5 Questions: British geographer documents local neighborhoods

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comDecember 29, 2013 

Amanda Rees, associate professor of geography, department of history and geography, Columbus State University.

DAVID A. RUSH

What is a Brit doing teaching geography in Columbus?

I finished my undergraduate degree in London in American studies and geography and I wanted to know more about the U.S. I decided that an extended field trip to study American culture and geography was in order, and I left for graduate school in Wyoming in 1990. Eventually that led to becoming a professor of geography, and I got a job offer to come to CSU's Department of History and Geography. When I came for the indecade ago, I saw a downtown that was changing dramatically, being completely "dug-up" along Broadway, and CSU was playing an important role. This was an exciting place to be. So I moved my husband and daughter from Wyoming to Columbus, and we've been here ever since. Through my interest in communities and neighborhoods, I was able to establish the Columbus Community Geography Center about five years ago.

What does the Columbus Community Geography Center do?

One of the things I appreciate most about being a professor at CSU is that the institution encourages us to bring our skills, experiences, expertise and enthusiasms to the place they live. We come from around the world and around the U.S. to make our home in Columbus and share our various passions from local history, baroque music and community health care, to sculpture and robotics! Geography, at its heart, works to understand the relationship between humans and their environment. What I bring to the table is a passion for how humans interact with, make sense of, and make a home in the places they live (a mix of urban and cultural geography). My office is downtown, I teach downtown, and about 5 years ago I established the Columbus Community Geography Center (CCGC) there. We have a small meeting place on Broadway surrounded by a bunch of cool technology that helps us understand the community spatially -- we make maps to help us understand our community.

Here my cartography (map-making) colleague Brad Huff and I put our heads together with our students to tackle projects that raise awareness about important community problems and resources, inform community and neighborhood planning processes, support community organizations, and work to support communities to make positive change. In my classes we read theories and look at case studies on issues or concerns that our partners have presented to us, and then students tackle those issue. This focus started in earnest in the aftermath of the Bibb City mill fire in 2009. A colleague in theatre, Becky Becker and I visited the smoldering ruins of the mill listening to folks standing there, talking about the importance of the mill and the strong impact it had on them. The neighborhood was also going through an historic district nomination, and we thought it would be useful both to capture how people felt about the Bibb City neighborhood and its future. This resulted in a play and history exhibit presented to the community, a series of "in character" walking tours that students led and an iPod tour with a map, all published online.

Since then the Columbus Community Geography Center has been approached by various local and regional organizations to lend a hand such as Feeding the Valley Food Bank, Historic Columbus, the Mayor's Stabilization and Improvement Commission, Midtown Inc., and a County Chamber of Commerce. Students have researched, mapped, written reports and run workshops on food-pantry accessibility, researching house genealogies, community gardens, neighborhood micro-histories and re-writing an historical driving tour. We work on projects at various scales, from the neighborhood scale of just a few square blocks of Waverly Terrace, to larger districts such as East Highlands and the small towns of Talbotton and Butler, Ga.

Community geography is a very new field in geography, and we are one of only two universities in the nation to ever advertise a job for a community geographer. As community geographers we meet with and listen to our partners concerns and needs. We work with them to frame a project. Our community partners get resources and support. Our students get hands-on experience using their developing professional critical analysis and writing skills, gain valuable applied experience, and we publish their work on our website so it is shared with everyone. We all find out a little more about where we live.

What's the value of having students document local history and culture?

In the History and Geography Department we have well over 100 students (history and history-education majors). The goal is to encourage students to think critically about whatever they are doing and write effectively about it. These are skills and abilities that employers tell us they want from their students, and our challenge is to support students in the process of honing those abilities. One of the great things about teaching history and geography students is that they all get excited and engaged in the local history and culture. Even if Columbus isn't their home, it is the place that students have chosen to live for four years, and students are curious to know more. My students' work moves beyond a pile of graded papers at the end of a semester to having an impact in the community.

Why should we care about neighborhoods?

Neighborhoods are where we call home, and they can either meet or fail to meet the needs of their residents. As a resident, our neighborhood needs change as we move from being a child, a teenager, living singly or as a couple, starting a family, and aging in that place. Strong neighborhoods support all these needs. Neighborhoods can include a local elementary school that also offers an accessible playground where neighborhood kids can play. A neighborhood might also decide that it needs sidewalks so that all its residents can move easily and safely within the neighborhood and between neighborhoods and local shopping facilities. It might include a religious institution that provides a neighborhood food pantry in a neighborhood with little public transportation. Neighborhoods may decide to create a community garden to share produce amongst themselves and a local food pantry. An email list calls folks together at the neighborhood park for a couch-to-5K program or to help find a lost dog. A neighborhood might decide it needs a "micro-history" that makes residents feel more connected to and invested in the place they call home.

In the second half of the 20th century we've created neighborhoods that promote the car, but that doesn't meet everyone's needs. The physical design of neighborhoods so that they connect meaningfully is something we have lost in building suburbs in the second half of the 20th century. As few neighborhoods serve needs of their residents we are increasingly seeing residents call for both retro-fitting suburbia (1940s and onwards) and supporting new housing developments that fit the values communities now perceive as important in the 21st century. Many of our older neighborhoods offer these amenities.

There's no magic formula to any of this. Neighborhoods need thoughtful planning in their creation and recreation to provide for residents. Neighborhoods themselves never stay the same, and we need to pay attention and respond appropriately. My students and I appreciate the opportunity to play a small part in helping neighborhoods and communities meet their changing needs. I also study and write about communities and have just come back from conducting fieldwork in Seaside, Fla., the home of a new urban architectural and planning movement.

What is the best-kept secret in the Chattahoochee Valley?

Columbus has an extraordinary number and variety of historic and vibrant neighborhoods. Diversity in all its forms helps create and recreate a rich sense of neighborhood identity and has been identified as an essential ingredient for an economically vibrant community in the 21st century. We have fascinating mill-worker neighborhoods like Bibb City, with amazing landscape architecture and modest, but well-built homes. We have Columbus' first electric streetcar neighborhood with beautiful early 20th century homes built for Columbus' rising professional class in Waverly Terrace. Indeed we have a remarkable number of recognized historical neighborhoods for a community of our size thanks to vibrant and well-established city preservation organization. We hope to support that work further. These are neighborhoods that are distinctive. They tell us something about our histories and ourselves, and they are unique and beautiful places that more and more people are recognizing and appreciating.

VITAL STATS

Name: Amanda Rees

Age: 48

Job: Associate Professor of Geography, Department of History and Geography, Columbus State University

Hometown: Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, Britain

Current home: Midtown, Columbus

Family: David Rush, husband; Gwyneth, daughter; Haydn, brother (London); and in-laws in Kentucky

Education: A doctorate in American Studies from the University of Kansas, a master's American Studies from the University of Wyoming, a bachelor's degree in geography and American Studies from West London Institute, London

Favorite book: Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" (1962) a slim book about the history of science that radically changed my thinking about the world.

Favorite movie(s): "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977) and "Blade Runner" (1982) -- sorry I can't choose between the two, a balance of utopian and dystopian futures

Favorite restaurant: Zaytinya, Washington D.C. Greek, Lebanese, and Turkish messe that feature small plates of food similar to Spanish tapas

Favorite quote: "Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand." -- Confucius, circa 450 B.C.E.

Best concert attended: Eurythmics, Hammersmith Palais, London, 1983

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