You may or may not be aware at the archival potential of Google Street view, but ever since the search engine behemoth has been photographing and spying on as much of our cities as it can, it has created a rather useful, freely accessible public archive of outdoor space. Archival research has long been the preserve of historical geographical research, but as Keighren (2013: 577) has eloquently argued (and still does to this day in our regular corridor conflabs, and with the same level of eloquence)…
“The skills associated with historical research – critical evaluation of sources, triangulation of data, attention to the beliefs and opinions of particular cultural groups – are precisely those which are encouraged and valued elsewhere in the human geography curriculum.”
While taking a few minutes to scroll through the historical images that Google has stored in its ongoing panoptic assault on everyday urbanity does not, nor should not, replace the much longer time needed to conduct archival research in situ, it provides students a gateway into the vibrancy of archives and how they contain a real impact upon research of the contemporary condition. And in the age of the pandemic and online digital learning, it’s proved extremely useful for urban research.
That’s because it is getting into student dissertation season, and if like me, you’re bombarded with students looking for research techniques that have minimal interaction with people, then the street view archive is a powerful resource for a whole range of research projects. Urban studies is constantly shifting its research methodologies to keep up with the changing nature of the city, and so the detailed archive of street view allows us lowly urban researchers a rich database of how the surface of the city has evolved over time, and engage our historical geographical research impulses. As Neil Smith (1987: 482) so articulately told us decades ago, the process of gentrification involves more than simply “physical changes to the housing stock”, but also a change to the socio-economics of the area. While street view can’t give us an accurate portrayal of house prices or demographic make up, it can certainly show in unnervingly accurate detail the changes to the streetscapes of most cities around the world. Take Salford for example…
A place that I knew well when I was working up there, Chapel Street has undergone immense change in the last few years. With a simple scroll back through the timeline, we can see in striking detail the degree of this change in only the last 4 or 5 years (as the gif above shows). Indeed, with third party websites like historypin, you can go even further back in time.
Moreover, during the pandemic, digital methods have been thrust into the forefront of all those who teach methods, particularly in higher education (for obvious reasons). As we struggle to adapt our teaching to Zoom or Teams, having methods and research training techniques that are completely navigable online is an important tool for staff and students alike. I wouldn’t want to speak for other teachers of urban studies who are far more resourceful and knowledgeable than me, but I have certainly craved the ability to get out and about in the city with my students: be that to show them how swift Canary Wharf security are to tell me get down from public art, or get the students lying down psychogeographically on the South Bank. While there is obviously no substitute for this kind of tactile and material immersion in the politics of the cityscape, having the Google street view archive provides a digital alternative, albeit partially. Of course there is no sound or smell, it is an individualised experience (unless you’re sharing your screen of course) and all you can feel is the plastic of the keyboard and mouse or the glass on your smart device. But purely from a visual perspective, the archive allows a fascinating insight into the recent and detailed histories of the urban present. With a click of button, you can see the streetscape undergo gentrification, and that in itself can provide a whole range of data with which to work.
So if you’re an urban studies teacher struggling for resources, or a student seeking some online methods, you could do a lot worse than use this resource that opens up a whole new temporal dimension to the way our cities are digitally mediated to us.