Urban Environment

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Using Urban Earth to take a fresh look at the urban environment

Traditional methods of studying the urban environment in geography have tended to focus on the use of models that predict patterns of spatial distribution and interaction within and between cities. But there are other ways that we can come to gain an understanding of the urban places within which many students live. A qualitative approach, using images, video, sounds and experiential fieldwork techniques might tell us a different story, and complement the more scientific, analytic approaches just mentioned. Also, by engaging with students' own everyday geographies we may well heighten awareness, engage feelings and provoke questions, thereby enriching young people's understanding of the urban environment. On this page we are going to look at some ways in which we might creatively use a project called URBAN EARTH in the geography classroom.

They study of urban environments is a crucial part of all GCSE and A Level specifications. Download links with GCSE and A LEVEL specifcations (uploaded in 2011) (PDF)


URBAN EARTH is a project which aims to represent our habitat by walking across some of the Earth's urban areas. It was created by Dan Raven-Ellison along with a number of other eager geographers around the world. The idea is to walk a transect across an urban area, starting and ending in the rural fringe. A photograph is taken every ten steps, and afterwards the images are stitched together to make a fast paced 'film' of the journey. The journeys themselves are planned to reflect both the size and the socio-economic make-up of the area. URBAN EARTH walks have taken place in cities across the UK, as well as in Mumbai, Guadalajara and Mexico City.  

Visit the Urban Earth website >>>

A pause in the journey

When you watch an URBAN EARTH video you see the urban landscape rushing towards you at a tremendous rate. The overall effect is quite stunning, and alerts you to the vast variety of socio-economic and cultural geographies that exist side by side in our cities. Watching the videos in this way makes us realise that urban areas are neither static nor uniform, but contain within them a high degree of change and unexpectedness.

However, in this activity we are going to see what happens when we pause the videos in mid-flow. We are going to see what we make of the scene we are presented with. This could work especially well with students on an Interactive White Board. The object is to pause the video at a more or less random point, and you are not allowed to rewind! This fits in well with the general ethos of URBAN EARTH where the element of choice is kept to a minimum.

The kinds of question that might be asked will vary depending on the content of the still. However, they might include things like: What kind of place is this? How does the place make me feel? What people would use this place? Would I feel safe walking here? Remember, you can pause as many times as you like. If you don't have internet access in the classroom then you can download images from the walks from Flickr beforehand which may be just as effective. Only photos from the London and Mexico City walks are on Flickr at the moment, but more are planned to be added.

Urban Earth's photostream on Flickr

Coming to your senses

However powerful the experience of watching an URBAN EARTH video may be, it is still a thoroughly visual affair. It is hard to get a real feeling for the journey from sight alone. What kind of sounds and smells might there be along the journey? What opportunities for touching and tasting may arise? Is there a certain 'feel' of a place that cannot be appreciated without actually being there in person?

Unless we head out and undertake the journey ourselves we cannot say for sure. But we can at least employ our imaginations and pretend that we are having these sensory experiences. Why not repeat the above procedure, again pausing the video at intervals, but this time get students to focus on the things that are not visually present.

Get them to think about what, if they were in that place, they might be smelling, hearing, touching and tasting. Allow some time for students to write these thoughts down and to share them afterwards, perhaps in the form of a poem for example. Younger children could also do this activity using this Sense Recording Sheet.

Take a themed walk

Many people have decided to maintain a specific focus during an URBAN EARTH walk. Examples have included such diverse things as evidence of industrial heritage, play spaces and signs that say 'no'. One possible activity based around URBAN EARTH would be to use one of the videos in order to take a similarly themed 'virtual' walk. This could be quite challenging when the videos are played at full pace, so it might be better to view the video as a slideshow. The London and Mexico City walks are both available to view as slideshows on Flickr and can be viewed as slow as you like.

Some potential themes might include:

  • Redevelopment: Look out for places such as those in the photo above where new buildings and spaces are being made.
  • Parks and other green spaces: Where in the city are there the most, and where is there least?
  • Advertisements such as billboards, on buses etc.: How much advertising are we exposed to during the walk?
  • CCTV cameras: How many can you spot, which parts of the city have most?
  • Everyday activities: Who's shopping and what are they buying? Who looks like they are working? Who's eating?
  • Signs: Such as those that forbid access for example, or signs that give orders.

View London slideshow

View Mexico City slideshow

Get to know a place

Get students to pick a short five second clip from one of the videos at random. It might be in their home town, or another part of the UK or abroad. What is this place we are presented with in these frames? It is highly likely to be an innocuous suburb of a far away town that they have never heard of before or would ever have reason to visit. Now is an opportunity to change that. Ask them to do some research on the internet and find out more about this place. They may have to look for street names and signs to identify exactly where they are. This activity could also be done effectively with Google Map's Street View facility.

What is their first impressions of this place? Is it an expensive looking area, or does it look like a deprived suburb? Would they like to visit or live in this place?

What kind of reputation does this place have? How does local or national media portray it? Do these fit with their impressions upon viewing the place?

Can they find anything out about the past of the place, including old photos? Or are there any plans afoot to regenerate the area, and if so can the views of local residents be found?

Based on their new found knowledge, students could prepare an imaginary newsletter for the area, or a tourist brochure, or simply a A3 poster compiling together all that they have found out about the area. They might then get in touch with their peers who live and go to school in that area, introducing themselves and their place and work together to find similarities and differences relating to the questions above.

Assessing sustainability

We might use URBAN EARTH for comparative studies between cities. In this activity, students will view URBAN EARTH videos of several cities and assess how sustainable they are. Again, this would probably work better at a slower pace, and Google Street View could be used along with URBAN EARTH. To begin with, students will study the Egan Wheel, which contains eight criteria that can be used to assess the sustainability of a given community. Then they will complete an assessment sheet as they watch the videos in order to record evidence of sustainability and the lack of it. They should look out for the following kinds of features:

  • Green spaces, recycling facilities and evidence of renewable energy use
  • Congestion on the roads, presence of public transport and/or cyclists 
  • Signs of a vibrant local economy with independent shops and businesses
  • Evidence of plentiful services such as schools and hospitals 
  • Urban design - does the city appear well-planned and aesthetically pleasing?

Students will then examine the results of their assessment sheets for each of the cities they have viewed and then rank them in order of sustainability. They could then compare this with the actual list of UK cities ranked by global footprint which can be viewed online. The next step would be to get students to select one of the cities and suggest how things might be altered to improve sustainability. If they have the necessary skills, they could portray this visually, using either an online or printed map or a GIS.

Download Egan Wheel

Download Sustainability Assessment Sheet

Other Ideas

Speed writing

This could be a nice starter activity. None of the URBAN EARTH videos lasts for longer than ten minutes and most of them are much shorter. Get the students to watch the video at full speed on an Interactive White Board. As they do so, they should write down all of the observations, impressions and feelings that they receive whilst viewing the video. Remind students that this kind of fleeting image of a place is often all we ever get (when we view a city from the inside of a train for example, or from a few shots on TV). How can we get past these initial conceptions of a place?

Sounds like place

URBAN EARTH videos are purposefully silent, so as not to distort the experience of simply viewing the journey. However, this does not mean that there is nothing to be gained from thinking about the kinds of soundtrack that would 'suit' a particular place. Certainly, sound has a way of affecting our feeling towards places. Students could play videos slowly with the Flickr slideshow and think about the music or sound effects that could be added to accompany the different kinds of places that the walk takes one through. Clearly, for highly IT literate students who are also taking music there could be scope for a project that involves setting a full soundtrack to an URBAN EARTH video. 

Investigate inequalities

Did you know that the route of an URBAN EARTH walk is calculated using the Index of Multiple Deprivation? The chosen route always mirrors the distribution of deprivation within the urban area. It could be a very interesting exercise for students to use the data available on the Communities and Local Government website in order to plan a transect through their own city, or a city of their choice, using indices of multiple deprivation. They could then use Google Street View in order to do the walk virtually. They will gain a strikingly visual insight into how socio-economic patterns vary within settlements and gain experience in using geographical data sets into the bargain.

And finally... get out there and do your own URBAN EARTH!

As we have seen, viewing an URBAN EARTH walk on a computer is an excellent opportunity for some geographical learning, but it will never be a substitute for students getting out there and doing an urban walk for themselves. The walk doesn't have to be as long as those we have seen on the website- it could be a transect of the local area. But the principle would be the same, with students taking photographs at every ten steps along the way and then afterwards uploading them into a short film. But you don't necessarily have to stick to this formula. Encourage students to be creative in the way that routes are planned, how photos are taken and the final product is presented.   

Further Reading

Askins, K. & Raven-Ellison, D. (2010) 'Spotlight on URBAN EARTH', Geography, 95, 2, pp. 106-111

Halocha, J. (2009) 'You don't need eyes to see: you need vision', Teaching Geography, 34, 3, pp.116-118

Raven-Ellison, D. (2009) 'Representing places, people and lives - using digital media', in D. Mitchell (Ed.) Living Geography. London: Chris Kington Publishing.

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1 Comment


Lee Burns Guest

This is fantastic stuff, very inspiring for a Sunday morning. Can't wait to get into school and show some of my year 9 students tomorrow.

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