Q&A with geography postdoctoral fellow Garrett Nelson

by Lex Kang | 9/26/17 1:55am

Geography postdoctoral fellow Garrett Nelson recently won a Royal Town Planning Institute Research Excellence Award for his paper and map on the role of commuter patterns on the development of megaregions in the United States, titled “An Economic Geography of the United States: From Commutes to Megaregions” that he co-wrote with Alasdair Rae, an urban studies and planning professor at The University of Sheffield. Their paper was one of five winners of the award, given at the 2017 United Kingdom-Ireland Planning Research Conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Nelson completed his undergraduate degree at Harvard College, where he studied social sciences and visual and environmental studies. He then went on to get his Master’s degree in geography, landscape and culture at the University of Nottingham and earned his Ph.D., also in geography, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At the College, Nelson’s research focuses on the intersection between social change and geography.

How did you get interested in maps?

GN: I’ve been interested in maps since I was a little kid, when I put maps up on my wall. In college, I started learning about the field of geography as a geography major. I started realizing that maps are one of the best sources of evidence about how the places we live in change. For those reasons, I wanted to start studying geography at the graduate level — to basically think about the world in a way that looking at a map encourages you to.

Why did you decide to construct this map of megaregions in the United States?

GN: One of the things I’m really interested in is how we divide places into discrete units. We took this really large data set about communal United States, and we basically asked ourselves the question, “If we look at how people are moving across states from their homes to their workplaces, how would we use that to think about how the U.S. is divided up into discrete parts, instead of using political lines that in some cases we’ve had for centuries?”

What was the most interesting discovery you found in your research?

GN: One of the things I was most interested in was the places where data analysis matched with our intuitive sense of place. So for instance, western Massachusetts, in our analysis, gets matched more closely with Connecticut than it does with Boston. And to the computer that did the data analysis, it obviously doesn’t know anything about how people imagine places. But in our own sense of the world, people who live in western Massachusetts often really do feel more connected to Connecticut than they do to Boston. So the way that kind of cold, unfeeling data analysis ended up with results that actually really closely match our own sense of how the world works is really illuminating.

What kind of research do you want to do next?

GN: One of the things I’m really curious about is how these patterns have changed over time. So unfortunately our best data sets are from the present, but I want to explore new kinds of data on how spatial interpretation has changed, how people’s lifestyles have changed, how economic integration has changed and how patterns of mobility and circulation have changed.

How do you think your research can be applied by policy makers?

GN: So we still make most of our policies based on political lines that have always existed. Not always, but, for many, many years. So state laws and regional planning laws are based on these geographic divisions that were sometimes drawn by colonial governments from London. In real life, we know these borders oftentimes don’t make sense, so if you’re asking a question about where should a new commuter rail be built, or how should a new regional park system be designed, it’s more useful to think about the functional patters of interaction in these megaregions. It’s more useful to think about those than it is to think about the boundaries that have been left behind by older borders in geographical organization.

What recommendations or advice do you have for other scholars pursuing geography?

GN: My advice is to ask questions first and then figure out how to make your tools and your evidence fit those questions. I’ve studied the same question about geographic interaction, looking at many different pieces of evidence. I’ve looked at how planners in the 19th century debated politicians in terms of how to organize cities and metropolitan areas, and then I’ve done this more recent work using data analysis on commuter zones. So I think some of the best research begins with curiosity, and then it goes on to ask the questions of, “How am I going to find and analyze the evidence that will give me the answer to this curiosity that I started out with?”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.