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Urban studies are popular locations for fieldwork, since 70% of us live in built up areas. These locations are therefore highly accessible and also familiar to students. Traditionally, urban fieldwork has involved investigating the extent to which the local town or city fits predetermined urban models, such as that shown in Figure one below. However, the range of urban investigations is only limited by your imagination and that of the students, but there are some tried and tested approaches that can be relied on to generate data and offer an excuse to get outside!

Historical change surveys

These are based on researching historical maps of an area to find out how and why it might have changed over time. Old maps can be retrieved from the internet (try the Old Maps website) and these can then be annotated and updated with the changes that are observed during the fieldwork phase. This idea can be developed back at school to match growth/decline in an area to changes in the population (obtained from the Office of National Statistics' Neighbourhood Statistics website). Students could create Excel graphs to plot changes over time.

Mapping Current land use

The backbone of many urban studies, this allows students to map the existing land use within a town centre using a large scale (1:2,500 or similar) base map photocopied to all students. In groups, students are allocated a small area of the map and classify the land use within their area into a series of predetermined categories. Usually survey areas are delineated by dividing the map into smaller squares using a grid overlay, but groups of students can also be allocated transects using roads. This allows findings to be compared to a model of expected change over a 2000m distance from the centre. Land use mapping is a core skill for geography students.

Buildings: Age, height and materials

It is easy to carry out a simple survey of building characteristics as part of a range of other surveys. Building age, for instance, can be matched to a set of photographs on an identification card (go for about four to six categories, for example Tudor/timber frames, Victorian, interwar/post war, post 1970s, etc). Height should be simply estimated according to the number of storeys - this is clearly only of value in a town centre where there is variation in buildings that may conform to a bid rent model, i.e. taller buildings are associated with the highest land values. Rateable values for individual properties can be obtained by searching the Valuation Office Agency website.

Residential surveys

With residential surveys, the basic idea is to find out about building age, but you can also complete other environmental evaluations to find out about residential desirability. The advantage of this type of survey is that the students perceptions of quality can be compared to published data, for example census data. Various opportunities then present themselves for feedback of results, for example through PowerPoint presentations, personalised GIS maps, colour coded shade maps etc.

Alternative ideas

There are a range of other aspects of the CBD that can be studied, these include looking for evidence that the CBD is either in decline or is being revived.

There is also the potential to find out to what extent the CBD is a clone of other CBDs in other parts of the country. A fully-resourced example of this fieldwork activity is available. Alternatively, a more in depth study of shopping quality/success (which may include diversity) can be carried out between two contrasting town centres. This could include investigations of pedestrian count as well as devising your own shopping quality.

The place profiling activity will provide you with further ideas and resources for activities you can carry out in your local urban area.