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Exploring the streets

Updated Monday, 4th April 2011

How do the towns we live and the streets we live on shape the way our society functions?

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Familiarity may breed contempt but it certainly does not breed curiosity. The street is a familiar place to us all: we walk up and down streets virtually very day of our lives and it is this familiarity which means that we take much of what we see for granted.

Imagine, however, that we try to put that familiarity aside and start to view the street as a way of understanding things about our society and the social activities around us.

To begin with, we might notice that each street is unique. There are people and things taking place in it which are not happening anywhere else.

But, in many other ways, a street and what goes on in it is not unique at all; there are patterns which means that whatever street we happen to observe, we will be able to use it as a window onto a whole range of other issues about society. So, how might we look at streets?

People on the streets

We might begin by looking at the activities going on in them and the people that we see in them. And we might look at what the people say about what they’re doing and the stories they tell. We might see people who work on a particular street such as shopkeepers, café proprietors, police officers, street cleaners and traffic wardens.

We might see people who use the street as pedestrians, car drivers, bus passengers, and people pushing push chairs or wheelchair users. Each person will have a different story to tell, but there will also be patterns which tell us something about how we live.

We might notice, for example, that there are more car-users passing through a street than bus passengers suggesting that today’s transport is predominantly individualised.

Street structures

The second thing we might look at is the material infrastructure of the street from the buildings to the street signage, from bollards to buses and from cars to pavements. What is interesting here is the interactions and connections between the people and these material objects and infrastructure around them which generally goes unnoticed until, of course, things stop working.

What this material infrastructure shows us, however, is that our societies are not just made up of people and their connections to each other; our social world is also made up of people and their relations with things.

Steam rising from a manhole in Boston Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: onesevenone under CC-BY-NC-SA licence
The secret street: Steam rising from a draincover in Boston, USA

The secret street

The third way we might look at streets is to think about the things that we maybe cannot see – to look, in other words, at the street from different angles.

Much of the material infrastructure of a street is hidden: below the street lies the sewerage and drainage systems; wires under the pavement which provide electricity for street lamps and traffic lights as well as bringing telephones, the Internet, cable television and electricity into each individual home.

Change and continuity in this invisible material world can tell us much about our society and what has changed and what has stayed the same. The sewerage system, for example, tends to date back to the 19th century, while cable TV wires and the Internet are relatively recent. And, with wireless internet, connections no longer run along wires but take place in a cloud of data above our heads!

Streets are part of our daily lives and the social worlds in which we live, work and play but streets also connect to other places and people in a variety of ways. Streets have always been made up of new sets of migrants because there was a time when there was no street until people came and set up a street so streets have always been places where people move in and out and, as they do so, they bring connections to different places and to different people.

Making and remaking streets

In this sense, our streets are made and continuously remade by migrants both from other parts of the UK and from overseas. Another example of connections that are not immediately apparent are connections to the past which leave traces in the buildings, the make-up of the street and in the memories and imaginations of those who live and work there.

We also need to think about the different use of streets in terms of time and space. The child who skips along her familiar street on the way to school would not recognise the same street at midnight when party-goers spill out of pubs and clubs.

What this also tells us is that different people might experience the same street in different ways and feel different senses of belonging to the street. In this sense, as a mirror onto our social worlds, the street reflects back to us our differences and inequalities.

As well as both reflecting and helping to shape the social and cultural worlds around us, from the rise of hip-hop in the South Bronx of New York to consuming Mexican street food, events over the last century and more have situated the street as the scene for momentous social and political struggles.

Police guard Oxford Street TopShop during a UK Uncut protest, March 26th 2011 Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: madcowk under CC-BY licence
The High Street in conflict: Police guard Oxford Street TopShop during the March 26th protests against government cuts.

Street protests

The first part of the twentieth century saw major public protests, with the suffragettes outside parliament campaigning for ‘votes for women’, followed by the battle of Cable Street in the 1930s, when anti-fascist demonstrators took to the streets to prevent Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts from marching into Jewish communities. In the 1960s members of the Committee of 100 and CND sat down in protest against nuclear weapons; the following decade feminists sought to ‘reclaim the streets’ from the threat of male violence and in the 1980s, the last major miners’ strike in the UK was followed by revolution in Eastern Europe in 1989.

Here the fall of the Berlin Wall was at one level the most graphic illustration of an end of a political era - that of the Cold War. At another, for the citizens of that long-divided city, it allowed social life and civic society to be reinvented. Street parties, at the precise point of division, were commonplace.

This has enabled us to think of the street as a contested site, where people have come to unite, as well as to oppose, to celebrate as well as protest.. This has been illustrated further in more recent times by the major upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa following days and weeks of street protests.

In Britain, at the same time demonstrators in London have protested against the rise in student fees, and against cuts, with groups such as UKUncut occupying the premises of top High Street stores and banks. The street is likely to continue to be the centre of attention and a rich source of material for social scientists.

Adapted from Learning Companion 1 by G. Blakeley, S. Bromley, J. Clarke, P. Raghuram, E. Silva and S. Taylor; published by the Open University. 2009





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