Applied Geography and Public Policy

The practical value of the applied geographical approach has been demonstrated in the foregoing discussion. Applied geographers are actively engaged in investigating the causes and ameliorating the effects of 'natural' phenomena including acid precipitation, landslides, and flooding. Key issues of environmental change and management also represent a focus for applied geographical research with significant contributions being made in relation to a host of problems ranging from the quality and supply of water, deforestation, and desertification to a series of land use issues including agricultural de intensification, derelict and vacant land, and wetland and townscape conservation. Applied geographers with a particular interest in the built environment have, in recent decades, directed considerable research attention to the gamut of social, economic, and environmental problems which confront the populations of urban and rural areas in both the developed and developing realms. Problems of housing, poverty, crime, transport, ill health, sociospatial segregation, and discrimination have been the subject of intense investigation, while other topics under examination include problems ranging from boundary disputes and political representation to city marketing. The application of techniques in applied geographical analysis is of particular relevance in relation to spatial analyses where the suite of problems addressed by applied geographers ranges from computer mapping of disease incidence to simulation and modeling of the processes of change in human and physical environments.

The list of research undertaken by applied geographers is impressive but there are no grounds for complacency. While applied geographers have made a major contribution to the resolution of real world problems, particularly in the context of the physical environment, in terms of social policy formulation in the post war era the influence of applied geography has been mixed and arguably less than hoped for by those socially concerned geographers who engaged in the relevance debate a quarter of century ago.

The first refers to the eclectic and poorly focused nature of geography and the fact that 'geographical' work is being undertaken by 'nongeographers' in other disciplines. This undermines the identity of geography as a subject with something particular to offer in public policy debate. The very breadth of the discipline, which for many represents a pedagogic advantage, may blur its image as a point of reference for decision makers seeking an informed input. Geographers wishing to influence public policy must compete with other more clearly identified 'experts' working on similar themes.

A second reason for the relatively limited influence on public policy may be the apparent reluctance of (human) geographers to 'get their hands dirty' – an attitude redolent of the eighteenth century distinction between gentlemen, who derived a livelihood from the proceeds of landownership, and those who earned a living through trade. This applies less to research in physical geography where a basis in empirical science and positivist methodology has ensured that applied research has attracted support and acclaim more readily both from within the discipline and from external agencies. Significantly, the growth of environmentalism and accompanying convergence of the philosophy and methodology of physical and human geography has gone some way to bridge the gap between the two major subareas of the discipline and may represent a route for applied geographers to increase their policy influence.

The changing content and shifting emphases of human geography during the last quarter of the twentieth century represents a third factor underlying the limited social impact of applied geography. Over the period the replacement of the earlier land use focus in applied human geography by questions relating to the geography of poverty, crime, healthcare, ethnic segregation, education, and the allocation of public goods brought applied geographers into direct confrontation with those responsible for the production and reproduction of these social problems. Unsurprisingly, since policymakers are resistant to research which might undermine the legitimacy of the dominant ideology, social policy remained largely impervious to geographical critique, particularly that which emanated from the Marxist analysis of capitalism.

The failure of applied geography to exert a major influence on social policy, however, does not signal the failure of applied geography to promote any significant improvement in human well being, which, as we have seen, may be achieved by means other than via public policy. Any assessment of the contribution of applied geography to the resolution of real world problems must balance the limited success in the specific area of social policy against the major achievements of applied geographers in the large number of other problem areas outlined above. Rather than dwelling on the limited impact to date of applied geographical research in the field of social policy applied geographers can draw encouragement from their unwillingness to compromise a critical stance in return for public research funds or public acceptability of research findings. Furthermore, much of the applied social research undertaken achieves the goal of addressing real world problems via its emancipatory power to expose the structural underpinnings of contemporary sociospatial problems and by encouraging exploration of alternative social arrangements.