Brian Robson OBE, Emeritus Professor of Geography and co-director of the Spatial Policy Analysis Lab at The University of Manchester, died on 5th June 2020. He had a long and distinguished career as an urban geographer. He was one of three children, the son of an electrical engineer (Oswel Robson) and a teacher (Doris). Raised in the north east of England, he was awarded a scholarship to the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. From there, he moved as an Exhibitioner to St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, in 1958. His college tutor was the inspirational Gus Caesar (1914-95). After completing his BA, he stayed on at Cambridge for his PhD. At this time, the Geography Department was beginning to change, with Richard Chorley and Peter Haggett leading figures in the ‘revolution’ that was occurring in Bristol, Chicago, Lund, Seattle and elsewhere. Brian’s doctoral thesis was entitled ‘The human ecology of Sunderland: a study of social structure and attitudes towards education’. It was completed in 1964.
That year, Brian moved to his first academic position at The University College of Wales, Aberystywth (now Aberystwyth University). The university had a leading Geography Department and Brian spent three years there as a young lecturer. Urban geographer Harold Carter (1925-2017) was on the staff, and Brian later talked very fondly of his time in Wales. In 1967, he took an opportunity to move across the Atlantic. This was a time of considerable civil unrest in America. He held a Harkness Fellowship at the University of Chicago, swapping a Welsh coastal town for an iconic city in the American mid-west. He spent a year at the interdisciplinary Center for Urban Studies, at that time directed by the influential planner Jack Meltzer (1921-2010). Meltzer had been central to the post-war remaking of Chicago’s neighbourhoods and transportation networks. A young Brian Berry was also involved in Meltzer’s centre.
An opportunity arose to return to Cambridge during this period. Brian became a University Lecturer in Geography and Fellow of Fitzwilliam College in 1968. He remained there for almost a decade, helping Cambridge Geography to consolidate its reputation as an international powerhouse for research and teaching. He applied quantitative methods to urban geography, particularly regarding social differentiation. His first monograph was entitled Urban Analysis (Cambridge University Press). Published in 1969, it was subtitled A Study of City Structure with Special Reference to Sunderland. Building on his doctoral thesis, it reviewed the existing theories and approaches to urban social geography, and then demonstrated how various kinds of data can be combined to illuminate the topography of urban life Four years later Urban Growth followed (Robson, 1973; reprinted in 2007). It zoomed out from the scale of one city, using nineteenth century England and Wales to identify patterns of urban evolution at the national scale. In part, the book made use of new ideas in systems thinking, then in vogue in Geography. Just two years after this, Brian published his third sole-authored book: Urban Social Areas (1975). It provided a novel approach to describing and explaining urban social differentiation, with a particular focus on supply and demand dynamics surrounding housing. The text appeared shortly after David Harvey’s landmark Social Justice and the City (1973), marking a period of great dynamism and excitement in urban geography.
By the mid-1970s, Brian was thus a leading researcher in urban geography at home and overseas (he provided a retrospective in Recollections of a Revolution, edited by Mark Billinge, Derek Gregory & Ron Martin: Robson, 1984). For instance, he was among the first to be invited by the editors of the (then young) journal Progress in Geography to write a trio of reports about research in social geography. He made important contributions to flagship journals as editor of Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, and of Area a few years before that.
In 1977, Brian was appointed Professor of Geography at Manchester University, where he was to spend the rest of his academic career. It was a move from a medieval town of rare beauty to what, he told one colleague, was a ‘muscular city’. He joined a department with a fast developing reputation for research in both human and environmental geography (for instance, the young Peter Dicken and Peter Lloyd were lecturers there, while Ian Douglas and Richard Huggett were also on the staff). In a period of considerable economic and political turbulence in the UK, he began to immerse himself in his new urban environment. The so-called ‘inner city problem’ was beginning to loom large in Manchester and beyond; Harvey’s book had helped inspire disciplinary debate about the content and politics of academic research; and a more specific debate had begun to emerge in Geography about the discipline’s role in shaping public policy. It was in this context that Brian began to move in a more applied direction. Much of his focus was on neighbourhoods in Manchester, such as Moss Side and Hulme (there had been widespread rioting in British cities in 1981, which shocked the nation; the question of a ‘North-South divide’ also resurfaced in national politics). Brian began to build relationships to departments within Manchester City Council, and with other local authorities nearby, leading to more consultancy work over time. An early example, co-authored with Michael Bradford (who died in 2019), was Urban and neighbourhood change: household movement in Greater Manchester and its implications for structure planning (1984). This work linked analysis with recommendations for policy interventions. While his earlier research had been squarely academic, the urban challenge in a de-industrializing Britain was such that Brian wanted to make a difference (no doubt looking back to Meltzer and his Chicago experience for inspiration).
A desire to influence UK public policy agendas became central to Brian’s work for the remainder of his career. In 1983 he founded the Centre for Urban Policy Studies (CUPS), embarking over the subsequent decades on a series of research projects exploring the local and national impacts of urban policy initiatives. In 1988, his book Those Inner Cities set out his agenda for future urban policy, challenging the business-focused approach of the time and urging government to focus more on social and spatial equity (Robson, 1988). This was a recurring theme in his subsequent work for government over the next decade. In 1992 he was commissioned by the UK government to produce an index of local deprivation, the methodology for which continues to inform the current Index of Multiple Deprivation for England and is used to determine the allocation of government resources on a more equitable basis. The index allowed a more holistic and geographically extensive appreciation of deprivation. Key papers about it were published in the Environment and Planning family of journals. Central to his approach was Brian’s enduring conviction that place matters: neighbourhood context is important, independently of individual or household socio-economic circumstances. All of this is why he insisted that area-based regeneration must be multi-agency, requiring integrated policy and strong community involvement.
Underpinning Brian’s research was a frustration that the social, cultural and economic value of cities had been underappreciated. ‘No City, No Civilization’ was the title of Brian’s address to his academic peers in 1993, marking his presidency of the Institute of British Geographers (Robson, 1994). He was an unswerving champion of the northern cities of England, highlighting their untapped economic potential well before it became fashionable to do so. This was at a time when Britain’s ex-industrial cities were viewed as a drain on the public purse, their fortunes inexorably in decline. Brian’s belief was that urban policy ought to recognise the unfulfilled economic potentials of large cities, a view that presaged the national and international agenda about cities and agglomerative growth that was to emerge over the next two decades.
From the late 1990s, Brian’s work at CUPS increasingly engaged with urban planning. His research on the trans-Pennine corridor, and later his work on a polycentric network of linked ‘global gateway’ cities across northern Europe, was to prove an important influence on the decision by the then Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, to establish the Northern Way growth corridor – in many respects the forerunner of the later Northern Powerhouse concept. This was another echo of Brian’s belief that the research-policy nexus ought to be reinforced, a view articulated at length in his essay Geography and public policy: a political turn (Robson and Shove, 2004).
In 2010, Brian was awarded an OBE for his work on understanding the impact and effectiveness of urban policy. As he said to the Manchester Evening News upon receipt of the honour, “Ministers have wheezes every week. It is vital that we measure what works and what doesn't”. Through his own formative attempts at measurement, Brian helped to change the parameters of British urban policy.
Throughout his career Brian made important service contributions at Manchester and within British Geography more widely. After serving twice as Head of the School of Geography, in 1988 he was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Arts. From 1993-97, he was Pro-Vice Chancellor with responsibility for external affairs, a role that allowed him to continue to promote the links between academic research and public policy. During this period he began to study the economic value of universities, especially in the regions. Beyond Manchester, he was President of the Institute of British Geographers, and of the Geography section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Aside from his two journal editorships mentioned earlier, he chaired the committees overseeing three Economic and Social Research Council programmes. One of these was focussed on British inner cities.
Brian received the highest accolades for his contributions to Geography and public policy. In 2000, he was awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s Founder’s Gold Medal for his services to urban geography. He was a Lifetime Honorary Member of the Royal Town Planning Institute, a Fellow of the British Academy of Social Sciences, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
In his later years, Brian was busy writing papers and books based on his long held passion for historical cartography and city plans. The beautiful and informative Manchester: Mapping the City (2018) was one such project (co-authored with Martin Dodge and Terry Wyke). At the time of his death he was actively writing a new book on the history of Newcastle, told through maps. This work meant that Brian’s career, impressively, had three phases by the end: an early phase as a traditional researcher and teacher, a middle phase as a policy-orientated investigator, thought-shaper and university leader, and a late phase investigating and writing about urban cartography. Outside the university, Brian was a passionate advocate of voluntary service. He was a supporter of a number of local charities, serving as chair of the Manchester Council for Voluntary Services and the Manchester Settlement.
Brian Robson was a person of many parts. He was an inspirational teacher, a fine researcher, an effective administrator and a capable leader. He was clever, wise, kind and possessed of no airs and graces. He used his abilities as a researcher and teacher to make urban life a little better for those near the bottom of the social ladder. He was a critic of the geographical unevenness in wealth and opportunity that has long marked British cities and the UK more widely. He always communicated with clarity, honesty and economy. In company, he was knowledgeable, charming and very funny (Brian’s sense of humour was both wry and dry). He had a deep, mellifluous voice that was a pleasure to listen to, whether in formal meetings or coffee room conversations, and which in his younger years had, in part,caused him to consider a career in the theatre (this when he wasn’t boxing: Brian was quite accomplished in the ring before and during his undergraduate years). Brian was a permanent fixture on campus well into his retirement, deriving considerable pleasure from ‘work’ and interacting with the next generation of researchers and teachers. He was always generous with this time, knowledge and insight. During his years as an emeritus professor he very kindly funded three doctoral students in Geography and Planning at Manchester. Such was Brian’s humility, that his younger colleagues were scarcely aware of his considerable achievements prior to retirement.
Brian will be greatly missed by those of us who knew him. He had many collaborators over the years, whose talents he valued greatly. His academic life was lived richly, and he had very considerable ‘impact’ beyond the academy well before the UK Research Excellence Framework sought to formally recognise it. Brian died peacefully at home in the arms of his wife of many years, Glenna.
A full obituary for Brian has been published in The Geographical Journal.
Written by NOEL CASTREE & IAIN DEAS, The University of Manchester
Acknowledgement: our thanks to Kevin Cox, Ian Douglas, David Keeble, Ron Martin, John Mercer, Chris Perkins, David Shimwell and Jamie Woodward for assistance.
Robson, B. T. (1984) A pleasant pain: urban ecology and the evolution of urban geography in Billinge, D. Gregory & R. Martin (eds.), 1984, Recollections of a revolution: Geography as a spatial science (Macmillan Publishers Ltd) pp. 104-116.
Robson, B.T. (1988) Those Inner Cities (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
Robson, B.T. (1994) No City, No Civilization, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 19(2), 131-141.
Robson, B. T. & Shove, E (2004) Geography and public policy: a political turn in J. Matthews & D. Herbert (eds) Unifying Geography: Common Heritage, Shared Future (London: Routledge) pp. 353-36.
Professor Brian Robson OBE (1939 – 2020). Image © Nick Scarle, reproduced with permission
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