Tag Archives: GIS

Behaviour Mapping and Design of Small Urban Spaces

By Ensiyeh Ghavampour, AECOM Auckland, Mark Del Aguila, TAFE, SA and Brenda Vale, Victoria University of Wellington


Behaviour mapping (c) Ensiyeh Ghavampour

In inner urban areas, where land values are high and city governments have limited budgets, designing successful public spaces and using resources wisely is essential. With the increasing need for more quality public spaces in cities, planning authorities usually prepare design guidelines based on international research to help ensure quality will be achieved. However, with design guidelines failing to create quality spaces with enduring success, placeless spaces continually need to be redeveloped. There are many successful public spaces around the world, however, the application of guidelines developed from observations and surveys of these spaces creates visionary spaces without connections to their context. With spaces lacking character and failing to fit with local use, there is an increasing demand for a rethinking of design methodology in public open space.

Our paper, ‘A GIS Mapping & Analysis of Behaviour in Small Urban Public Spaces’, recently published in Area, investigates links between behaviour and design in context. Using time interval still photography, activity in four small public spaces in Wellington CBD (New Zealand) was recorded and mapped with GIS. Comprehensive and detailed analyses of activity, age, gender, group size, and length of stay indicated that:

  •  Design elements can be successful in one space, yet under-utilised in a different context.
  • Functionality of a design is a result of the configuration of elements within the site with respect to the site’s location and orientation.
  • Guidelines should direct designers toward creation of spaces that afford opportunities for users rather than focusing on checklists of specific design elements
  • The process of defining and setting design guidelines for the physical environment should be re-conceptualised with an emphasis on planning for anticipated activities.

About the authors: Ensiyeh Ghavampour is an Urban Designer at AECOM, she has a PhD in Urban Design and Landscape Architecture from Victoria University of Wellington. Mark Del Aguila, Advanced Building Studies, TAFE SA, and Brenda Vale is a Professorial Research Fellow in the School of Architecture at Victoria University of Wellington. 


60-world2 Bliss, L. 2017 The High Line’s Next Balancing Act Citylab Online 7 Feb 7 2017

60-world2 Cathcart-Keays, A. 2015 Guardian ‘mayors for a day’ demand more public spaces in their cities The Guardian Online 29 January 2015

60-world2 Carrington, D. 2013 England’s parks and open spaces have lost £75m in cuts since 2010 The Guardian Online 19 November 2016

books_icon Ghavampour, E., Del Aguila, M. and Vale, B. (2017), GIS mapping and analysis of behaviour in small urban public spaces. Area. doi: 10.1111/area.12323

60-world2 Hemmelgarn, S. 2017 Milk Plaza Redesign gets $500 K Bay Area Reporter Online Volume 7/ No. 7/ 16 February 2017

60-world2 Johnson C, 2016 Can Design Quality Be Regulated? Sourceable Online 18 October 2016

60-world2 Mccrary, L. 2016 Modernism, Food, and Public Space New Urbs Online 15 September 2016

60-world2 Persico, A. 2016 Rethinking Park Space Yorkregion Online 16 June 2016

60-world2 Waxmann, L. 2016 Troubled Public Plaza Will Be Fenced Off To Divert Homeless Mission Local Online 27 July 2016

A Real Game Changer: The Use of GPS Tracking Devices in English Football

Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

Is the use of GPS in football a good thing? Photograph: Kate Whiston

Is the use of GPS trackers in football a good thing?
Photograph: Kate Whiston

Last month the use of GPS tracking in football came under scrutiny, following a seven-minute delay in a League Two game. In the interests of player safety, Plymouth manager, Derek Adams, complained about the devices worn by the Wycombe team as they lined up in the tunnel. The device, worn between the shoulder blades underneath the shirt, is surrounded by padding, although it is debatable whether this padding is designed to protect the GPS tracker or the player! An article in The Guardian (2015) quoted the Plymouth Manger: “it’s a hard object and a dangerous bit of equipment”. However, after consulting the rules and regulations, the matter was resolved; FIFA ruling permits players to wear GPS trackers – official termed Electronic Performance and Tracking System (EPTS) – during matches and, this season, the Football League has also sanctioned their use. There are currently 19 English Football League clubs registered to use these devices.

So why are GPS trackers being used in football? Has sports science turned into Big Brother?

Tracking devices have been used by football clubs, behind the scenes, for some time, but have only recently been used in competitive matches. In this sense, football is lagging behind rugby, which has long used such devices to monitor player performance and health. Speaking to the BBC, Wycombe midfielder, Matt Bloomfield (2015), explained the importance of GPS tracking devices in football. Electronic Performance and Tracking System (EPTS) devices track each individual player’s every move on the pitch and can provide a wealth of data about the player; how far they have run, how many sprints they have completed, their position on the pitch over time, their heart rate over time, and how much work their body has done. The feedback players get after each game, Bloomfield (2015) states, is then used in training sessions to recreate the number of sprints or distance covered in games. This is certainly one way to decrease the number of players deemed ‘not match-fit’. Furthermore, Bloomfield (2015) stresses the importance of EPTS devices in monitoring players’ well-being, as their stats can highlight when they are fatigued and, therefore, more susceptible to injury. Thus, prevention of niggling injuries is another major benefit.

The use of GPS in football redefines the space of the football pitch. Understanding the ways in which footballers use the space is every sports geographer’s dream. The data collected by the devices can be used to map players’ use of space and track the flows of their movement throughout space. This is not dissimilar to the use of Geographical Information Science (GIS) to map and monitor transportation systems. In this further example of mapping mobile subjects – although admittedly on a much larger scale than the football pitch – data about transport is used to map and analyse the spatial networks within which interactions occur, showing the routes and flows of movement (Miller and Shaw, 2015). Miller (2007) recommends a ‘people-based’ approach to GIS, rather than the traditional ‘place-based’ approach. The increasing mobility and connectivity of people means that the relationships between people and places are becoming more complex. Mapping the “individual in space and time”, Miller (2007:503) argues, provides a more complete analysis of our interactions with space. The theory behind this approach has its roots in 1960s ‘time geography’, which considers the dynamic use of space in human activity, the constraints and fluidity of these activities, and the temporal aspects of them. From this we have evolved location-aware technologies, which collect space-time activity data in real time, such as global positioning systems (GPS) and radiofrequency identification (RFID). The use of location based services (LBS) has become ubiquitous in everyday life; social networking, parcel tracking, and Google Maps all use locational data to provide us with real-time information about what is around us. Locational privacy is a thing of the past, as our movements across space and time are constantly being logged. It is, therefore, not surprising that technology is now being used to track the individual movement of athletes in sport.

The use of GPS trackers in football can certainly give teams a competitive edge and reassure fans that their favourite players will be in top condition. They are useful ways to track movements on the pitch and the ways in which the space is used, as well as monitoring players’ health and fitness. There is, however, another implication that I’d like to propose to you; these GPS trackers are re-defining footballers’ bodies. Tailoring training and recovery to individual players’ needs, whilst not new, has taken a massive step with the use of tracking technology. No longer the achievement of individual skill and managers’ tactics, football teams are being moulded around quantitative observations of individual players’ movements and bodily responses. The goalposts have been moved, and expectations of players’ performances and capabilities are being raised accordingly. Footballers’ bodies and performances are becoming hybrid collaborations between player and machine. Thus, it seems, even in the beautiful game, we cannot escape the pervasiveness of computers in modern society and the ever-diminishing distinction between humans and technology.


books_iconMiller, H. (2007). “Place-Based versus People-Based Geographic Information Science”, Geography Compass, 1(3):503-535.

books_iconMiller, H. and Shaw, S-L. (2015). “Geographic Information Systems for Transportation in the 21st Century”, Geography Compass, 9(4):180-189.

60-world2Bloomfield, M. (2015). “Matt Bloomfield explains why GPS tracking devices work”, BBC Sport Football Online. 16th September 2015. Available at:  www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/34267968

60-world2The Guardian (2015). “Football League supports Wycombe over GPS trackers under shirts”, The Guardian Online. 14th September 2015. Available at: www.theguardian.com/football/2015/sep/14/football-league-wycombe-plymouth-gps



Geography, Urban Geomorphology and Sustainability

By Mary Thornbush, Brock University, Canada

WordItOut-word-cloud-1071134With the expansion of cities around the world, there is an increasing emphasis within geography to consider urban environments, and the impacts humans have on the environment more generally. This opens up opportunities for the development of human-environment investigations within the context of current urban studies.

Working within the context of human impacts on their environment, it is possible to integrate studies so that they holistically examine both human and physical components of the environment. This has already been an integral part of human geography, but is novel within physical geography and geomorphology specifically, where the sub-field of urban geomorphology has recently experienced some growth from the framework of human-environment interactions. In addition, sustainability has gained attention within geomorphology, and there has been, for instance, a recent special issue on ‘Human Impacts on Landscapes: Sustainability and the Role of Geomorphology’ published in Zeitschrift für Geomorphologie by Hudson et al. (2015). This approach recognizes the importance of long-term studies within the domain of geomorphology, and is applicable to studies of environmental change that is currently affecting cities and shaping urban geomorphology.

The key landscapes examined within an urban context are still diverse, encompassing (for instance) rivers, karst, uplands, deserts, tropics, etc. Within this special section on ‘Geography, Urban Geomorphology and Sustainability,’ there is a focus on rivers, karst and applied geomorphology, with six papers delineating urban geomorphology in settings where there is a concentration of urbanisation and natural environments have been altered by humanity and natural processes, which in turn modify human structures, as is the case with the weathering of historical buildings and structures. Case studies are central to this special section, illustrating key contemporary issues from a long-term perspective and considering the future of human-environment interactions and landscape change.

Specifically, this special section of Area presents a diversity of papers that range from Europe to North America. First, Thornbush (2015) provides a long-term assessment (16 years) following the implementation of the Oxford Transport Strategy (OTS) in central Oxford, UK. She employs the historical buildings located in the city centre as a measurement tool in order to gauge post-OTS environmental change. Second, Randall and Baetz (2015) relay their land-use diversity index (LDI) as a GIS-based model to determine sub-urban sprawl applied in Ontario, Canada. Third, Martín-Díaz et al. (2015) offer a post-war examination of planning policy and land-use planning in Sarajevo that is relevant to urban development within geomorphology. The second half of the special section focuses on rivers. A fourth paper by Sammonds and Vietz (2015) approaches urbanisation in greenfield sites from the perspective of stream naturalisation. Fifth, Shuker et al. (2015) likewise approach stream restoration, but from a hydromorphological perspective. Finally, Booth and Fischenich (2015) similarly address stream restoration through their channel evolution model that focuses on urban sustainability.

Together, these papers contribute towards the development of urban geomorphology from a sustainability perspective of long-term landscape change. Theirs is an integrated approach of human-environment interactions in urban settings. With more human impacts on the natural environment, it is necessary to acknowledge and consider more human-affected landscapes as well unaffected natural landscapes, which are increasingly harder to find. Separating the human-nature signatures in the environment is becoming a challenge; however, such interdisciplinary investigations could make a contribution towards the development of urban geomorphology and sustainable environments.

About the author: Dr Mary Thornbush is an Adjunct Professor within the Department of Geography at Brock University, Canada. Her research interests include: interdisciplinary and applied geomorphology; weather science and landscape change; and geomorphological fieldwork and field-based training.

Special section papers: 

books_icon Thornbush, M. 2015 Geography, urban geomorphology and sustainability. Area. doi: 10.1111/area.12218 (introduction to special section)


books_icon Booth D B and Fischenich C J 2015 A channel evolution model to guide sustainable urban stream restoration Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12180

books_icon Martín-Díaz J, Nofre J, Oliva M and Palma P 2015 Towards an unsustainable urban development in post-war Sarajevo Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12175

books_iconRandall T A and Baetz B W 2015 A GIS-based land-use diversity index model to measure the degree of suburban sprawl Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12182

books_icon Sammonds M J and Vietz G J 2015 Setting stream naturalisation goals to achieve ecosystem improvement in urbanising green-field catchments Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12181

books_icon Shuker J L, Moggridge H L and Gurnell A M 2015 Assessment of hydromorphology following restoration measures in heavily modified rivers: illustrating the potential contribution of the Urban River Survey to Water Framework Directive investigations Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12185

books_icon Thornbush M J 2015 Building health assessed through environmental parameters after the OTS in the city centre of Oxford, UK Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12161


books_icon Hudson P, Goudie A and Asrat A 2015 Human impacts on landscapes: sustainability and the role of geomorphology Zeitschrift für Geomorphologie 59 1–5

Humanitarian mappers’ response to the Nepal earthquake

By Joseph J. Bailey (@josephjbailey), University of Nottingham, UK.

In the days since the earthquake in Nepal, thousands of humanitarian mappers have sprung into action to fill in gaps in the map in the affected area” (Mapbox article, dated 27th April 2015, two days after the Nepal earthquake).

The earthquake that occurred in Nepal on the 25th April 2015 is the largest quake to affect the region since 1934 and one of the most devastating natural disasters in recent memory, killing thousands of people. Aftershocks present an ongoing threat, including one on the 12th May killing over 100 people. Accessing the affected communities requires explicit and accurate knowledge of the area’s infrastructure.

The world’s population continues to grow, making natural disasters increasingly devastating. However, technology develops in parallel. Emerging technology can and is helping with disaster management. More people than ever across the world now carry in their pockets a very powerful tool; a smartphone connected to the internet and equipped with an inbuilt GPS unit. This can be used to quickly and accurately record spatial information not only on a day-to-day basis but also after a natural disaster where possible. Additionally, and often more realistically amidst the destruction where the event has occurred, people nowhere near the disaster itself can contribute towards mapping efforts using satellite information, providing an invaluable resource for those on the ground.

A recent paper in Geography Compass (Haworth and Bruce, 2015) reviewed volunteered geographic information (VGI) for disaster management (prevention, preparation, response, and recovery). VGI technologies allow for near-instant sharing of relevant geographic information for disaster management and the resource implications for generating these data are minimal. This article also assesses the associated challenges of these data, including: “lack of data quality assurance and issues surrounding data management, liability, security, and the digital divide” (p. 237), the latter referring to the lack of technology in some areas so that people can benefit from and contribute to VGI projects (this is improving every day, however). The authors stress the importance of VGI in disaster prevention as well as response, but response is the main subject of this post herein.

There are many examples of VGI, and one of the big projects where such data are used is OpenStreetMap, which I focus on here. Founded in 2004, driven by limits on access to spatial data and the dominance of proprietary software, and in response to the increase in affordable GPS and satellite navigation units, “OpenStreetMap (OSM) is a collaborative project to create a free editable map of the world” (Wikipedia). It uses data contributions from volunteers all over the world (Wiki – OSM Map Production). Such an open, editable geographic information system (GIS) based on crowdsourced data is an incredible resource. It has huge potential from making lives easier day-to-day, to saving lives in extreme circumstances like during and after a natural disaster.

This image shows the burst of mapping by humanitarian mappers after the quake struck on April 25th 2015. Source: article by Eric Fischer on Mapbox, dated 27/04/2015, last accessed 17/05/2015, available at: https://www.mapbox.com/blog/nepal-earthquake-animation/).

This image shows the burst of mapping by humanitarian mappers after the quake struck on April 25th 2015.
Source: article by Eric Fischer on Mapbox, dated 27/04/2015, last accessed 17/05/2015, available at: https://www.mapbox.com/blog/nepal-earthquake-animation/).

In the context of the 2015 Nepal earthquake, OSM has been invaluable, providing accurate and up-to-date maps that are used by aid organisations and local disaster response teams. Indeed, according to an article on Mapbox (by Eric Fischer, 27th of April), just two days after the quake struck, “more than 2000 mappers … recorded 13,199 new miles of roads and 110,681 new buildings” (see the image below from the Mapbox article). Naturally, these figures will have increased substantially since this article as mapping efforts continue. The OSM volunteers rapidly digitised satellite images after the earthquake, providing much-needed maps and data to humanitarian organisations (OSM Nepal Earthquake Wiki). The process is coordinated by the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), who communicate with relevant organisations to focus mapping efforts. Anyone can use the resultant maps and associated routing services for free.

The use of VGI will only grow alongside technological development and, importantly, so too will accessibility to this technology through projects such as OpenStreetMap. There are known issues of data quality and so on, as discussed by Haworth and Bruce (2015), but ultimately this technology can only be a good thing. Hopefully it will mean that populations at risk of large-scale natural disasters, like those in Nepal most recently, will be able to be helped more quickly and effectively, thus mitigating the impact.

books_icon Haworth, B. and Bruce, E. (2015). A Review of Volunteered Geographic Information for Disaster Management. Geography Compass, 9 (5), 237–250

60-world2 Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Wiki available at: http://wiki.openstreetmap.org/wiki/2015_Nepal_earthquake (last accessed 17th May)

60-world2 Mapbox article and animation image available at: https://www.mapbox.com/blog/nepal-earthquake-animation/ (dated 27th April 2015, last accessed 17th May)

Gridlock: GIS in transport planning

By Joseph J. Bailey (@josephjbailey), University of Nottingham, UK.

It is not hyperbole to state that we are witnessing a revolution in the human sciences … fuelled by a stunning advancement in capabilities to capture, store and process data, as well as communicate information and knowledge derived from these data” (Miller and Shaw, 2015; p. 180)

We have all been there, haven’t we? Powerlessly sitting in a vehicle amidst of a sea of pollutants. I am of course referring to the traffic jam. They are often the result of rapid urban expansion around city centres that were simply not designed with such volumes of traffic in mind. It is something that people the world over can relate to. Indeed, Statista (with TomTom data) recently released a graphic that identifies the world’s worst cities for gridlock (also see: IB Times, Forbes). Drivers on a thirty minute commute (with no traffic) in Istanbul, Mexico City, Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Bucharest, and Recife (Brazil) could expect to spend more than 100 hours a year in gridlock; that’s over 4 days a year just sitting in a car stationary in traffic! The sheer volume of waste that traffic causes (fuel, money, time) has hugely negative effects on the environment, economy, and human wellbeing. Environmentally, of course, pollutants are also a significant problem, posing risks to both the natural world and human health.

‘GIS’, or ‘Geographic Information Systems’, is now ubiquitous in geographical research and beyond. It refers to an array of processing and analysis techniques that use spatial data and theory (see the QGIS introduction to GIS online). GIS can be used across an enormous range of research from natural disaster management and monitoring deforestation, to biodiversity science and geomorphology. This post considers GIS in transport planning.

Rgoogin at the English language Wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons. Available at: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:New_York_City_Gridlock.jpg

New York in Gridlock. Source: Rgoogin at the English language Wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), from Wikimedia Commons. Available here.

Miller and Shaw (2015), writing in Geography Compass, recently discussed GIS-T (GIS for Transportation), providing an update update on their previous work from 2001. The quote at the top of this post says a great deal in itself and, while people referring to data volumes and computing power is so common it is bordering on a cliché, it really is true and we need intelligent systems to make both sense and use of it. The heart of GIS-T projects is identified as a georeferenced transportation database, probably using a spatial network in which locations, nodes (e.g. junctions), distances, and directions can all be represented in a model. With this spatial network in place, mobile objects (e.g. people, vehicles, freight) can then be incorporated and modelled. Terrain (e.g. if somewhere is very steep) and human-imposed features (e.g. congestion zones, toll roads) can also be considered where they may affect traffic flow and peoples’ decisions.

We are now comfortably into the 21st century, and new technologies can help provide information for GIS-T models. Most notably, GPS technology is widely available in most vehicles and on most individual people (via a phone or tablet). Such mobile tech means that “it is now feasible to collect large amounts of data from a wide range of mobile sensors in real-time or near-real-time at high spatial and temporal granularity” (Miller and Shaw, 2015; p. 185). A better understanding of how people move should help with urban planning, in terms of both policy making and infrastructure design, by allowing scenarios of certain decisions (e.g. creation of a congestion zone where people have to pay to drive into the city centre) to be incorporated into the GIS-T models.

GIS is a fantastic geographical analysis and problem-solving tool that needs to be fully harnessed and applied to a range of problems (from traffic management to conservation planning) if we are to cope in our increasingly busy and complicated world. As we have seen here, GIS-T has enormous potential in urban planning, utilising quantities of fine-scale data that we have never had at our disposal before. Hopefully this will be able to make for more efficient and sustainable cities, towards improved environments, economies, and human wellbeing.


books_icon Miller, H. J. and Shaw, S. (2015). Geographic Information Systems for Transportation in the 21st Century. Geography Compass, 9 (4), 180 – 189.

Redefining the Upper Amazon River

By James (Rocky) Contos


The Amazon River basin, including dark traces for each proposed source rivers: Napo, Marañón, Huallaga, Urubamba, Apurímac, and Mantaro.  Source: James Contos

The Amazon River basin, including dark traces for each proposed source rivers: Napo, Marañón, Huallaga, Urubamba, Apurímac, and Mantaro.
Source: James Contos

A full descent of the world’s largest river can be likened to a full ascent of the highest mountain, with various natural challenges along the way. The Amazon River is generally considered the mightiest river in the world because of its incredible volume (it carries over eight times as much water as the next largest river, the Congo), its maximal length (which may be slightly more than that of the Nile), and the importance of its basin for the world’s ecology. The entire Amazon River, including its source, has intrigued the public, geographers, and adventurers for centuries.

The allure of descending the Amazon goes back at least to the time of Francisco de Orellana, whose 1540 expedition started on the Napo River. Since then, dozens of expeditions have sought to travel the entire length of the Amazon. For adventurers, the location of the river’s source is critical because it defines the route, including the most difficult part of the journey through the formidable whitewater of the Andes mountains.

During most of the past century, the source of the Amazon River was considered to be the Apurimac River, based on the belief that it was the most distant upstream extension in the Amazon basin. Initial attempts to navigate the river starting in the 1950s ended in disasters with team members drowning in the difficult rapids. Although many other would-be Apurimac-Amazon adventurers failed in their attempts, several teams have successfully made the descent – starting with Piotr Chmielinski and companions in 1985-1986.

However, our new research results published in Area demonstrate that the most distant source of the Amazon is not the Apurimac River as previously thought.  Rather, it is the Mantaro River, a neighbouring stream that joins the Apurimac to form the Ene River. These new findings change the uppermost ~800 km of the Amazon source-to-sea journey, including all of the whitewater. This result drastically changes the journey down the Amazon.

While gathering data for the article in Area, I realized that distance measurements based on topographic maps and satellite images were limited because these methods often have low resolution and sometimes do not show current river channels. Simply measuring distances on topographic maps and satellite images would not suffice, because these often have low resolution (and therefore errors) and sometimes do not show current river channels. The best way to obtain an accurate up-to-date measurement is via direct GPS tracking on a descent of the river. It is for this reason that I descended both the Mantaro and Apurimac Rivers from their sources – no easy task with the numerous class V rapids (the most severe whitewater classification) on each river.

Since my initial scientific expedition in 2012, which also included a GPS-measurement of the entire Amazon to the Atlantic, at least two other expeditions have descended the Mantaro River down the Amazon to the sea, prompting attention from the paddling community and public. Had such attention been directed to the Mantaro River decades ago, it might have prevented its desecration with pollution and damming.

About the Author: James Contos is director of the non-profit river conservation organization SierraRios and completed the Area study along with   Nicolas Tripcevich, an archeologist at UC Berkeley who has expertise with GIS software and the ancient cultures of Peru.

books_icon Contos J and N Tripcevich (2014) Correct placement of the most distant source of the Amazon River in the Mantaro River drainage. Area 47: pp-pp. DOI: 10.1111/area.12069

60-world2 Schaffer G (2013) “Fastest to the Atlantic Wins”; Outside Magazine : January 2013: 38-39.

60-world2 Moag J. (2013) “True Source”; Canoe & Kayak. June 2013: 42-50, 86-88.

60-world2 “Flood in Huancavelica, Peru.” Disaster Charter.org. January 21, 2014

Mapping Class

By Benjamin Sacks

Five Boys

Conceptions of class remain inseparable from contemporary society, according to a BBC-commissioned study. The Great British Class Survey, undertaken by the BBC’s Lab UK and faculty at LSE, University of Manchester, University of York, City University London, Universitetet i Bergen, and Université Paris Descartes, surveyed 161,000 people across the British Isles. The study’s authors argued that ‘class’, as twentieth century writers tended to define it, was ‘too simplistic’.  Rather than an equation of ‘occupation, wealth and education’, class was actually formulated around ‘economic, social and cultural’ dimensions, of which the traditional structure only formed a part. Along with the traditional classes – elite/upper class, middle class (itself a category distinct from US conceptions), and working class – new divisions had arisen: technical middle class, new affluent workers, traditional working class, emergent service workers, or ‘precariat’, the authors’ term for ‘precarious proletariat’. Predictably, the study’s publication catalysed a diverse range of media responses. The Financial Times reminded its readers of how deeply entrenched class was in British history. Tristram Hunt recalled William Harrison’s 1577 Description of England: there were ‘four degrees of people’, led by ‘those whome their race or blood or at least their virtues doo make noble and knowne’. A letter to The Guardian compared it to the hierarchy used by the National Statistics Socio-economic Classification scheme (NS-SEC). The Guardian itself wondered whether the new hierarchy was more reflective of the television programme ‘The Wire‘ rather than of British society.

Critics aside, the BBC survey indicated the continuing influence of class, whether desired or not, in shaping how different people think, act, speak, travel, and shop. Geographers have long been aware of the role and perception class played in British and international cultures. Indeed, in 1995, Gary Bridge (Rodney Lodge) called for a standardised, ‘consistent application of class analysis’ when examining urban and rural gentrification. In a 2004 Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers study, Anthony J Fielding (University of Sussex) documented the spatial organization of Japanese cities by class. Critiquing previous, recent accounts that suggested that Japan’s rapid, postwar capitalist transformation had erased, or at least minimised cities’ ‘social geography’ (defined by Fielding as the distinction of classes or groups in space), Fielding used GIS programming to visually and textually demonstrate how major cities have, in fact, been organised by class and social standing, as is the case in most European and North American cities. Interestingly (and importantly) however, through the collection of mapping of this aggregate data, he suggested that the degree of spatial ‘segregation’ was generally lower than in the West. Comparing Kyoto and Edinburgh, Fielding proposed that the former’s spatial organisation was different, and it experienced a lower, but still quite identifiable level of segregation (p. 83). Indeed, Fielding’s study of Japan implicitly mirrored Jon May’s study, also from the University of Sussex, seven years previously. In the 1996 study, May, evidently fatigued from ‘theoretical literature’ on London’s complex social dynamic, created visual and textual maps of Stoke Newington (p. 195).

Class, it almost goes without saying, infected the storied halls of Lowther Lodge. For some two decades at the turn of the twentieth century, the Royal Geographical Society had debated whether to elect women to the fellowship (women had applied for admission as early as 1847, but the issue was not seriously considered until the 1890s). If women were to be admitted, as Morag Bell (Loughborough University) and Cheryl McEwan (Durham University) recalled, then, as the debaters proceeded to argue, they must be of the right social and economic standing. Returning to more recent issues, JoAnn McGregor posited the rapid growth of Britain’s Zimbabwean community within class ‘differences and identities’, in a fascinating shift from more mainstream studies of Robert Mugabe-era emigration. Regardless of whether the BBC survey has lasting impact, geographers will continue to observe, critique, and play with class.

60-world2 ‘Huge survey reveals seven social classes in UK‘, BBC News, 3 April 2013, accessed 7 April 2013.

60-world2 Tristram Hunt, ‘The rise of the precariat and the loss of collective sensibility‘, Financial Times, 7 April 2013, accessed 7 April 2013.

60-world2 David Rose and Eric Harrison, ‘Little solidarity over the question of social class‘, The Guardian, 5 April 2013, accessed 7 April 2013.

60-world2 Paul Owen, ‘BBC’s seven social classes: The Wire version‘, The Guardian, 4 April 2013, accessed 7 April 2013. 

books_icon Mike Savage et al., 2013, A New Model of Social Class: Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey ExperimentSociology 1-32.

books_icon Gary Bridge, 1995, The Space for Class? On Class Analysis in the Study of GentrificationTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 20.2, 236-47.

books_icon Anthony J Fielding, 2004, Class and Space: Social Segregation in Japanese CitiesTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 29.1, 64-84.

books_icon Jon May, 1996, ‘Globalization and the Politics of Place: Place and Identity in an Inner London Neighbourhood‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 21.1, 194-215.

books_icon Morag Bell and Cheryl McEwan, 1996, The Admission of Women Fellows to the Royal Geographical Society, 1892-1914; the Controversy and the Outcome‘, The Geographical Journal 162.3, 295-312.

books_icon JoAnn McGregor, 2008, ‘Abject Spaces, Transnational Calculations: Zimbabweans in Britain Navigating Work, Class and the Law‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 33.4, 466-82.