“From the detached and synoptical view of the bird, the modern paradox is graphically expressed in the constructions and traces that mark the ground. From above, the various relationships among physical dimensions, human activities, natural forces, and the cultural values can be seen to be orderly, productive and sophisticated as they are brutal and errant.” – Taking Measures Across the American Landscape by James Corner and Alex S. Maclean
I find it both interesting and surprising that a person can learn so much about the geography – and even the history – of a city without ever stepping foot there in person thanks to Google Maps and Google Earth. I enjoy using Google’s aerial views to research about the configurations and layouts of a city: its major traffic thoroughfares, notable points of interest, and public parks strewn across the city that I might otherwise miss while traveling at ground level. Using this online tool permits me to get a general idea of the city’s location, its general relation to other cities, and to see the “big picture”.
When I was in school we did a lot of mapping, diagramming the city by using a Google Map as a base then adding additional layers of information on top: topography, landscape use, demographic data, infrastructures, and so on. The exercise would allow us students to communicate a strong visual impression of our ideas and thoughts of a specific geographic location.
However, rather than solely relying upon visual description for designers, it is also important to provide the casual reader of any map with alternative perspectives of a city and its surrounding landscape. For instance, when viewed from a bird’s eye view of a city – raised to an elevation of 7,000 feet above – one is surprised to see the relationship between a city and its surrounding environment. This unusual alternative aerial view using the landscape as a geographical canvas is what I call the “hidden art of Google Maps”.
I find this new way of looking at a city so amazing, almost artistic. For example the aerial view of a freeway cutting through the mountains, or railroad tracks winding along the river bank and through an industrial zone, or stretches of water flowing from a glacier – all of these views from overhead are registered in a completely different context than from the ground level.
The artistry of satellite imagery is substantial and significant, allowing us to sense the ongoing influence of humans upon nature, and influence of nature upon humans, the passing of time, and in the process continually sparks my own thoughts about the future of landscape architecture design in the future.