Dr Hitchings seminar on “The changing practice of recreational running in cities: questioning how exercise comes to happen in particular urban environments” – April 23

The Changing Practice of Recreational Running in Cities: Questioning How Exercise Comes to Happen in Particular Urban Environments

Date: April 23, Tuesday

Time: 4-5:30 pm

Venue: Earth Lab, Block AS2/02-03, Department of Geography, FASS, NUS Kent Ridge

Chair: Dr Elaine Ho, FASS Geography

Organizers: FASS Cities Research Cluster and FASS Department of Geography

If you would like to attend, please RSVP with your name, email, and affiliation. Thank you and hope to see you there!

Flyer for download here.


This seminar reports on an ethnographic interview project with recreational runners in London. The objective was to use accompanied runs and discussion with those who either run inside on treadmills or outside on streets to understand how it is that everyday urban exercise practices come to take place within particular environments. In this regard the project drew on two arguments we have been developing over recent years. The first is about the value of questioning the mundane dynamics that sustain a wider trend towards staying indoors. The second is about how localised combinations of people and objects shape the character of city life. One intention was to generate fresh ideas about the effective promotion of public health. Though those charged with encouraging public health through recreational running do not generally focus on the lived experience of different environments that was of particular interest to us, an understanding of this experience could prove quite valuable to them. Another intention was to consider the benefits of such a grounded approach to the physical experience of different city spaces. The hope here was that it might help breathe new life into urban studies by taking us from research styles typified by critique to others aspiring to identify effective interventions by virtue of a close examination of how particular practices take hold.

Russell Hitchings, Department of Geography UCL

Alan Latham, Department of Geography UCL

About the Speaker – Dr Russell Hitchings

After graduating, the speaker and co-author of the paper on which the research seminar is based, Dr Russell Hitchings (UCL), briefly worked in advertising before returning to research through an MSc centred on environment and society issues at University College London. This led to a doctorate and a postdoctoral fellowship also at UCL where both were supported by the Economic and Social Research Council. After this he moved to Hull to take up an academic fellowship in Human Geography before returning as a lecturer in 2007.

His research uses qualitative methods to investigate everyday practices in contemporary cities and draw out what these practices tell us about the changing ways in which people relate to elements of the natural world. The wider aim is to contribute to our understanding of how urban societies could be better organised in terms of resource use and social wellbeing. These interests have been substantiated so far through three specific projects. The first concerned plants and gardens in contemporary London, the second examined how office workers relate to the bundles of phenomena we group together under the banner of outdoor experience, and the third builds on a current interest in seasonality to explore how different groups of older people negotiate winter.

1. People and plants in the gardens of London

These interests first took shape during his doctoral work on how people experienced plants in contemporary London gardens. Domestic gardens were, at the time, being repositioned in terms of how they were portrayed in the media and, given that these spaces cover over three per cent of our national land mass, he reasoned that any corresponding changes in physical practice were likely to have significant impacts in terms of issues that ranged from social wellbeing and wildlife preservation to water consumption. This project built on conceptual ideas about material culture and nonhuman agency and worked across a number of sites that included the garden centre, the garden design studio and different types of domestic garden. Through interview and ethnographic approaches, it considered whether the ways in which people related to living plants were indeed changing, questioned the reasons why this was so, and thereby sought to stimulate debate about the roles domestic gardens were beginning to assume.

2. Professional office workers and the urban outdoors

More recently, he has become interested in local cultural practices of ambient experience through a further grant from the Economic and Social Research Council. People in the west now spend over ninety per cent of their time within buildings that are increasingly air conditioned at great environmental expense. This trend is troubling in terms that range from resource consumption to social sustainability. This second project took a sample of professional office workers in the city of London, as those potentially at the forefront of a wider movement towards increasingly sanitized indoor existences, and tracked their activities as they pass through the changing outdoor conditions presented by one calendar year. In the context of a need to understand the cultural adaptations entrained by global climate change and the means by which we might steer cities toward more sustainable futures, this study made a number of contributions. These relate to the changing geographies of thermal comfort and the possibility of societal indifference to the seasons, the weather, and other aspects of wider climatic change.

3. Older people and the winter transition today

There are many reasons to be interested in how older people organise their winter warmth within ageing societies such as ours. Winter mortality rates are highest amongst this group and several initiatives have therefore become committed to alleviating the fuel poverty some older people are prone to experience. Yet many older people are also wealthier than ever and this leads to alternative environmental anxieties about how their home heating could exacerbate wider climatic changes. By straddling these two issues, this third project began with contention that existing studies of older person winter adaptation are relatively neglectful of evolving social conventions in terms of how individuals and households become gradually drawn into seemingly appropriate patterns of behaviour. Yet it is only through close consideration of exactly this process that we will fully understand the changing ways in which older people are inclined to organise their winter experience and the resulting scope for useful interventions of various forms. By applying a novel approach to the evolution of personal practice to a stratified sample of older people in the contemporary UK, this project aims to address this issue and thereby uncover policy relevant and academically interesting insights about this increasingly important sector.

Areas of interest

In the process of completing these projects he has become interested in a number of areas of academic research. These include:

  • material culture and embodiment
  • theories of social practice and social norms
  • different approaches to nature and environmental experience
  • human adaptation and contemporary consumption
  • qualitative interview and ethnographic methods

He is particularly interested in holding different disciplinary perspectives in tension in order to explore how they can usefully enrich each other. He would welcome enquiries from potential research students interested in working with him on any of the above areas of interest.


2004 University College London PhD: Human Geography

2000 University College London MSc: Public Understanding of Environmental Change

1997 Cambridge University BA: Geography

Academic Appointments

2007-present University College London

Lecturer in Human Geography

2005-2007 University of Hull

RCUK Academic Fellow in Human Geography

2004-2005 University College London

ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow in Human Geography