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GIS in the Classroom Blog 8: How can we use GIS to investigate urban issues and challenges?

Brendan Conway

15th June 2023

One aspect of human geography where GIS can support learning very effectively is in the study of urban issues and challenges, particularly with data visualisation and data analysis. A particular strength is in showing spatio-temporal change, as shown by the examples below.

Urbanisation can be seen in most areas of the world. We can investigate it ‘on our doorstep’ using apps such as the excellent Digimap for Schools, which has a fader tool enabling comparisons of aerial imagery and Ordnance Survey maps from the present, the 1950s and 1890s. The example below shows more than a century of mapped change in Kettering, Northamptonshire.

Urbanisation can also be seen happening using video clips or GeoGIFs created in apps such as Streamlit Timelapse. The GeoGIF below captures the development of a new town called 10th of Ramadan near Cairo, Egypt over almost four decades with NASA Landsat imagery. The GeoGIF was pasted into a presentation to support teaching of a key part of the AQA GCSE Geography specification called ‘Urban issues and challenges’ where students are required to learn about how…‘urban growth creates opportunities and challenges for cities in LICs and NEEs’ [together with] an example of 'how urban planning is improving the quality of life for the urban poor.’ A useful approach is then for the teacher and/or students to add annotations or answer questions with scaffolding.

Such timelapse resources not only help our students to ‘see geography happening’, but also to think more deeply about the material. In the GeoGIF format, where the images iterate over and over, there’s a better chance of making sure that students really notice what’s going on - we might say that they’re ‘GIFs that keep on giving’, provide a pathway to well-embedded, powerful geographical knowledge.

When students are undertaking a case study of a major city to understand current challenges, GIS historical maps can support learning by showing the nature and extent of change in urban land use. In this regard, the National Library of Scotland’s georeferenced map collection and map viewers provide excellent insights. It is also possible to import many of their historical maps into ArcGIS Online as ‘overlays’, enabling us to compare with other more recent maps or spatial data. Here’s an example of the way historical map layers can help to step the narrative of the rise and fall of the glass industry in the UK city of Sunderland and its legacy as a catalyst for regeneration based on the industrial heritage. A short Case study: Sunderland Twitter thread contains video clip excerpts from a Geographical Association Conference 2022 session 'I’m looking through you', summarising the narrative and the way the maps can be used.

Andy Funnell (@GeogAndy) has assembled a great collection of urban case studies using Google Earth. One of them is a Belfast – Urban Transect blending aerial imagery, photorealistic 3D buildings and Street View imagery to explore different land use zones across the city, including regenerated areas. For more of such resources, go to Geography Case Studies with Google Earth.

GIS can be used to visualise georeferenced secondary data such as population estimates from the Office for National Statistics (@ONS), which can be particularly useful at GCSE and A Level, including for independent investigations.

This interactive map shows demographic change in London Borough Population from 1961-2015. Pop-ups reveal line charts showing the change in each borough and it is also possible to create instant charts to show spatio-temporal patterns by clicking the ‘Chart Widget’ and selecting a spatial filter. In this case, a transect is drawn within the app which generates a customised chart to show population change across selected boroughs.

The ONS has also recently created the Census Maps site to allow you to interrogate the spatial patterns within the 2021 Census.

Brendan Conway

Brendan has over thirty years’ experience as a teacher of Geography and head of department. He led his current department to become a Geographical Association Centre of Excellence. In addition to being an author of geographical texts and resources, he also works in Initial Teacher Training (ITT), Erasmus Plus projects and supports schools with GIS as an Esri Geomentor.

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