The geography of populations
A young Mark Rosenberg expected to be an English major when he arrived at the University of Toronto in the 1970s. Instead, a group of excellent young professors, some of whom went on to become some of the most influential geographers anywhere, caught his imagination and encouraged him to pursue graduate studies in geography at the London School of Economics (LSE), which, despite its name, is in effect a university of the social sciences.
Rosenberg arrived in the U.K. during a period of great ferment that changed the country’s social and political life, as Margaret thatcher’s Conservatives had just come into power and were implementing sweeping reforms. Witnessing that transformation whetted the Canadian student’s appetite for research and fueled a lifelong commitment to social justice.
After graduating from LSE, Rosenberg spent five years in the private sector in Canada, including a stint as an Angus Reid pollster. Meanwhile, he applied for an academic position at Queen’s – once, twice. The third time, in 1985, he was successful, and today he’s still with the Department of Geography.
"What we try to do is to understand how sociological and economic change, demographics and public policy all come together and express themselves geographically," says Rosenberg. "I've been interested from the start in why some people have greater access to services than others."
Rosenberg has always worked to expose and address inequality, but also points out that it is the nature of a healthy society to have changes in government and ongoing debate, reconsideration, and reconfiguration of public policy. What he and his team of graduate students and research assistants try to do, regardless of the party in power, is to identify inequalities – such as differences in access to health care, education, or housing – particularly as they affect vulnerable populations.
Much of his work has involved older populations, but he’s also studied women’s and Aboriginal people’s health to identify health care and service delivery needs and to suggest how they might be addressed or even anticipated. For example, while the average age of First Nations people in Canada is still lower than the national average, and problems like youth addiction and teen suicide are as serious as ever, the fastest-growing demographic in that population is seniors. Rosenberg’s research suggests that public policy must respond to this trend with increased emphasis and resources for the needs of First Nations seniors.
For much of the last half dozen years, Rosenberg has worked with the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute for Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources Research to study China’s own elderly population and how to help them think through the issues they face. Once again, Rosenberg is conscious of being a witness to a remarkable moment in history as China continues to transform itself at a dizzying rate.
Rosenberg also co-chairs the Earth Systems Science Partnership’s joint project on Global Environmental Change and Human Health, which brings together scientists from around the world to investigate how climate change is affecting health both globally and regionally. Modestly bypassing his own significant contributions to the study and practice of geography, Rosenberg says he’s most proud of his graduate students.
"Some papers you write have a short shelf-life and your former students are your real legacy," says Rosenberg. "Too many people today outside the university fail to understand how important it is to bring students and professors together face-to-face in the academy and to work on projects. There is no substitute for it."
Profile by Ned Dickens
(e)Affect Issue 1, Spring 2012