At work and play in the built environment: investigating and understanding multi-disciplinary readings of land and buildings

The reality of day-to-day professional practice in the built environment is that it involves firstly the mediation between ideas and objects, and secondly the bringing together of multidisciplinary teams of stakeholders, each with their own ways of reading a site and its components.

In a variety of projects, as course leader for the BSc (Hons) Real Estate and as Reader in Space, Place & Law in SHU’s Department of the Natural and Built Environment, I investigate the interaction between the materialities of the built environment and the ideas and concepts that shape how different stakeholders regard places and structures, and interact with them.

Legal Geography

I’m an environmental lawyer by professional background and teach surveying, construction and environmental management students about the role and relevance of law in the built environment. In 2011 I was appointed to the Editorial Advisory Board of the International Journal of Law in the Built Environment(IJLBE). With Prof Antonia Layard (and others) I’m currently helping to lead an initiative to promote ‘Legal Geography’ as an area of research and scholarship in the UK. From its origins in the US ‘law and geography’ movement, Legal Geography foregrounds the importance of material and spatial factors within studies of the operation of the law in the built and natural environments. We convened sessions on Legal Geography at the Royal Geographical Society’s Annual Conferences in London in 2013 and 2014, jointly edited a special edition of the IJLBE and in 2015 our commissioned overview of contemporary legal geography was published in the journal Geography Compass. We are now organising a legal geography workshop in April 2017. We have a collaborative wiki site set up to facilitate a UK, and international, dialogue about Legal Geography: In 2016 my research into the role of law in the framing and proliferation of the ‘modern’ factory site was published in Geoforum.

Metal theft

One strand running through my research into the spatiality and materialities of law has been a study of the ‘metal theft’ crime wave since 2008, and specifically its effects upon the built environment and asset defence. This has resulted in articles published in Environmental Law & Management, and, involvement in radio documentaries on this topic and collaboration with ARCH (the Alliance to Reduce Heritage Crime led by English Heritage). This research has focussed on tracing how material factors (i.e. metal prices) feed through into local action towards the pillage of metals in the built environment. Along the way, two MSc students have been involved as researchers, working upon investigation of how metal theft is perceived and responded to by local church owners.

Recreational trespass and valorisation of derelict sites

In recent years I’ve also investigated the sub-cultural practices of so-called ‘urban explorers’ – recreational trespassers who seek out unauthorised ways of gaining entry to abandoned industrial, military and municipal premises. My ‘bunkerology’ study (undertaken in 2009-10) focussed on a sub-group who sought to systematically visit abandoned military facilities, and to publish accounts of their visits in on-line forums. I have published four papers from this study, in Culture & Organization, Gender, Place & Culture and Environment & Planning D: Society & Space (2 papers). On the strength of this I was invited as a guest speaker for a conference at University College London in June 2013 on ’20th Century Architectural Enthusiasm’. My work in this area seeks to investigate the processes by which rich meaning is found and circulated for dank jerry-built concrete bunkers, and how what is done by these enthusiasts strangely replicates – as a hobby practice – many behaviours of professional surveyors. I convened a day-long session at the RGS 2014 Conference on Cold War Bunkers, and this event featured 18 presenters, ranging across the arts & humanities and social sciences. In August 2017, In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: Materiality, affect and meaning making, a collection of 14 essays arising from (or inspired by) this event, and collated and edited by me will be published by Rowman & Littlefield International.

Risk assessment and occupiers’ liability

Another strand in my research is ongoing work on how risk assessment has come to provide a framework through which the built environment is perceived and managed. This has involved analysis of case studies of ‘health & safety’ motivated decision taking, and evaluating the themes and influences at play. An early study (assisted by an MSc student) examined anxieties about tombstone stability in cemeteries and I then moved on to consider debates around tree safety inspection standards amongst landowners and arboriculturalists. This research strand also spawned a research report commissioned for the Countryside Recreation Network (2008), and articles subsequently published in RICS Land Journal, The Arboricultural Journal, The International Journal of Law in the Built Environment (articles) and the European Journal of Risk Regulation. In 2012 with the assistance of the British Mountaineering Council, I looked at owners’ and climbers’ differing attitudes to safety and territoriality in abandoned quarries.  I am currently engaged in the preparatory stages of a proposed project to study the rehabilitation of the Modernist ruins of St. Peter’s Seminary at Cardross near Glasgow. Such work draws on my legal background and my recent work on recreational trespass subcultures and applies it to practical questions of safety and site management.

Objects, structures, ideas, people & practices

Meanwhile I’ve also been involved in a number of initiatives considering the similarities (and differences) between artistic (e.g. visual arts, poetry, psychogeography) and professional aesthetics. This includes, a collaboration in 2013 with Dr Amanda Crawley-Jackson of the University of Sheffield, examining the Furnace Park regeneration project. This site based study compared and contrasted the variety of disciplinary aesthetics governing how a derelict site is read and interacted with by a wide range of stakeholders, including architects, artists, engineers, surveyors, police, academics and community volunteers. Our initial findings were presented in a joint paper at the Royal Geographical Society’s annual conference in August 2013, looking at the practical experience of art-led regeneration of a derelict land site, and the effects of the different ways of seeing (and defining and managing project-work) brought to the site by those involved in the project. Our article reporting on our join investigation of the site’s assembly and repurposing was published in Social & Cultural Geography in 2016. Also in 2013, in a related project, I collaborated with Dr Katja Hock a senior lecturer in photography at Nottingham Trent University, to produce Scree our image and text work examining the Upper Don escarpment in North West Sheffield and its former and current mines, quarries, brick works, tips, infrastructure, ruins and wastescapes. This was commissioned by occursus/University of Sheffield’s Arts Enterprise Fund and published by Tract [copy available here].

Increasingly my work is influenced by object oriented theorists (Latour 2005, Barad 2007, Miller 2009, Bennett 2010, Delaney 2010, Olsen 2010, Harman 2011, Hodder 2012, Bogost 2012 to name but a few), as I try to understand the entanglement of meaning and matter in the practices that my work examines.

SHU Space & Place Group

I am the co-ordinator of SHU’s special interest group that explores and promotes space & place scholarship across, and beyond, our institution. The group’s events pioneer innovative conjunctions and juxtapositions (for example pairing a statistician, a poet and a painter to recently discuss their studies of austerity and dereliction in English seaside towns). Other projects have explored the role of sound in researching place, and the diversity of methods by which the social interaction that forms a sense of place can be depicted – ranging across the use of comic strips as a method for communicating classroom interactions, quantitative social & spatial network mapping in office culture and the geography of the dancefloor in ballroom dancing. The group has facilitated peer reviewed publications and a textbook (Carol Taylor & Christina Hughes’ (2015) Posthuman Research Practices in Education, Palgrave).

Impacts of these projects

All of the above studies seek to make apparent to individuals stakeholders that their’s is not the only way that a site can be read. Frequently, even within project teams differences in disciplinary ways of reading a site cause conflict and/or confusion. These professionals will better understand their fellow team members, and their external stakeholders if they can see that their ‘technical’ way of reading the site, whether risk assessment, valuation or design conceptualisation – is selective, and that others (including ‘enthusiasts’ and trespassers)  have equally rich (but different) ways of reading and reacting to the same place. The involvement of MSc students as researchers in portions of these projects has helped them to experience this multiplicity of perspectives.

Through understanding the ‘logics’ informing different ways of reading sites, improved collaborative working can ensue. Specifically, the metal theft research is intended to practically contribute towards asset defence through insight into how metallic elements are valorised by thieves. Meanwhile the investigation into how climbers and quarry owners view these ’empty’ places, will contribute towards better understanding of the actual liability risks and of the motivations and the ways in which recreational trespass is really performed.

Community impact for the above is shown by the range of organisations who have shown interest in the projects so far, including English Heritage, the British Mountaineering Council, the Forestry Commission, the Arboricultural Association, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, Sport Northern Ireland and the RICS.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: