The Urban Geography Specialty Group can trace its origins back to a late night in Philadelphia in 1979. Like many North American cities of the time, Philadelphia was witnessing the wholesale relocation of capital and people from its downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. It is appropriate then, perhaps, that it was in this geographical context that what would become known as the Urban Geography Specialty Group (UGSG) began to take shape.
On Thursday, April 24, 1979, 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 take hold of so many U.S. cities in the 1990s. The meeting was convened by Truman A. Hartshorn of Georgia State University (now retired) and Peter O. Muller of Temple University (currently at University of Miami) of Temple University (currently at University of Miami), following the circulation of a petition to establish UGSG, which generated 118 AAG members signatures. At the meeting the petition was signed by another twelve members and was subsequently forwarded to the AAG in order that UGSG acquire formal recognition.
Various issues regarding the aims and remit of UGSG 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 of Bellwether Publishing (now deceased), and the co-editor, James Wheeler of University of Georgia (now deceased), four members of the new journal’s Editorial Board were present at the meeting, including John S. Adams of University of Minnesota, Chauncy D. Harris of University of Chicago (now deceased), Truman A. Hartshorn of Georgia State University (now retired) and Harold M. Rose of University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee (now deceased).
Thomas “Tom” Baerwald of the Science Museum of Minnesota (currently at the National Science Foundation) agreed to carry out an inventory of activity and interests, initially amongst the 130 who signed the petition. He subsequently became the first chair of UGSG in 1980. He also edited the first newsletters. A number of annual surveys of the membership were conducted to assess interests and priorities and to solicit suggestions for UGSG 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 of Rutgers University (now deceased) summarized his argument which had recently appeared in Antipode under the title “Dangers of the Empirical Turn: Some Comments on the CURS Initiative.” Subsequent editorials covered a range of then-current issues related to urban geographical research. Over the years the newsletters continued to hold together UGSG, 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 history of UGSG it played a central role in creating institutional cohesion in a pre-internet world.
During the 1980s and 1990s the UGSG membership grew. Regular sessions were held at annual conferences, starting in Los Angeles in 1980, giving the UGSG significant institutional stature. The number of sessions organized at the annual conference also expanded, although initially UGSG was much more hands-on, its members literally ‘organizing’ sessions as opposed to merely ‘sponsoring’ them, which is now the case. For example, UGSG arranged a Roundtable Discussion for the 1982 Annual Meeting on “Theoretical and Cross-Cultural Approaches in Urban Geography,” organized by Robert “Bob” Lake of Rutgers University and chaired by John S. Adams of University of Minnesota with contributions from sixteen urban geographers commenting on the current state of the discipline. Newsletters reflected the vibrancy of UGSG 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 were 500 copies in circulation. Although there was some concern over the name of UGSG – 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 UGSG and the journal Urban Geography was subject to regular reappraisal over the years despite the fact that in 1982 the AAG Publications Committee rather decisively rejected a proposal for a formal agreement between UGSG and the journal (at this time, the chair of the AAG Publications Committee, Clarissa Kimber of Texas A&M University, stated, “[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 UGSG and the journal Urban Geography, particularly in cosponsoring the Urban Geography plenary lecture at the AAG’s annual conference.
Although rooted in U.S. urban geography, from an early point in its development, UGSG sought to form relationships with urban scholars elsewhere. At various times there were reports on the activities of the British counterpart of UGSG, the Institute of British Geographers’ Urban Geography Research Group (formerly Urban Geography Study Group), as well as on other urban agencies and organizations in the world, a reflection of the participation of members in international networks of one sort or another. Eric Sheppard of University of California at Los Angeles, when standing for election to the UGSG 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 UGSG 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 UGSG were reflected in its changing institutional structure. In 1985 its “Long-Range Planning Committee (LRPC)” was established, comprising Robert “Bob” Lake of Rutgers University, Donald “Don” C. Dahmann of the U.S. Bureau of the Census, Edward K. Muller of University of Pittsburgh, W. Randy Smith of The Ohio State University, David Hodge of University of Washington (now retired) and Marilyn Brown of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (currently at Georgia Tech). The objective of LRPC 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 Robert “Bob” Lake of Rutgers University and subsequently by Paul L. Knox of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (now retired). Its initial focus was on reviewing homelessness policy, led by Jennifer Wolch of University of Southern California (currently at University of California at Berkeley) and on reviewing U.S. urban policy, led by Thomas “Tom” Clark of University of Colorado at Denver. While the involvement of policymakers in the business of UGSG has declined over time, as has its explicit focus on reviewing U.S. 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 UGSG the role of graduate students has changed. They were largely absent at the formation of UGSG. As part of the LRPC, however, Neil Smith of Rutgers University (now deceased) led an effort to involve graduate students in the business of UGSG. 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 successfully passed, and the UGSG board continues to have two graduate student members. In terms of valuing the work of students, in 1983 UGSG ran its first dissertation competition and there were joint winners: Susan Christopherson of University of California at Berkeley for her dissertation entitled “Family and Class in a New Industrial City” and Shaul Krakover of University of Maryland (currently at Ben-Gurion University of Negev) for his dissertation entitled “Spread of Growth in Urban Fields, Eastern United States, 1962-1978.” Over the years the number of awards has grown. In addition to awards for best dissertation, MA thesis and graduate student paper, the UGSG in 1996 created the Glenda Laws Award for the best undergraduate student paper. Most recently UGSG introduced a fifth award (Alternative Mode of Scholarship) to reflect how the written word is no longer the only way in which students communicate their research.
Since it was established in 1979, UGSG has grown to have over 1400 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.
1980-1982: Thomas “Tom” Baerwald, Science Museum of Minnesota
1982-1983: Elizabeth Burns, University of Utah
1983-1984: David Hodge, University of Washington
1984-1985: Roman Cybriwsky, Temple University
1985-1986: Robert “Bob” Lake, Rutgers University
1986-1987: Peter O. Muller, Temple University
1986-1987: W. Randy Smith, The Ohio State University
1987-1988: Hazel A. Morrow-Jones, University of Colorado
1989-1990: Susan Hanson, Clark University
1991-1992: John Paul “JP” Jones III, University of Kentucky
1993-1994: Sallie A. Marston, University of Arizona
1993-1994: David Ley, The University of British Columbia
1994-1995: Lynn A. Staeheli, University of Colorado
1996-1997: Lawrence M. Knopp Jr., University of Minnesota at Duluth
1997-1998: Stuart Aitken, San Diego State University
1998-2000: Helga Leitner, University of California, Los Angeles
2000-2002: Judith T. Kenny, University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee
2002-2004: Geraldine Pratt, University of British Columbia
2004-2006: Katharyne Mitchell, University of Washington
2006-2008: Eugene McCann, Simon Fraser University
2008-2010: James DeFilippis, Rutgers University
2010-2012: Sarah Elwood, University of Washington
2012-2014: Kevin Ward, The University of Manchester
2014-2016: Deborah “Deb” Martin, Clark University 2016-2018: Caroline Nagal, University of South Carolina
Historical Database of UGSG Newsletters