Resource Database: Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Title Streetwork: An Encounter with Place
Originator Jacquelin Burgess1 and Peter Jackson2
Department 1Department of Geography, University College London, 26 Bedford Way, London, WC1H 0AP, UK
2Department of Geography, University of Sheffield, Western Bank, Sheffield, S10 2TN, UK
Tel. 1+44 (0)171 387 7050 extension 5508
2+44 (0)114 222 7908
Fax 1+44 (0)171 380 7565
2+44 (0)114 222 7908

The fieldwork forms the core of a second level course in cultural geography at UCL. The objective of the project is to get students to: encounter a place with which they are unfamiliar; 'open up' to the urban experience; and describe and interpret symbols and meanings that are conveyed through that experience. At the end of the fieldwork all students produce an interpretative essay of 2,500 words which conveys their experiences as both travellers and explorers. Students work in groups of no more than four and provide a progress report at mid-stage to the rest of the class.

The location should be somewhere that the group does not know well. The place could be a nineteenth century high street, an Edwardian suburb, a tenement block, a modern housing estate, a gentrified neighbourhood or an ethnic enclave.

Within their selected environment students should take time to become aware of the place by watching, looking and listening, but much more acutely than normal. In the course of their fieldwork students should:

It is up to the group to organise their own time and to follow up their own leads.

Summary information


Streetwork: student handout

The objective of this project is to encounter a place with which you are currently unfamiliar; to open yourself up to the urban experience; and to describe and interpret the symbols and meanings that are conveyed through that experience. As cultural geographers, you will need to question the extent to which 'people and place' are indivisible. To begin with, you will be an 'outsider', open to features that may have become commonplace or routine for local people. Your perceptions may be more acute than an 'insider's' less focused curiosity, dulled by routine observation and habitual experience. But you may be unaware of the subtle nuances of meaning that structure and hold communities together in place. Take your time to get used to the area and don't make hasty judgements.

The aim is to produce an interpretive account of your chosen place, conveying your experiences as a traveller and explorer. Think carefully about the language you will use, the analysis you will make.

Where?  Choose somewhere you don't know well. Spend time walking around until somewhere 'feels' interesting. Exercise your intuition and empathy (you've all got it!). The place could be a nineteenth-century high street, an Edwardian suburb, a 1930s shopping centre, an industrial backstreet, a tenement block, a market, a modern housing estate, a major development (like the Barbican), a gentrifying neighbourhood, or an 'ethnic' enclave (like Brick Lane).

How? ' Become aware of your environment: watch, look and listen more acutely than normal. Concentrate on specific features of the environment (colours, sounds, faces, architectural styles, graffiti, street furniture, clothes...): whatever makes the area different or distinctive.

  • talk to people, on buses, buy things, or ask directions;
  • contact someone who is knowledgeable about the area and who can give you an introduction (a community worker, a residents' association, a local teacher);
  • take photographs, make sketches, draw maps and keep a diary;
  • collect information about the area, read the local paper, use the library, visit the parks;
  • find out about the area's history, about important local buildings or famous residents;
  • for the times beyond living memory, examine the character of the built environment, historic institutions;
  • find out what issues concern people today.

You will be working in groups of four people, so you should try to work out a convenient division of labour. But, at least for the first few times, visit the area as a group. Compare your impressions of the neighbourhood and decide who will follow up which leads. Each group will be asked to make a progress report to the rest of class. By then you should have chosen an area, begun the research and thought about a possible theme. The end product will be an interpretative essay of 2500 words with appropriate illustrations.



Burgess, J. & Jackson, P. (1992), Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 16(2), pp.151-157


Group work
Qualitative geography

This is one of the case studies which appears in the GDN Guide "Fieldwork and Dissertations in Geography"

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