Sheffield – A City in Context

A City in ContextWhat happens if you lock two creative people and three geographers in a pub, pour some statistics about their city over them and let their mind work out the rest? You could find out the result at this year’s Festival of the Mind of the University of Sheffield that went on for 10 days throughout Sheffield. Nick Bax and Daniel Fleetwood of Humanstudio were the two creative minds that teamed up with Carl Lee of Sheffield College and Danny Dorling & myself from the University of Sheffield to take a look at the impact of higher education on the city in a slightly unusual way. The result of this collaboration is the short film ‘A City in Context‘ viewed during the festival and now available online.

As the notes to the film explain, the thinking behind this short film is to show that so much of what is studied in geography is part of a complex, evolving complexity. Individual ‘facts’ can be linked to other information to help build up a wider and better understanding of the world in which we live. Carl starts his new geography students off by suggesting that it is a ‘join the dots’ subject; all those snippets of information whirling around the world waiting to be connected in some way so a more complete understanding can be developed.
However one of the fundamental principles of geography is that ‘Everything is related to everything else (but near things are more related than distant things)’. This is known as Waldo Tobler’s first law of geography. It has been thought that globalisation and particularly the internet would lead to the ‘death of distance’, the ‘Flat World’ propounded by Thomas Friedman. Such thinking is an outright challenge to Tobler’s law. It is true that the distant can now be near; in Sheffield that is increasingly felt by the rapid growth in non-UK students studying in the city. We can Skype, surf and stumble our way through a more complex world than we ever imagined even a couple decades ago and all from our smart phones where-ever we are.
Perhaps more pertinently economic forces that develop far from Sheffield shape the city’s fortunes. Whether that is the Chinese savings that provided a significant amount of the initial capital to fuel the ballooning private debt that has led to Sheffield and the UK mired in economic recession at the present time. Or it may be demand for basic food stuffs from a growing and increasingly wealthy global population that is helping to drive up the price of many staples food in the UK.
However it would be foolish to discard Tobler. In a city like Sheffield, for most people, the most important focus of their life is the neighbourhood in which they live. This is a reality that can have profound impacts upon not only their general well- being but their life expectancy. In Sheffield the difference between the highest life expectancy and the lowest is the same as the gap between Japan (with the World’s highest national life expectancy – blip from the tsunami excepted) and Pakistan (a country at an altogether different level of development to Japan). In Sheffield that gap is expressed over just 4 miles from Worrall to Netherthorpe.
For this commission the focus is on the city of Sheffield. However understanding a place today has never been more linked to how that place is related to the rest of the world. This is at the heart of globalisation. Sheffield was one of the first cities of the industrial revolution which propelled globalisation from colonial plunder to one driven primarily by urban patterns of consumption.
With the University of Sheffield currently ranked at 101 in the global rankings of universities. And a more recent international ranking placing the University as 66th best out of the top 200 worldwide the city still has an important global presence beyond its World renowned manufacturing skills. The success of Sheffield increasingly depends on us all appreciating the connectivity and complexity of the world in which we live even if we rarely venture into the city centre let alone far flung foreign lands.
All the statistics used for the film are explained in the accompanying film notes (pdf).
A City in Context - Projected on Sheffield City Hall
The Festival of the Mind was a celebration of ideas, culture and collaboration. The University of Sheffield has teamed up with the city’s creative community to design a magical week of performances, talks, exhibitions and activities going from September 20th-30th 2012 in various locations throughout the city. A City in Context was first screened and discussed at the Spiegeltent at Barker’s Pool. The picture above was taken at one of the open air screenings of the film. It shows Tobler’s first law of geography projected onto Sheffield City Hall after sunset.
Festival of the Mind

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