I’m a Running Researcher: Jack Layton

This post is part of the I’m a Running Researcher series. See all profiles in this series here.

Who are you?

Hello! My name is Jack Layton. I’m currently writing up my PhD on social infrastructure and amateur sports and fitness. I also work for the Bridge Group, a non-profit consultancy that works with organisations to think about social mobility and socio-economic representation.

What is your background?

I did my undergraduate degree in Geography – and my dissertation was on running in London. My masters is in Urban Studies, and the dissertation for that was on the undercroft skate space at the South Bank. I’m doing my PhD at UCL in Geography, and am trying to develop a cohesive argument for how to improve the public life of cities through the encouragement of amateur sports and fitness.

How long have you been researching running?

I first started researching and writing about running for my undergraduate dissertation, which would have been in the summer of 2013. Since then my focus has broadened to encompass all sorts of amateur sports and fitness. The three activities at the heart of my current research are Sunday league football, lido swimming, and pick-up basketball.

How did you get into researching running?

I wanted to research public space – that was the core of my interest. I wanted to explore how the use of public space affected people’s relationship to the places they lived and the communities they were a part of. At the time I was a committed semi-serious runner, and felt that my running significantly shaped my relationship to place. It seemed like a neat little project to try and take those intuitions to London and learn more about how people’s running affected their relationship to the city.

And, in a way, that’s all I’ve been doing ever since. I have looked at different kinds of sport, and tried to research quite carefully the public life of that activity. As a geographer this has often meant a close focus on spaces and places – researching the skate parks, public parks, basketball courts, and swimming pools people use. They raise all sorts of dilemmas around public provisioning, inclusion and democracy.

My motivation is to make cities and their public life more engaging, inclusive, and equitable – and I believe thinking about how we provide for amateur sport is a key part of that.

What running research have you done?

My undergraduate dissertation followed a number of running groups in and around London. I was super lucky to be put in contact with Run Dem Crew, who were incredibly welcoming to me. I joined up with them for the summer and spent time running and socialising with them. I still look back on this research as one of the best experiences I’ve had as a runner and researcher – it was a real joy to explore the significance of running with them. With the help of Alan Latham, this work has finally seen the light of day as it was included as a short case study at the end of our paper on amateur sport and fitness in Progress in Human Geography.

How do you research running?

I participate in the runs. I talk with people on the go. And have sit down conversations with them. I like to keep my interviews informal and conversational – I just want to learn about what the activity means to the person, how it affects their day to day life, and the relationship to the place they live. I’m a big admirer of the work of Michael DeLand, a sociologist at Gonzaga University in Spokane, who’s done some great research on pick-up basketball in LA.

What is the most significant, important, surprising, interesting, unusual, or favourite finding emerging from your research?

That designing and providing good spaces to do sport is hard. Running is a good sport to do anywhere, but providing the space, regulating the space, making it accessible and welcoming to all is difficult. This challenge is multiplied when you take a multi-use space like a public park, or a complex facility like a heated lido. This is why recently Alan and I have been working with the concept of social infrastructure – because we feel it helps us to talk about the hard work of designing and providing spaces that encourage activity.

Do you run?

Not anymore. Running used to be one of my favourite things to do – I was never the fastest, nor could I run the furthest, but it was something I enjoyed doing 3 or 4 times a week. Unfortunately after a series of injuries I had surgery in 2016 on my Achilles and I’ve never quite recovered. Not being able to do the thing I love triggered a case of depression for me – which I was fortunate to write about in Like The Wind (issue 12). I now do my best to swim – but I still miss running. The cocktail of endorphins and serotonin is difficult to replace!

Where can I find out more?

I’m on Twitter @MrLaytonJ, I have a blog https://urbangeog.co.uk/ (which is a little out of date, but still has some of my notes from my first running blogs in 2013 and 2014). And you can e-mail me at: jacklayton92@gmail.com.


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