Meet the IPM: Interview with Dr Steve Millington

Dr. Steve Milligton
Dr. Steve Milligton

Dr Steve Millington is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at Manchester Metropolitan University.  He is co-editor ofSpaces of Vernacular Creativity: Rethinking the Cultural Economy and Cosmopolitan Urbanism. Steve’s research focuses on ordinary and everyday place making, drawing on empirical work concerning the habitual and routine practices of football fans, household Christmas light displays and light festivals such as Blackpool Illuminations.  This research reveals contestations regarding class, taste and aesthetics, to challenge how creativity is deployed as a mechanism for revitalising declining communities and considers alternative approaches to cultural policy.  Steve is also a director of the Institute of Place Management, working directly with town and cities to help transform communities into sustainable and liveable places.  He has recently completed an ESRC project, High Street UK2020, involving 10 local centres across the UK, and is about to start a Technology Strategy Board project involving retailers, the property industry, local authorities, and trade associations, to enable these practitioners to make individual and collective decisions designed to optimise stakeholder performance and customer experience in retail centres.

Steve Millington, you were recently quoted in an article in The Guardian about Manchester and its “industrial soul”. Do you consider yourself an activist? Can academics also be activists? What does that mean both for academia and activism?

Steve Millington: I wouldn’t consider myself an activist as I am firmly embedded in the academic community, but I do care about the place where I live.  On occasion my academic interests align with the objectives of local campaigns, particularly where there are planning decisions threatening place identity or are simply unjust.  For example, I helped a local campaign in the town where I live to challenge Salford City Council’s plan to allow industrial development on the historic Chat Moss, which would have led to the loss of 200 acres prime agricultural land in the greenbelt.  I was able to bring some knowledge about planning, and importantly data I could access, which helped to successfully challenge the decision, leading to a change in the Regional Spatial Strategy. Perhaps we only won the battle, not the war.  Nevertheless, it shows how academics might help their local communities.  That said, the Save Library Walk Campaign failed, despite the expertise we brought together to challenge Manchester City Council’s decision to effectively block a public right of way between the iconic Central Library and Town Hall. There are limits to academic activism, particularly in the UK, where universities need to develop links with external institutions, which sometimes have been the focus of criticism in academic studies. Perhaps this would be less problematical if local stakeholders who occupy positions of power and make decisions about places, started to engage with academic researchers who have expert knowledge and take on board some of criticism of their practices.

“There are limits to academic activism, where universities need to develop links with external institutions, which sometimes have been the focus of criticism in academic studies.”

One of your research topics has been the Blackpool Christmas illuminations. Can you share some of your findings with us?

Steve Millington: The Christmas Lights research (with my colleague Tim Edensor) involved interviewing householders in Manchester and Sheffield who construct their own light displays by attaching somewhat chaotic, but highly festive lights to the front of their houses.  Some would argue such displays are tacky, crass or over-the-top, but our interviews revealed people who were community spirited, constructing displays for children, or simply to bring festive spirit to their neighbourhood.  I can’t imagine many ways in which ordinary people can transform seemingly sterile streets into such welcoming and enchanted spaces. I talk about this on Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed, we I think can still be downloaded, a special issue on Class at Christmas.

The Illuminations project was a logical follow-up project, as many of our Christmas Light displays said they gained inspiration from Blackpool.  Blackpool is a working class seaside resort on the Lancashire coast, and despite decline, remains one of the most popular destinations in the UK, with over 10 million visitors a year.  The Illuminations is 100-year-old light display along the promenade taking place each Autumn.  It attracts around 3 million people.

We found lots of similarities with our Christmas research, in the ways lights fostered conviviality and fun.  Contrary to media depictions of the resort (as a place for raucous stag and hen parties) the Illuminations were a space of inter-generational contact and exchange, so rare in Britain.  In addition, themes of remembered childhood and nostalgia resonated within our ethnographic studies.  We spent about three years doing this and fed back the results to the Illuminations management team, who were massively pleased, as now they had evidence their festival worked in the way they anticipated, in contradistinction to artists and consultants telling them to comprehensively modernise.  We were really pleased to learn they used our research in the case for Heritage Lottery funding to construct an Illuminations archive.

Blackpool isn’t to everyone’s tastes, but I love it.  We are planning a new phase of research there now, focusing on the regenerated promenade, which includes all sorts of fantastic design interventions, which we feel others might learn from.

“The banal has power.”

You have written extensively on ordinary lived experiences within cities. What are “geographies of everyday life“? What exactly do you research?

Steve Millington:My research is underpinned by theories of the ordinary, everyday realm of lived experience and practices, how ordinary people make sense of the world, given meaning to it.  My academic research argues that understanding everyday practice can inform better policy decisions in terms of place management and place making.   So much research, particularly on towns and cities, focuses on the spectacular, the unusual and the exceptional.  But, most human experience relates to everyday, habitual patterns and routines.  Going to work.  Doing the shopping.  Family life.  Organising our households.  Much of this is hidden.  I guess a comparison might be the way history is written.  It is always about wars, kings and queens and so on.  But what do we know about lives of ordinary people?  There are over 7 billion on the planet today, and their daily lives and iterations, when added together, is of great significance.  The banal has power.

You are interested in football from an academic point of view? How is this a field for academic research?

Steve Millington: As with all academics who have done research on football, I have to come clean and reveal my positionality.  I am a Manchester City fan, and have been since the mid-1970s.  This wasn’t a choice for.  My dad, Granddad and Grandmother, uncle, cousins and so on, were all City fans.  Always have, always will be.  I am still a season ticket holder at Manchester City and go to most home games. So I am clearly interested in football.  And I can speak about football fan culture from an insider perspective.

Geography underwent the Cultural Turn in the 1980s, which opened up the discipline to a much broader range of topics for investigation.  So why not football?  After all it is the most popular sport on the planet.  The practices involved in supporting a football club underpin habitual patterns and routines, as millions travel to and from games.  There is the spectacle of the stadium and the atmosphere within, together with the ordinary and everyday places that constitute “going to the match”, involving pubs, transit hubs, bookmakers, takeaways, hot-dog stands etc.  Football takes up so much of ordinary life, in terms of media consumption, online forums, supporters clubs and even stretches into fashion and shopping preferences. So football is much than the time and space of the stadium, for some it is all encompassing.  The ordinary is important.  I am not interested in hooligans or the extremities of fan culture.  Just the ordinary fan, enjoying a few moments escapism through the entertainment that is football.  Again, it is so important and global, but what do we really know about this fan culture?

“So I am clearly interested in football.  And I can speak about football fan culture from an insider perspective.”

You are the chair of the Placemaking SIG at Institute of Place Management. What is placemaking? Is it just a fashionable word for something we’ve always done?

Steve Millington: I have just organised sessions on placemaking at the Annual American Association of Geographers conference in San Francisco, and I am running similar sessions at the Royal Geographical Society Conference in London this summer.  I was explaining this to a professor at an esteemed university in the UK, who replied “isn’t place-making just geography?”.  I probably agree.

The interview was conducted by Ares Kalandides

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