The Urban Geography Speciality Group can trace its origins back to a late night in Philadelphia in 1979. It you want to know what the city looked like then, it was where Rocky had been filmed just four years earlier. Like many North American cities of the time, it was witnessing the wholesale relocation of capital and people from its downtown and surrounding neighbourhoods. It is appropriate then, perhaps, that it was in this geographical context that what would become known as the Urban Geography Specialty Group began to take shape.
On Thursday 24 April, twenty-nine urban geographers gathered in the Washington Room of the Benjamin Franklin Hotel, located at 822-840 Chestnut Street in downtown Philadelphia. Now known as Benjamin Franklin House, the hotel closed in the mid-1980s and was restored as apartments and condos, an early example of the gentrification of the inner core that would really take hold of so many US cities from the 1990s. The meeting was convened by Truman A Hartshorn (Georgia State University) and Peter O Muller (Temple University), on the back of an earlier mail out which had solicited the signatures of 118 AAG members on a petition to establish an Urban Geography Speciality Group. At the meeting it was signed by another twelve members, and was subsequently forwarded to the AAG in order that the Group acquire formal recognition.
Various issues regarding the Group’s aims and remit were discussed at the meeting together with what should be its working relationship with the then newly establishing journal Urban Geography. In addition to the publisher, Victor Winston, and the co-editor, James Wheeler (University of Georgia), four members of the new journal’s Editorial Board (John S Adams, University of Minnesota, Chauncy D Harris, University of Chicago, Truman A Hartshorn, Georgia State University and Harold M Rose, University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee) were present at the meeting.
Tom Baerwald (Science Museum of Minnesota) agreed to lead on establishing an inventory of activity and interests, initially amongst the 130 who signed the petition. He subsequently proceeded to become the Speciality Group’s first chair in 1980. He also edited the first newsletters. A number of annual surveys of the membership were conducted to assess interests and priorities and solicit suggestions for Specialty Group activities. In the first newsletter Tom noted ‘[a]lthough summer is traditionally a time of disruption and on-again-off-again activity for geographers, I feel we have made good progress toward getting the UGSG on a solid footing.” This sense of progress was picked up again in the December 1980 newsletter, when Tom commented that “[s]lowly but surely, the UGSG is getting organized.” A proposed set of by-laws and a committee structure was established and agreed by the AAG.
The newsletters were initially produced two to four times a year. Aside from short editorials, content varied from one newsletter to another. Often included were calls for, and details of, annual conference sessions, notes on recent urban reports and texts, and board election ballots and results. There was also the odd innovation. For example, in 1987 the first “invited editorial” was published. The brief of these was “to stimulate dialog and provoke thought (and controversy?) in a format where brevity is a premium.” Entitled “A new conservatism”, its author Neil Smith (Rutgers University) summarized his argument which had recently appeared in Antipode under the title “Dangers of the empirical turn.” Subsequent editorials covered a range of then current issues related to urban geographical research. Over the years the newsletters continued to hold together the Speciality Group, even as production techniques changed, and eventually hard copies were phased out. Although the decision was taken in 2012 to no longer produce newsletters, it is clear that for much of the Speciality Group’s history it played a central role in given it a focus, in a world pre-emails and the internet!
During the 1980s and 1990s the membership of the Speciality Group grew. Regular sessions were held at annual conferences, starting in Los Angeles in 1980. This gave an institutional cohesion and focus to the urban sessions. The number of sessions organised at the annual conference also expanded, although initially the Group was much more hands-on, its members literally ‘organising’ sessions as opposed to merely ‘sponsoring’ them, which is now the case. For example, the Specialty Group arranged a Roundtable Discussion for the 1982 Annual Meeting on “Theoretical and Cross-Cultural Approaches in Urban Geography,” organized by Bob Lake (Rutgers University) and chaired by John Adams (University of Minnesota) with contributions from sixteen urban geographers commenting on the current state of the discipline. Newsletters reflected the vibrancy of the Speciality Group over the years. Covering the costs of production and distribution was a reoccurring theme. At various times different geography departments around the US covered these costs, which were not insignificant given that by the mid 1980s there was the need to produce and circulate over 500 copies. Although there was some concern over the name of the Speciality Group – apparently it bore a close resemblance to an earth science/map-making agency in Reston, VA – it has remained the Urban Geography Specialty Group. The precise nature of the relationship between the Specialty Group and the journal Urban Geography was subject to regular reappraisal over the years. This despite in 1982 the AAG Publications Committee rejecting the proposal for a formal agreement between the Speciality Group and the journal on the grounds that, in the words of the Chair of the Committee Clarissa Kimber, “[n]o special relations are to be established which imply that a journal has a peculiar relation to the AAG.” To this day there are close working relationships between the Specialty Group and the journal Urban Geography, particularly in cosponsoring the Urban Geography plenary lecture at the AAG’s annual conference.
Although rooted in US urban geography, from an early point in its development the Speciality Group sought to form relationships with urban scholars elsewhere. At various times there were reports on the activities of the Urban Speciality Group’s British counterpart, the Institute of British Geographer’s Urban Geography Study Group, as well as on other urban agencies and organisations in the world, a reflection of the participation of members in international networks of one sort or another. Eric Sheppard, the 2012-2103 AAG President, when standing for election to the Speciality Group Board in 1985, wrote that he “would like to see the UGSG expand its contacts with researchers of similar interests in other countries and their respective geographical associations.” As a precursor to the ways in which academics now have websites on which they upload copies of their paper, in June 1982 the Speciality Group established a clearinghouse “for papers delivered at national meetings in order to facilitate cooperation and communication among urban geographers.” These examples of strategic thinking by those leading the Speciality Group were reflected in its changing institutional structure. In 1985 its “Long-Range Planning Committee (LRPC)” was established, comprising Bob Lake (Rutgers University), Don Dahmann (US Bureau of the Census), Edward Muller (University of Pittsburgh), Randy Smith (OSU), David Hodge (University of Washington) and Marilyn Brown (U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory). Its remit was “to define a set of goals and priorities for the UGSG for the next five years.” Over the years the LRPC focused its work on four fronts: reviewing policy, increasing student involvement, improving the teaching of urban geography and expanding the newsletter. For each a separate committee was established. For example, the Policy Review Committee (PRC) was chaired first by Bob Lake (Rutgers University) and subsequently by Paul Knox (Virginia Tech). Its initial focus was on reviewing homelessness policy (led by Jennifer Wolch, USC) and on reviewing US urban policy (led by Tom Clark, University of Colorado, Denver). While the involvement of policymakers in the business of the Speciality Group has declined over time, as has its explicit focus on reviewing US policy, nevertheless, a commitment to a critical stance on the making of urban policy remains an important aspect to current activities.
Over the history of the Urban Geography Speciality Group the role of graduate students has changed. They were largely absent at the formation of the Speciality Group. As part of the LRPC, however, Neil Smith led on efforts to involve graduate students in the business of the Specialty Group. At the 1987 AAG annual conference in Portland it was he who put forward the motion that “the Board of Directors of the UGSG be expanded to include two student members of the UGSG, and that the by-laws be amended appropriately.” This was successful passed and the Specialty Group Board continues to have two graduate student members. In terms of valuing the work of students, in 1983 the Group ran its first dissertation competition and there were joint winners: Susan Christopherson for her “Family and class in a new industrial city” at UC-Berkeley and Shaul Krakover for his “Spread of growth in urban fields, Eastern United States, 1962-1978” at the University of Maryland. Over the years the number of awards has grown. In addition to the best dissertation, MA thesis and graduate student paper, in 1996 the Glenda Laws Award for the best undergraduate student paper was established. Most recently the Specialty Group introduced a fifth award to reflect how the written word is no longer the only way in which students communicate their research.
Since it was established in 1979 the Speciality Group has grown to have over eleven hundred members. Its newsletter may no longer be produced, due to dramatic changes in the ways in which academics communicate, but its commitment to facilitating and supporting urban geography in its all guises remains undiminished.