I’m working on a graduate degree in human geography. Yes, that’s a thing. No, I don’t study rocks (that’s geology) and I don’t just make maps. I study the “how” and “so what” of spaces’ impact on our lives.
Think about your own life: how did the places that formed the backdrop to your life shape you? How different would you be today if your context had been different? Read more about my how space has shaped me here.
Human geography helps me look beyond the surface and between the lines for the broader social dynamics at play. This is because whereas a historian’s main yardstick for knowing is time, a geographer’s is space and everything that co-produces it. In other words, nothing exists outside of its spatial context. This context is shaped by economic, political, and social dynamics that structure a reality out of a realm of other possibilities.
I know what you’re thinking, “so really what you’re saying is that everything happens in a place and in a context? Duh.” It sounds simple, but you’d be surprised at how much we don’t consider context and social dynamics when we produce space. Think about this: how does the way that the spaces you inhabit (room, home, street, neighborhood, city, nation) reflect social, political, and economic dynamics? Do those places optimize or minimize your life and your relationship to others? How do these physical settings dividing us from one another, nature, and even from ourselves? What would these places look like if they prioritized connectedness, creativity, and fairness? It is easy to forget that almost every space we inhabit was designed, at best, by someone attempting to address these questions, or more often, with complete disregard for these considerations.
Studies in human geography keep context and people central to understanding place. However, geographers are usually not the place-makers, and the professional degrees that train the place-makers (urban planning, architecture, interior design) often fall short of providing applicable tools and practices for understanding context and people. They tend to emphasis technique over social examination, and thus face the danger of creating solutions that miss the mark. This is especially true in the industrial design and informatics worlds that are increasingly attempting to address big social problems like climate change and poverty with their designs. Design is no magic bullet, and in fact can do more harm than good when we don’t put people and context first. Merely understanding people and context is also not enough. This is why we need people across disciplines working with one another to help address our respective blindspots. This was the impetus behind the Critical Design Graduate Interest Group which I helped to co-found with two other forward thinking architects and scholars.
I happen to believe that good design means putting people and context at the center and good geography means trying to apply our knowledge to real world projects. This has the power to impact the way we live and relate to one another in ways that align with our ideals. This is why I’ve invested almost two years studying something that most people will mistake as the study of rocks. It will have been worth every pebble.
Lynda Turet is graduating from the University of Washington with a masters degree in Geography. She is co-founder of the Critical Design GIG and recently repatriated Seattleite. Visit her at http://www.lyndaturet.com for more about her interest in social design.