Groundbreaking geography

An Engaging Places network 2008/09 case study | 23 September 2009

Key stage 5
Geography

Las Vegas – home to glittering casinos, lavish hotels, spectacular shows and conspicuous wealth. But is there another side to the city that bills itself ‘the entertainment capital of the world’? Sixth-form students at The Royal Grammar School, Guildford have been finding out more in a project that has both expanded their horizons and pushed the boundaries of school geography.

What did the teacher want to achieve? To increase students’: awareness of the interaction between people and the built environment; understanding of the latest geographical thinking.


As a recently-qualified teacher, Richard Bustin was surprised at how far the study of urban geography in schools lags behind the subject as a university discipline.

‘I wanted students to engage with urban space in new and innovative ways’, he explains. ‘With support from Dr Judy Hemingway at the Institute of Education, University of London, I developed a project based on the idea of “thirdspace” and post-modernist developments in human geography.

By simplifying the ideas and scaffolding the learning, I hoped that students would begin to grasp the complex relationships that exist between people and the cities in which we live.’

Photo of students sitting down at their desks

Students working on urban space © Richard Bustin, The Royal Grammar School

Perception and reality
As a starting point, Richard created a series of lessons exploring the concepts of firstspace, secondspace and thirdspace.

  • Firstspace is the built environment itself – architecture, lighting, the road network, urban form and its growth. It can be mapped and measured.
  • Secondspace is the representational space – how the area is marketed, perceived in people’s minds and represented in art and media. It is conceptual.
  • Thirdspace is the ‘lived space’ – the experience of living in the firstspace with the expectations of the secondspace.
How was the learning organised? Year 13 students: learned about firstspace, secondspace and thirdspace through studying Las Vegas.


As students discussed the three spaces and how they relate to each other, they began to think in new depth about the interaction between human beings and the built environment.

Places have an image – we perceive them in a certain way. But does the reality of living there always match these perceptions? The students’ own home town of Guildford – with its cobbled streets, gabled roofs and hilltop cathedral – has a strong physical and conceptual presence. How do these influence the experience of being a young person growing up there?

What was the impact? The students: understand that the way we perceive places does not always match with the realityof living there; have become more critical and creative geographers.

Surrey to Nevada
To broaden and deepen students’ thinking, Richard turned their focus to a city that could scarcely be further removed from Guildford – Las Vegas. When asked their perceptions of the place, the class responded with words such as ‘glamour’, ‘wealth’ and ‘gambling’. Watching the video for ZZ Top’s Viva Las Vegas reinforced their vision of Vegas as a post-modern fantasy world.

Students were then shown three pictures of Las Vegas. In the first they identified the firstspace – buildings and streets. In the second they recognised the secondspace created by the bright lights, luxury hotels, casinos and showgirls.

Finally they were shown a more surprising image – a homeless man on the streets of the city. What did this say about the thirdspace – the lived experience – in Las Vegas?

People are drawn to Las Vegas in the hope that they will be able to share in its good fortune. In reality, the city’s secondspace, people’s perceptions of riches and glamour, makes the homeless experience much worse than elsewhere. Homeless people do not fit into the desired or widely perceived image of the city. As a result they are hounded by security guards, pushed away from the main area and not given help or support. Their poverty and hardship is thrown into stark relief by the opulent veneer of Vegas.

City beneath the skin
The students responded with great sensitivity and insight. Given a worksheet with a picture of a homeless man in Vegas in the middle, they were able to clearly identify the characteristics of the firstspace and secondspace. They then went on to explain how the two worked together to create the homeless person’s experience of the city.

Photo of a sign in Las Vegas

Las Vegas © Brandon Collup

As Richard Bustin explains, the impact of this small-scale project has been far-reaching. ‘The students are much more aware of the complex layers that make up our urban geography. They can see beneath the skin of places – beyond the marketing to the reality of life for people living there. I’m thrilled to have been able to bring university and classroom geography closer together with such success.’

Want to do something similar with your class?
We have collated a list of activities, organisations and resources that you can use to give your students opportunities to explore perception and reality in towns and cities.

The Engaging Places network
This case study comes from The Royal Grammar School, Guildford, which worked with the Institute of Education, University of London as part of the Engaging Places network for 2008/09.

The Engaging Places programme is run by CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) and English Heritage. It supports teaching and learning through buildings and places.

Engaging Places realises that young people identify deeply with where they go to school and live but they are not always able to adequately communicate their sense of place to others. The physical face of many neighbourhoods is changing fast and schools are being transformed at an incredible pace, despite the recession. These dramatic changes will either involve or exclude a whole generation of young people.

Engaging Places is responding to this situation through the Engaging Places network. This is made up of schools and learning providers across England that work together on projects which seek to equip students with the tools to articulate and critically analyse the places where they live and learn.

The schools involved in 2008/09 followed a process of disciplined innovation using the QCA co-development framework – a rigorous approach to curriculum change.

Read more about the and view the Engaging Places videos.

All Engaging Places 2008/09 network case studies

A window on the past – Cardinal Newman Catholic School, key stage 3

Changing places – Ospringe Primary School, key stage 2

Grounds for improvement - Barmby on the Marsh Primary School, key stage 1, 2

A new view on design - Graveney School, key stage 2

A 360-degree journey - Dover Grammar School for Girls, key stage 4, AS level

Tales from the Palace - St John’s CE Primary School, key stage 2

Library design - Thamesview Vocational Centre and Riverview Junior School, key stage 2, C&BE diploma

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