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The City Centre: Researching city lives and connections

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 Introduction

The City Centre

In 2006, the School of Geography at Queen Mary, University of London, launched a new centre for collaborative research and related activities that are focused on the city. The City Centre is designed to provide a space in which academic research can be developed and communicated with those within and beyond the academy. Particular interests include new forms of urban politics; socio-economic exclusion and livelihoods; economic geographies of the city; women, planning and urban design; art, performance and representation; environmental concerns in the city; urban health; city, diaspora and migration. This research and activity is being developed through long-term collaborations with local partners in London, and with international partners in Africa, Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America and North America. This research work is also manifest in the undergraduate and postgraduate human geography modules taught in the School, including the masters programmes MA Cities and Cultures, MA London Studies, MA Community Organising and the MSc Globalisation and Development.

The City Centre is a unique academic setting in which to study the city in its wider geo-political, cultural and economic context: it is a place to research city lives and connections. The City Centre has been designed to provide the physical space needed to research the city in a collaborative way, building on local and not-so-local relationships with other scholars, activists, practioners and community organisations. The research work undertaken at the Centre is uniquely characterised by this collaborative approach: knowledge is produced and disseminated through working together. As such, the City Centre is pioneering new research practice and producing new public geographies in order to shed light on the city.

This approach to scholarship has particular salience for geographers at Queen Mary. Queen Mary has a historical connection to the local community and came into being as a site for the collaborative production and dissemination of knowledge. In addition, the discipline of Geography has a deep-rooted concern to be engaged and relevant to multiple publics, as outlined at the pages linked below.

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 Our History: Queen Mary as a ‘Palace of Delight’

Our college has its origins in a philanthropic endeavour to provide East Londoners with education and social activities in the late nineteenth century. The first buildings that were to become Queen Mary, University of London, were inspired by the work of Sir Walter Besant who advocated the creation of ‘palaces of delight’ for working people living in poor communities like the East End of London. A local philanthropic trust built The People’s Palace that was opened by Queen Victoria in 1887 to provide high quality facilities for the education of the local community. Historical documents indicate that thousands of people attended the free talks, musical events, exhibitions, gardens, swimming pool, entertainments and library that were available for local people. In 1888 a technical college was opened to further the educational ambitions of this populist project and many local adults attended the evening classes provided. This college later became Queen Mary and subsequent mergers with Westfield College, Barts and the Royal London Medical Schools have enlarged the College, its expertise and influence.

More than a hundred years after the founding of the People’s Palace, the City Centre is designed to echo this historic commitment to working with communities, both local and global, in ways that are appropriate to very changed times. East London is a place of remarkable diversity and vibrancy and there is much to be gained from academics and community partners working together. In so doing, it is equally important to recognise the global connections that make London and its people what they are today, and to learn the lessons from experience in other cities that may or may not be transferred to London.

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 Our Discipline: Creating collaborative public Geographies

The discipline of geography has a strong tradition of producing knowledge and conducting field-work in dialogue with those beyond the academy. The origins of this approach go back to the years of the late nineteenth century and the work of anarchist geographers such as Peter Kropotkin and Elisée Reclus who were simultaneously engaged in academic and political work. Such ideas resurfaced in the discipline in the 1970s as a group of scholars began to call themselves radical geographers, establishing a new journal called Antipode: a radical journal of geography, which is still going strong. This journal was part of a wider collective project that included developing collaborative relationships with communities and political activists in both research and teaching. The more radical aspect of this work was developed in the urban expeditions led by Bill Bunge but there was also a great deal of effort spent in contributing policy development and practice that remains strong in fields like health geography, development and environmental research. More recently, such ambitions have been manifest in the calls made to re-engage in policy-oriented research, to produce public geographies and to use participatory and action research techniques.

The City Centre seeks to honour these traditions in the discipline. The nature of the collaborative relationships that underpin research work are particular to the projects being undertaken and will necessarily change over time. However, the projects are united in the way in which the production and dissemination of knowledge is a collaborative venture. Moreover, the City Centre is designed to provide the means to teach our human geography students about this approach to academic research. As outlined below, Queen Mary provides a unique opportunity for undergraduate students to work with school students and community organisations as part of their training. They learn how to work with others through their own practices as part of the course, and it is our ambition that they take this collaborative spirit with them into the rest of their lives.

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 The City Centre

At any one time, the City Centre will have a number of projects underway, each led by one or more members of staff at Queen Mary – and the current projects are outlined below. These projects are in dialogue with each other through their focus on the urban and in their collaborative approach to research. Each project has access to the suite of Science Research Infrastructure Funded (SRIF) rooms that are available in the City Centre for doing this work. The City Centre includes seven staff offices, two of which are reserved for visiting partners; a postgraduate research room; a 30-seat seminar room with full video conferencing facilities; a high-specification computer room that includes GIS equipment, video and digital editing facilities; and a recreational area. The Centre can host meetings of up to 30 participants, smaller seminars, offer accommodation to research partners and provide the computational infrastructure required for ongoing research.

The City Centre is directed by Dr David Pinder and managed in conjunction with a steering group. For further information, please contact David Pinder on d.pinder@qmul.ac.uk.

Current research activities are grouped under key headings, and links to particular projects are indicated on the left.

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