History of the Department of Geography University of Groningen

In July 2019 the book ‘Keunings Erfenis – Beelden uit de geschiedenis van de Faculteit Ruimtelijke Wetenschappen van de Rijksuniversiteit Groningen’ [Keuning’s Heritage – Views form the history of the faculty of spatial sciences at the University of Groningen] was published. The Geography Department, where I started my Geography Education and did my Bachelor – at that time in the Netherlands still denoted as ‘candidates exam’ – as well as my Master [‘doctorandus exam’]. This book reflects the history of the Faculty of Spatial Sciences of the University of Groningen. A history full of memories. It covers the period from 1948, when Dr. Henk Keuning was appointed professor of economic and human geography, up to the year 2018. The book ends with a look through to the contemporary Faculty of Spatial Sciences.

I myself studied Geography in Groningen from 1976-1982. It is rather unfortunate that the title of the book refers so specifically to the founder of the Geography Department, while I myself, and I assume many others after me as well, do not have any memory of Prof. Keuning, and the name of its founder is, in my memory, also not that representative for what I experienced at the Geography Department in Groningen.

In that respect, Prof. Piet Lukkes, to whom also a full chapter is dedicated, to which I  also contributed a short recollection, has been much more important for me personally. He was the one who, with his emphasis on research methodologies, put me on the ‘research track’, and he was also the one who taught me how to set up problem-oriented, theory-driven empirical research. He named his specific approach ‘Regiology’, the science of spatialisation. Prof. Piet Lukkes himself was not a typical critical geographer, rather on the contrary, but he certainly wanted that geography would make a difference in practice, and therefore always started his research projects with a practical problem he wanted to help to solve with his research. Science for the sake of Society! So this is still motivating our geographical research at the Radboud University, although, we are much more focusing on current pressing societal problems, and engage with these problems in a more critical way.

Through my studies in Groningen, during our fieldwork excursion in Switzerland, led by Jan Dekker and Jan de Vries, I also met my wife. So, one can imagine that these are also my dearest memories of my study in Groningen. I still refer to it when I nowadays inform our new students about our fieldwork excursions and the importance they have for our academic life. As far as I can remember I was also one of Prof. Pieter Lukkes’ first students to continue after the Master degree with a PhD, which I completed at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ).

Another person at the Department of Geography in Groningen, who became one of my tutors and friend in my later academic life, was the late Gerrit-Jan van den Berg. He was a self-made Professor in Spatial Planning, and a strong proponent of an emancipative approach, engaging for the less privileged in society.  A professor with a real ‘1968’ kind of attitude. A full Professor without a PhD-degree, so also in that respect ‘different’. A person who was ready to take a different route and to break with the hitherto practices which he observed with a critical eye. In his field, he was an admirer and scholar of the ‘father of urban planning’, John Friedmann, well known for his seminal book (1987) Planning in the Public Domain: From Knowledge to Action. Princeton University Press, Princeton, a book which, very much in line with Gerrit-Jan van den Berg’s thinking, calls for an actionist spatial planning.

Looking back, I certainly also feel gratitude to them for fostering and forming my intellectual development. I still also feel closely related to the Geography Department in Groningen, and keep up good collaborative relations. There are also some commonalities between both Geography Departments in Groningen and at the Radboud University in Nijmegen. They are both not located in the core conurbation and economic and political centre in the Netherlands, the Randstad. That puts them in a position beside the crazy hectics and fierce competition and struggles for which the Randstad is well known.  Of course, both universities are as ambitious as any other university but are a bit less affected by these delusions of the day, and are therefore in a slightly better position for thorough thinking and for the nowadays so desperately wanted ‘slow science’…