Friday, 28 May 2021 09:02

In Memoriam: Ian Masser 1937-2021

Ian MasserNot only does an obituary provide an event to celebrate achievements of a life but it also provides an excuse to recall amusing anecdotes that say as much about the person as any list of major accomplishments is able to do. Ian Masser was one whose dry sense of humour enabled him to tell great stories about his experiences and keep the listener listening. When he was appointed to the Chair of Planning in the Univers

ity of Utrecht in 1974, he recounted to me the tale of how he got his PhD. He said to me, and I summarise, that when the Chair was advertised, he reasoned that he would never get such a Chair in his own department in the University of Liverpool so he thought he would chance his arm and apply for the position in Utrecht. He said he knew the Chair had been designed for someone else but that someone else did not want the job and that is why he thought he might have a chance. A realist for all seasons was Ian. He was duly interviewed and offered the Chair. He then returned to Liverpool to begin his move. However a few weeks later, he received a letter asking him whether he had a PhD. He did not have one because in those far away days, many people in planning did not have such a qualification largely because planning was still a quite strongly professional subject area, so he replied saying he did not.

A few weeks went by and he received another letter asking him whether he could get one – a PhD, because in the Netherlands professors had some sort of higher degree, the particular form of which was lost on we British. And it was clear the authorities in the Netherlands didn’t understand the British University system either. In those days, there was no email and the telephones didn’t work that well and what complicated matters was that at every stage of the process of appointment, the position and the candidate had to be checked by the Palace in Amsterdam. The appointment had to be signed off by the Head of State. So as Ian recounted it to me, once a letter came to Liverpool, the reply was sent back to Queen Juliana of the Netherlands for approval. As Ian wryly joked, a messenger bearing the royal seal was involved at every stage, a soldier on horseback! When Ian received the letter more or less suggesting that he acquire a PhD, he replied saying he thought he could do so. This to most Brits was then truly amazing. In fact in only about 6 UK universities in those days, could you get a PhD by submission of publications and Liverpool was one such place. So he set about putting his publications together and binding them into a coherent bundle, submitting the material, which was duly examined, gaining the coveted degree. At this point, a year had elapsed from the time he had been offered the job but when he then took up his post, he found out that he was supposed to teach in Dutch by the time the year ended. In fact he painfully struggled with courses while his wife picked up the language in five minutes in the supermarket (Liverpudlian’s are great linguists!). I am sure the stories are apocryphal but Ian’s experience of getting a PhD later in life was not so unusual as this obituarist well knows. I did the same at Cardiff in the early 1980s although I had to go through the real motions and register formally. Ian of course was one of my external examiners. 

There is much about Ian that I could tell you of his career but Peter Brown who has penned some personal reflections following this will say more. I first met Ian in the University of Manchester in the Department of Town and Country Planning in 1967 where a small workshop was being convened on new techniques in planning. Ian was then a Lecturer in Civic Design in the University of Liverpool and I a Studio Assistant with duties in project teaching Both of us however saw our main focus on the development of computer models of land use and transport which were taking the planning world by storm in the 1960s. This was the decade of the systems approach, the time when planning threw off its mantle of the bureaucracy that had fashioned a planning system based largely on aesthetic design to one which began to think of cities and their planning as systems to be controlled. Models were central to this focus and as soon as we met, Ian and myself became kindred spirits in the advance of this cause. In that year, he suggested that we offer a short course on what urban land use transport models could do and he set up a series of three evening talks in Liverpool in the School of Civic Design where we both laid out what this new focus was all about. He produced the lecture notes for this which gained quite wide circulation at the time. In fact he was the first to produce a small textbook called Analytical Models for Urban and Regional Planning (1972) that established the work of the group he was building up at Liverpool (and which has continued there in various guises ever since).

Ian’s research then began to move from models to data and he really spent the rest of his life dealing with data and spatial infrastructure to enable planners to use different data. He moved from Utrecht back to the Chair of Planning at  Sheffield University in 1978 where he was Head of Department for some years. In the 1980s, he became increasingly interested in data, first becoming coordinator of the ERSC Regional Research Labs (RRLs) Initiative which then seamlessly morphed into the European Science Foundation GISDATA project (Geographic Information Systems + Data) which brought together a network of centres. He worked with Max Craglia on this project and although I did not know him so well at Sheffield – I moved to the US in 1990 – we collaborated between the SUNY-Buffalo site of the NCGIA I was directing there  (the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis) and the ESRC’s RRL and then GISDATA projects. Ultimately this collaboration was to lead to the Vespucci summer school lectures held In Florence in the 2000s. On the back of GISDATA, Ian was responsible for forming the European network of GIS centres called AGILE and he was also instrumental in supporting the AGI in building a robust organisation. Peter Brown talks a little of this below but Ian moved back to Holland in 1998 to run the planni

It is easy to forget that Ian was first and foremost trained in planning at a time when our views about cities were not particularly abstract but nevertheless highly visual. His early papers in the Town Planning Review, the first of which was on village design in metropolitan hinterlands in 1965, indicate his broad perspective on planning and design. When we cooperated in the 1970s on papers, we both expected our work to be useful to planners, notwithstanding the enormous challenges in translating this kind of knowledge into planning practice. This was a central theme in Ian’s long standing contributions and I will remember his patience and perspicuity in dealing with the challenges of building a more scientific approach into how we need to make our cities more sustainable and school at ICT from which he retired in the early 2003. Ian spent a lot of time in his later years working with spatial data infrastructure producing an influential and cogent paper with Michael Wegener in 2016 in this journal “Brave New GIS Worlds Revisited”, Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, Vol. 43(6), 1155–1161 which looked back 20 years to 1996 at which time GIS was focussing on spatial data infrastructure much of which has now been built. His last book Building European Spatial Data Infrastructures (Esri Press, 2015) as as good a summary of this perspective on the field of spatial infrastructure as you will find.

Michael Batty, University College London

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