Professor Robin Affric Kearns

MA (Auckland), PhD (McMaster)

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I am a socio-cultural geographer with a broad and largely collaborative research programme. My academic path took me from Auckland to Canada and back.

As an MA student at The University of Auckland in the early 1980s, I researched community dynamics and land use change in Northland, the region of my childhood.  Receipt of a Commonwealth Scholarship then took me to McMaster University in Canada and a Geography programme with strengths in political economy and quantitative analysis. While absorbing those influences, I retained an earlier interest in humanistic geography and developed a doctoral thesis on the urban experience of psychiatric patients.

I returned to Auckland in 1988 for two years of postdoctoral work supported by the Medical Research Council and commenced a lectureship in what was then the Department of Geography in 1990.

Research | Current

Over the last two decades, my broad research programme has converged on two themes in socio-cultural geography: 

  1. Understanding the meanings and dynamics of places and their influence on human wellbeing.
  2. The downstream effects of policies and political practices on the cultural dynamics of places.

My work aims to generate theoretical and methodological contributions in the international literature as well as inform local policy and planning. My inquiries range across rural (e.g. school closure), urban (e.g. suburban trans-nationalism), coastal (local resistance to capital-intensive residential development), and health-system (e.g. hospital) spaces.

The unifying theme, as expressed in the title of my 2002 Routledge book, is a critical understanding of the links between culture, health and place. My work is both empirical and theoretical, and aims to demonstrate the mutuality of discovery, integration, application, and pedagogy. It is largely collaborative. I love working with enthusiastic colleagues who appreciate the joy of generating new ideas, the adventure of fieldwork and the satisfaction of good writing.

My work is currently funded by a range of grants from external agencies including the Marsden Fund, the Health Research Council of NZ and the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology.

Postgraduate supervision

I am an enthusiastic teacher with a particular passion for postgraduate supervision. My goal is to challenge students to ‘unpack’ the nature of place and see relationships within and between places that might otherwise remain obscure.

There are six strands to my research (and I am open to postgraduate supervision across these strands):

  • The capacity of urban design to promote physical activity as well as social cohesion. This concern has been part of a global move towards more sustainable cities. I co-lead studies linking urban design and health that are associated with the Centre for Sustainable Cities (see and I lead the Urban Dynamics research theme in the University’s School of Environment. I have also investigated parental and children’s travel preferences and the place of schools in promoting physical activity. This work helped establish Auckland’s first walking school bus.
  • The ‘downstream’ consequences of the deinstitutionalisation of mental health care and the ways the lives of users and providers of services have been reshaped by evolving policy. I collaborate with colleagues in the UK & Canada to examine changes within the voluntary sector as well as the challenges of ‘recycling’ former sites of care.
  • The impacts of rural restructuring on community wellbeing. These studies (e.g.rural health care provision in Northland [1988-90; rural housing schemes [1996-97] and  school closures in south Taranaki [2003-04] have helped advanced a deeper understanding of the place of service provision in sustaining communities.
  • The transformation of clinic and hospital spaces and their connection to health care consumption. Through case studies ranging from rural clinics to children’s hospitals, I have applied ideas of narrative, metaphor and symbolism to significantly advance understanding of contemporary medical settings and their capacity to be therapeutic spaces.
  • The influence of transnationalism on the urban landscape and experience of health and wellbeing. I collaborate with colleagues in the School of Business, Asian Studies, and Anthropology in the quest to interpret changes evident in the increasingly global city that is Auckland
  • The character of consumption spaces and practices and links to the experience of wellbeing. This work reaches across material, and symbolic landscapes to include interest in music (eg festivals), recreation (eg camping), and heritage (eg tramping hut) experience.

Current postgraduate students

  • Amanda-Maree Gaddes (MSc): Aging in the home: Exploring housing maintenance and well-being in Orewa.
  • Leon Hoffman (MA): Experience of the coast on Great Barrier Island.  
  • Julie Trafford-Barlett (PhD): Communities of practice and capacity/capability potentialities: Spaces of knowledge production in postgraduate geography education in New Zealand (supervised with Richard Le Heron).
  • Valerie Milne (PhD Otago): Access to rheumatology services in Wellington (supervised with Andrew Harrison)
  • Tara Coleman (PhD): Experiences of home and neighbourhood for older people on Waiheke Island  (supervised with Janine Wiles)
  • Alex de Freitas: (PhD) At the intersection of digital and public space: Free WiFi and the changing geographies of the city and its ‘publics’. Supervised with  Richard Le Heron)
  • Jane Lee (PhD): Return migration of young Korean New Zealanders, 1999-2009: Gohyang, Nation, and Self. (supervised with Wardlow Friesen)
  • Christina Ergler (PhD): Understanding the Relationships between Activity and Neighbourhoods in Children’s Geographies – The Power of Feelings (supervised with  Karen Witten, Massey University).
  • Alexandra Macmillan (PhD): Modelling the trip to work in Auckland (supervised with Alistair Woodward)
  • David Bade (PhD): Heritage Management and the Nature/Culture Dualism: Managing Cultural Heritage on Conservation Islands in New Zealand.(supervised with Gretel Boswijk)
  • Corina Buckenberger (PhD): 'Myths' of housing qualities in an owner-occupant dominated environment: experiences from the Auckland Region, New Zealand (supervised with Wardlow Friesen).
  • Jackie Liggins (PhD): ‘What makes a place a place of healing in the provision of mental health care?’(supervised with Peter Adams)
  • Margaret Earle (MPH): ‘Community gardens, health & equity’ (supervised with Geoff Fougere, University of Otago)

Selected publications and creative works (Research Outputs)

  • Hanlon, N., & Kearns, R. A. (2016). Health and rural places. In M. Shucksmith, D. Brown (Eds.) Routledge international handbook of rural studies (pp. 62-70). Abingdon, Oxford: Routledge.
  • Andrews, G. J., Kingsbury, P., & Kearns, R. (2014). Soundscapes of wellbeing in popular music.
  • Kearns, R. A., & O'Brien G (2014). A week on the Chathams: A geographer and a poet look back on a week spent on the Chatham Islands, December 2012. Landfall (227), 77-86. Related URL.


Contact details

Primary office location

SCIENCE CENTRE 302 - Bldg 302
Level 5, Room 561
New Zealand

Web links