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School of Geography

Meet the researcher - Dr Alex Schafran

Alex's research focuses on the contemporary restructuring and retrofitting of urban regions, with a particular emphasis on the changing dynamics of race, class and segregation across space and place. Alex is trained as an urban planner, and his work attempts to fuse critical, historically-rooted and place-based geography with a planner’s eye for policy and the future.

1.   Why did you become interested in research?

I came very late to research, and very much through the back door. I was a community organizer and policy work focused on housing rights and social justice in New York City, with a background in immigrant rights. The desire to learn more about the interconnections between housing and other aspects of the city – environmental issues, jobs, transportation, etc. – led me to an urban planning masters, where I realized that teaching about these interconnections was my calling. This meant a doctorate, which meant research. Only after starting my PhD did I realize that the production of knowledge was also pretty interesting. 

2.    What are you currently working on?

It’s incredibly exciting to be here at Leeds and have a chance to collaborate and research widely now that I am officially a proper academic, so a lot of my new work is just getting started. I am building a collaboration with colleagues in Denver which will enable me to do grounded research on the “suburban retrofit” in the United States, work that will continue a variety of current projects with various American colleagues looking at issues as diverse as the changing geography of poverty, new conceptions of segregation and  “secondary apartments” in single-family homes. I live part of the year in France, where I am starting a long-term comparative project on changes in the French banlieue and the American suburb, two legendary places often thought of as opposites. I’m thrilled to be part of the Contested Cities project here at Leeds, an exciting network of researchers in Rio, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Queretaro and Mexico City working on issues like gentrification and urban restructuring. And I am trying to find ways of collaborating with our strong GIS team, especially around the urban future of Northern England. Plus, I write, blog, organize and edit a lot, all of which I consider part of the research process.

3.   What is the most important finding from your research to date?

I like to think I have made a solid argument for a more urban explanation and understanding of the foreclosure crisis in the United States. The racial and regional geography of the crisis – long-impoverished inner-city communities, poorer inner ring suburbs and far flung exurbs – should tell us that this is not just about banks or irresponsible homeowners. This is about how we have built American cities and regions for two generations.

4.   What has been the highlight of your career so far?

I am just getting started in the research world, so I like to think that my best days are ahead of me. I was really proud when the most influential urban planning organization in San Francisco gave me a special issue of their magazine to feature some of my work on rethinking sprawl and regionalism.

 5.   What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a research career in your field?

This is very selfish advice, but I am hoping we get more people committed to redefining the possibility of urban studies as a central “nondiscipline” for the 21st century. Most models of what it means to do research and be a researcher come from either science or social science, neither of which will suffice for the co-production of urban knowledge and action over the next 50 to 100 years.

6.   What is the most common question you are asked by non-researchers?

I hope this doesn’t get me kicked off the website, but I don’t really identify as a researcher – when people ask what I do, I tell them I am a geographer and planner and I study cities. Since everyone knows something about cities and towns – I consider a town of 20 just as much a part of what I study as London – we generally just end up talking about what they know or what interests them: gentrification, mass transit, sewage, urban politics, crime, economic geography, you name it. I do end up asking them a lot of questions, so perhaps I am a researcher after all.

7.   What is your favourite hobby?

It is probably a tie between wandering or biking the streets of new cities and taking pictures, hiking or running where there are no buildings anywhere, and following my beloved San Francisco Bay Area sports teams.

For more on Alex's research and publications visit his homepage

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