23 July 2014

A year studying abroad in Vancouver and a field trip to New York helped put a prize winning student on her desired career path.

When Philippa Heath left school she wasn't sure if she wanted to go to art college or study geography at university.  A conversation at a Lancaster University open day about spending a  year in Canada as part of her Human Geography degree helped tip the balance.

Now Philippa has won the prize for achieving the highest mark out of the 207 undergraduates graduating this year at the Lancaster Environment Centre. Her achievement is particularly impressive as this year's graduates gained a record number of higher grade degrees.

Philippa's next step – a masters degree in Landscape Architecture,  will combine her experience in geography with her passion for art and design. .

Beaches, mountains and urban space in Vancouver

“I've had an amazing time doing my degree, the year in Vancouver at the University of British Columbia was the best year of my life,”said Philippa, who was presented with the Lancaster Environment Centre's top prize by Dr Ruth Alcock, head of Enterprise & Business Partnerships which sponsored her prize.

“While in Vancouver I studied a lot about the relationship between city and landscape, and the relationships between space and place.  Vancouver is such a young city compared to cities in the UK. I also learnt to ski and went to the mountains every weekend, and there were beaches on campus which were an added bonus.”,

Discovering city landscapes in New York

On her return to the UK, as well as doing modules on Africa and the Amazon, Philippa chose a field course about inequality in the city, which took her to New York.

“While there we did research into the way New Yorkers interact with The High Line, a linear park created out of an old elevated train track that snakes up the West side of Manhattan. It offers a different perspective on the city – you are in a park but still get unusual views of the city while still being embedded in the urban space. We then compared our findings to other ‘natural’ spaces within the city.” 

Philippa pursued her interest in the boundary between urban and rural landscapes in her final year dissertation, which looked at the many different definitions of what separates a town from the country.

Town and country in Essex

“I saw a TV programme by Nick Crane, as part of a BBC series he made called ‘Town’, which featured my local town of Saffron Walden in Essex. I managed to track Nick down on the internet and spoke to him for about an hour. He seemed really interested in my ideas.

“The dissertation looked at different definitions and processes of how areas morph from being rural into being urban, from being a village into a town, and how those definitions may differ depending on whether you looked at authority guidelines or asked those who live there and experience the town everyday. 

“The culture of Saffron Walden is quite rural, although it calls itself a town. People can step out of their doors and walk their dog without having to get into a car, that was one way people defined being in a rural area,” said Philippa.

Working with landscapes

A work experience stint with a landscape architect firm in Essex, Wynne Williams and Associates, specialising in the education sector showed Philippa that she enjoyed working with landscape design professionally.

“The firm did a lot of work with schools, making the spaces both practical as well as fun and aesthetically pleasing. Along with this, landscape architects have to make the landscape permeable by sometimes creating huge drainage tanks under playgrounds and car parks, which people can't see and don't even know exist but are crucial to the life and purpose of the landscape.”

The benefits of a study abroad degree

Lancaster University has recently introduced a fast track study abroad option, enabling Philippa to complete her BA Geography (North America) in three years instead of the more common four year course.  She believes she benefited hugely from having links with two universities in two different countries.

She kept in touch with her urban geography professor in Vancouver, Dr Trevor Barnes, when she returned to Lancaster, and he helped with her masters application to Sheffield University, as did Professor Philip Barker, her dissertation supervisor in Lancaster.

“Phil was incredibly supportive all year,”said Philippa, who also praised Julia Bland, the Lancaster Environment Centre undergraduate teaching co-ordinator who was “brilliant and picked up so many pieces when I thought things were falling apart.”

Philippa was offered places to study Landscape Architecture in both Edinburgh and Sheffield, and chose Sheffield University because of its academic focus and excellent reputation in the field of urban planning and design.

“Buildings are obviously important but without considering the environmental impact of what you are building the structures will remain detached from the landscape they are in. I like landscape architecture because you are producing something that's living and that will potentially live far longer than you ever will and that’s a really exciting prospect.”

Find out more about studying at the Lancaster Environment Centre.