24 July 2017

Uncovering streetscapes

By the Engaging Places team | 29 October 2009

Ask people their favourite view and most will probably opt for landscapes or seascapes – rolling hills, villages in valleys, rugged coastlines… Yet an astonishing 89% of us in the UK live in urban areas, where 80% of public space is made up of streets. Isn’t it time we started to pay more attention to our streetscapes?

Photo of people sitting and walking within a public space

Division Street, Sheffield © Urban Exposure

A streetscape is everything that makes up a street – buildings and the space between them, surfaces, signage, lighting, public art, benches, bins, trees… Together, these combine to shape the character of the streets where we live, learn and work.

Sights and sounds
For schools, streetscapes hold a host of hidden stories and a wealth of possible avenues for learning. Young people identify deeply with their local neighbourhood and tend to respond with enthusiasm and sensitivity to projects that help them uncover more about their world.

Getting out of the classroom and onto the streets, students become ‘detectives’, seeking out clues about past and present. ‘I found myself in a complete zone, looking at everything with an open and creative mind,’ explained a student from Graveney School after walking around his local streets to gain ideas for a textiles project. ‘Because of this, on a route I have walked so many times, I spotted many things I have never seen before.’

Streets are teeming with sights and sounds that can inspire learning across the curriculum. Textures, colours and patterns; monuments and historic buildings; signs, adverts and maps; designs for lighting, bins and benches…

It is often surprising what sparks young people’s creativity. The designs that emerged from Graveney School included a shelter inspired by bike racks and a wheelie trolley by the columns of a church. A derelict chocolate shop captured the imagination of students from Cardinal Newman School in Brighton, not the grandeur of the Royal Pavilion or the iconic piers.

Photo of a bike parking shed

Simple functional street furniture © Stephen McLaren

Make it better
Looking at how a streetscape could be changed for the better is a particularly effective focus for learning. If we are to create a sustainable future, we need to encourage young people to start taking responsibility for the way streets are planned and designed.

Despite the importance of streets in our daily lives, in the past they have often been neglected. The CABE report ‘Paving the way’ set out an agenda for changing this, using the following indicators to assess the quality of a streetscape:

  • comfortable and safe for pedestrians and the disabled
  • accommodates a variety of functions, not dominated by just one
  • visually simple and free of clutter in terms of paving, street furniture, lighting and landscaping
  • well cared for, with utilities or ‘extraneous’ advertising subordinate to all other street functions
  • sympathetic to local character and activity context
  • ordered provision for access, deliveries and storage of vehicles.

Students could use these indicators as the starting point for evaluating their local streets and thinking about how to improve them. Your council may well have its own streetscape manual with detailed guidelines for creating better streets. Alternatively, try English Heritage’s ‘Save Our Streets’ campaign, which offers a free eight-page booklet for schools.

Photo of integrated bins on a side wall

Aesthetically pleasing bins © Joe Miles

Lucy Hardy, a year 4 teacher at Ospringe CE Primary School in Faversham, Kent, is a powerful advocate for projects like these. ‘We wanted the children to understand that a street is a community and that, as part of the community, we have to do all we can to make it a better place,’ she explains.

‘The students spent time on the school’s street and came up with inspired ideas for how to improve it, ranging from “Bonkers Bins” to an environmentally-friendly bus. By the end of the project they were more aware of the street, its problems and how they could make an impact as individuals.’

Have streetscapes proved an inspirational context for learning at your school? Please email us at engagingplaces@cabe.org.uk to tell us your story.

Teaching resources: all about streets

Article: Ideas to get out of school and down the street

Reference: Streets – A-Z glossary

Resource: Streetscape audit by Bath Preservation Trust

Resource: Investigating our local area by the Geographical Association

Resources: Unlocking the past through our streets and buildings

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