 Alice was appointed to a chair in Geography, the first woman in the Department to achieve that status. Apart from visiting lectureships in North America and Japan, she remained in the Geography Department until her retirement in 1996. Devoted to her job, uncompromising in her standards, a loyal colleague, she was one of the most important geographers of her generation.

When Alice joined the Geography Department at King’s she was the only qualified teacher on the staff. Her commitment to a geographical education is evident in some of her early papers on fieldwork. In a paper published in 1954 in Geography, the Geography Association’s journal, Alice outlined a sample traverse in East Kent that could be used by teachers, and which she had completed by bike with her own sixth form students, including 23 suggested stops, complete with magnificent drawings and cross sections of the route. This interest in fieldwork – about which she published several more papers and which characterised her work throughout the rest of her career – was typical of her commitment to a fully rounded geography education that brought physical and human geography together. Throughout the 1950s she ran voluntary summer field trips to Europe, often repeating them two or three times and attracting students from many different universities. In one year alone she recalled that she had been away on field trips for a total of 51 days. It was not until the Second Land Use Survey, which she directed, gathered pace in the early 1960s that she was forced to reduce the amount of time she spent on taking geography field trips. She always took a keen interest in her students.

Alice’s early academic interests focused on geomorphology but even then it was clear that she was also concerned with the implications of her work for planning and practical purposes. Her first published paper, on ‘selenomorphology’ looked skywards – towards understanding the shape of the lunar landscape – and was published in the Journal of Geology in 1952. At the time of the Apollo moon landings it was quoted by NASA as one of the first papers to discuss in real scientific terms the origin of the morphology of the moon. This was soon followed by other papers on the cement industry around the Thames (Town Planning Review, 1954) and land reclamation in Kent (Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 1955) that hinted at her interests in linking academic research with the planning process. These interests later came to the fore in the two major research projects that occupied much of her subsequent academic career: the Second Land Use Survey of Britain, which she coordinated and directed, and in the redesign of public housing estates as part of the Design Improvement Controlled Experiment (DICE) project which received £50 million funding from Margaret Thatcher’s government. 

The Second Land Use Survey of Britain came about almost by chance. Alice had a long term interest in cartography and teaching, and she responded to a request by the Geographical Association to compile a land use map of her local area in Kent, which she completed with Kenneth Maggs. In 1960, encouraged and supported financially by Sir Dudley Stamp, who had directed the First Land Use Survey, Alice soon set about recruiting geography teachers and sixth formers to compile land use maps of their local area. Alice herself mapped land use in over 1,500 square miles in 15 different counties. Her drive and commitment to the project were rewarded: 3,000 volunteers, together with many of her own students at King’s, helped to map land use across England and Wales, eventually leading to the publication of 120 separate maps. This immense contribution to understanding the rapidly changing post-war British landscape, which also drew Alice into mapping urban areas and derelict land, was recognised by the Royal Geographical Society which awarded her the Gill Memorial Medal in 1963 not merely for the huge effort that a project of that scope entailed but also because it was completed with the ‘minimum of official assistance’ – testament to the passion and commitment so typical of everything that Alice undertook.

The publication of the land use maps drew Alice into sometimes heated debates about the planning process, which had been an interest from the very start of her career, and her advice on the topic was sought by the new Labour government which had been elected in 1964. Invitations to lecture and advise governments abroad also followed and she spent some time in Canada at the University of Western Ontario as the Visiting Professor for Distinguished Women Social Scientists. While in Canada, Alice produced an important report on Canadian settlements and land use for the Ministry for Urban Affairs – a precursor of her growing interest in urban land use and design that was to define her second main area of research.

On returning to Britain, Alice turned her attention to the problems of urban decay. In the 1960s and 1970s, de-industrialisation had left large areas of derelict land at the heart of many British cities. The loss of traditional manufacturing jobs had also resulted in high unemployment and deprivation in these places. Through her ongoing interest in land use, Alice was aware of these problems and she became interested in the role of design and planning in the process of urban decay. Drawing on the concept of defensible space, an idea originally championed by the American architect and urban planner, Oscar Newman, in New York, Alice set about researching the topic. A grant from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 1979 allowed Alice to study the relationships between design and vandalism in housing estates in Southwark and Tower Hamlets and this work led to invitations from other local authorities to advise on their estates. 

The outcomes of this research led to what was Alice’s most significant contribution to urban studies, the book Utopia on Trial: vision and reality in planned housing, published in 1985, in which she applied the concept of defensible space and made recommendations for the redesign of public housing. In that same year, riots on the Broadwater Farm estate in North London focused attention on the condition of public housing. Against this background of concern, Utopia on Trial attracted widespread attention, including from King Charles, and invitations to advise on housing estates in Canada, the Netherlands, Australia and other parts of the world. The Royal Geographical Society awarded Alice the Busk Medal in 1987 for innovations in land use analysis and her practical contribution to inner city regeneration. Perhaps most significantly, the ideas attracted the attention of Margaret Thatcher, whose administration at the time was struggling to deal with the problems of inner city crime and urban decay.

In Margaret Thatcher, Alice found someone receptive not just to her ideas but also someone who could understand her personal situation as a female academic who for long parts of her career had operated in a largely male dominated world. They formed an immediate bond, Thatcher stating in her memoirs that she greatly admired Alice’s work and Alice feeling that here was someone who was sympathetic to her ideas and who would seek to push through her own agenda, despite reservations from some of her colleagues and the Civil Service. This relationship laid the basis for the Design Improvement Controlled Experiment (DICE), a major project on the redesign of British public housing estates funded by a £50 million grant from the government.  The project ran from 1988, the year that Alice officially retired from King’s College, until 1994, by which time a new Conservative administration was in power more sceptical of the impact of design on crime and anti-social behaviour. 

After the DICE project came to an end, Alice returned to one of her earliest and ongoing interests in visual clarity – this time more to do with graphology than cartography. In directing the Second Land Use Survey, Alice had stated that one of the aims was ‘to design maps whose information leapt to the eye spontaneously’ but this was equally true of handwriting, and in the 1990s she honed her expertise on analysing handwriting. Her own handwriting was clear and concise – no word was wasted nor letter over-embellished. In an age when the computer was still a comparative novelty, and when essays and exams were still completed by hand, the ability to write clearly was an advantage, and Alice emphasised this to anyone who would listen. She was particularly keen to pass this insight on to her students, be they geography undergraduates, many of whom to this day remember her encouragement to write clearly and concisely, as well as in courses on graphology that she held for members of the University of the Third Age and others. She continued to teach graphology well into her nineties – evidence of a professional life that she began as a teacher and never really left. 

David Green

Alice Coleman
© The Coleman family