Rob Potter, 1950-2014
A distinguished academic expert on urban geography and the geographies of development has died
Rob Potter was born in north-west London on 24 February 1950, brought up on a council estate and attended Kynaston Technical School (1961-68). Although it was relatively unusual for boys there even to study A levels, he went on to gain a first in geography at Bedford College, University of London (1968-71), followed by a PhD at the same institution focusing on retailing and consumer behaviour in Stockport (1971-74). He was then appointed lecturer in geography. Promotion came in 1987, when he was made reader in geography at what is now Royal Holloway, University of London. He went on to become professor in 1993, serving as departmental head between 1994 and 1999. Professor Potter finished his career at the University of Reading, where he became professor of human geography in 2003 – and soon also director of research and, from 2008, head of the School of Human and Environmental Sciences.
A prolific researcher and writer, Professor Potter produced more than 30 books and over 250 chapters and journal articles during the course of his career. In 1979, he published a celebrated paper in the journal Geoforum critiquing the use of Western theories of urban planning in Barbados. This led to more than three decades of research in the Caribbean (much done in collaboration with his colleague and friend Dennis Conway, professor emeritus of geography at Indiana University), addressing issues of urbanisation, planning, housing, tourism, heritage, race, gender and returning migrants.
Such detailed research provided the basis for more general analyses, ranging from provocative position papers to seminal textbooks, most notably Geographies of Development (with Tony Binns, Jennifer Elliott and David Smith, 1999) and The Companion to Development Studies (edited with Vandana Desai, 2002). Professor Potter was also founding editor of the journal Progress in Development Studies and founding co-editor of a series of research monographs titled Global Development and the Environment. His achievements were recognised by Reading when he became a doctor of science for his contribution to urban geography and development studies in 2007, the same year in which he was elected to the Academy of Learned Societies in the Social Sciences.
Sally Lloyd-Evans, now associate professor in human geography at Reading, recalls Professor Potter as “an enthusiastic and gifted lecturer” who “even managed to coax us away from the lunchtime episode of Neighbours in the students’ union to make his lectures on time”. She also paid tribute to him as a man who did everything “to the very best of his ability, and with honesty, integrity and enthusiasm”, and could always “raise the mood or make light of the most serious issues, including his own illness”.
Diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in 2009, Professor Potter continued writing, editing and supervising students with great fortitude and humour before retiring as emeritus professor in 2013. He died on 12 April and is survived by his wife Virginia and daughter Katherine.