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Mayer Hillman

Green campaigner Dr Mayer Hillman on his family's Edinburgh roots, the happy years working on his PhD in Social Sciences, and his deep engagement in environmental policy research.


Dr Mayer Hillman

Degree Course

PhD (Social Sciences)

Year of Graduation


Your time at the University

Mayer Hillman

My links with Edinburgh began at the end of the 19th century when one of my grandfathers was appointed Rabbi of the Richmond Road synagogue. My mother was born in Rankeillor Street in 1900. Remarkably, she qualified as a medical practitioner at the University in 1923, in spite of the fact that, from the age of 14, with her elder sister, she shared absolute responsibility for bringing up seven younger siblings throughout their childhood as their mother had gone abroad at the start of World War I, and was unable to return to her family until 1918.

One of my brothers and I hitch-hiked to Edinburgh from London to attend the first Festival three decades later. As we were impecunious, we decided to sleep in Princes Street Gardens. In the early hours of the morning we were confronted by a policeman who directed us to accommodation for ‘Waifs and Strays’. We ran away!

In 1967, I retired after 13 years in my private architectural practice in London, being motivated by concerns about the long-term social and environmental consequences of the growing spread of car ownership. I then spent three months in the Planning Research Unit of Edinburgh’s Department of Urban Design as part of the Borders Regional Plan working on my design for a pedestrian-oriented new town. I was then invited by the PRU to lead a team on its development having been promised a substantial grant to do so by the newly-formed Centre for Environmental Studies in London. For some reason, unknown to me to this day, this did not transpire. I then decided to work towards a doctoral thesis in the Social Sciences department of the University of Edinburgh. My late wife and I lived for three years in a flat in Chester Street where our two sons were conceived and one of them born. These were the happiest years of our lives. On completing my PhD in 1970, I returned to London.

Your experiences since leaving the University

I was determined to carry on in this area of policy and practice and was therefore unemployed for four months. I then had the good fortune to join the educational charity, Political and Economic Planning, later re-named Policy Studies Institute, as the Head of its Environmental Research Programme and, on retirement, as Senior Fellow Emeritus till it ceased existence in 2017. (Co-incidentally, it was founded in the same year that I was – 1931.) 

For close on 50 years, I have attempted to highlight the imperative of incorporating environmental considerations into public policy. I have written or co-authored over 50 books and numerous papers on the subjects of my research, with recommendations ranging from the role of walking and cycling in transport policy, means of minimising road danger and enforcing speed limits, proposing the pattern of urban settlements to favour those with limited mobility, returning to children an environment which promotes their independence outside the home, and making better use of the hours of daylight. In the last 25 years, my work has focussed on global climate change and the lamentable failure of governments to reverse the disastrous impacts of their decisions on this area of policy which is resulting in the world now being on an inescapable path to the extinction of most of its population.

In 2006, the Guardian newspaper included me in a list of the top green campaigners of all time. I was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Science in 2017 for a ‘long and distinguished service to environmental policy research’.

For close on 50 years, I have attempted to highlight the imperative of  incorporating environmental considerations into public policy.

Dr Mayer Hillman

Alumni wisdom

Climate change is the greatest challenge ever faced by humans. It will, without doubt, increasingly diminish your quality of life, because successive governments around the world have failed to implement the radical policies required to achieve global zero carbon emissions.  It is now too late. Consider what you can do: stop flying, become a vegan or vegetarian, don’t own a car, limit the size of your family, live a local life within the planet’s capacity but, above all else, demand radical and immediate action by politicians to mitigate the impacts of a calamitous future of many species, including ours.  Your generation now has the main responsibility to deliver this ‑ but will be the main beneficiary.

Related links

Dr Mayer Hillman's website (external link)

Social Responsibility and Sustainability at the University

School of Social and Political Science