by Josh Jackson
When noted New York City urban planner Alex Garvin starts working on a new project site, he usually makes the same request: call the police. But he’s not trying to get a squad car to show up – he wants a bird’s eye view of the project site from a chopper from the aviation unit.
A consummate flaneur on the ground, Garvin nonetheless understands the importance of a birds-eye-view when it comes to understanding the forces and flows at work in complex urban conditions. Until relatively recently, planners without access to helicopters could use maps, illustrations, or axonometric projections to synthesize a bird’s eye view, but could not capture the richness and broad detail present in an actual view from the sky.
Starting with the emergence of desktop Geographic Information Systems (GIS), however, digital aerial orthophotos have become increasingly accessible, meaning that planners, designers and everyone else could get a bird’s eye view to almost anywhere in the world.
By the 1990s, a standard method of using aerial imagery was in place. Civic agencies, usually at the state level, would provide contractors or paying customers with a grid of tiled photos assembled from satellite imagery. In order to avoid overwhelming computers of the era with the high resolution graphics, users would load a grid overlay with labels that corresponded to specific photo tiles. By toggling specific tiles on and off, a user could assemble photos into a montage or trace elements like power lines and waterfronts to model environmental and social factors shaping the built environment.
This access to aerial photography from satellites had an enormous impact on professionals working with the built and natural environment. Yet while more people could now access aerial imagery than could, say, fit in a helicopter, the photos were hardly public. Besides requiring payment or a license to access the images, they could only be viewed through GIS, a program rarely cited for its user-friendly interface.
The great sea change in public access to aerial imagery came when Keyhole, a small company that aggregated satellite photography and made it viewable through it’s “Earth Viewer” was bought by Google in 2004. Keyhole, which gained fame for its rapid zoom-ins and flyovers of Iraq shown on TV during the 2003 invasion, finally made a bird’s eye view of the world available to everyone. With the release of
Google Earth in 2005, every computer was transformed into a potential flying machine.
Since the release of Google Earth, numerous developments have further advanced what can be viewed from the comfort of one’s desk. First pioneered by Microsoft’s Live Local (now Bing) maps, 45-degree angle aerial photos taken from planes allow an oblique perspective of the landscape. Such photos, actually shot from aircraft, provide a richness of detail actually approaching a ride in a helicopter.
From a planning perspective, the most important development in aerial photography may be the emerging tools that can be used to manipulate how people interact with aerial photographs and other digital maps. KML, for example, is well on its way to becoming the lingua franca of geospatial mapping. (KML itself stands for Keyhole Markup Language, one of the few remnants of the original Earth program.) Unlike the shapefile formats of GIS, KML is intrinsically structured for use on the internet and is editable in free programs like Google Earth.
Here at MKThink we integrate the newest aerial imagery technologies into tools that help the process of facility planning for our clients. Combining rigorous analytical studies with a bird’s eye view helps elucidate the sources of vexing problems and reveals potential solutions that might not be apparent on the ground. Regardless of whether a project site is a tiny kayak hut or a sprawling public school district, an aerial view provides a whole new perspective.