Monday, February 28, 2011

Cities from the Sky, Part Two

This post is the second in a series on cities as seen from above. If you missed part one, click here.

Cities at night are as wondrous as they are mysterious. With the setting of the sun, cities transform into entirely different entities. Just think about the varied experiences of walking down a street while the sun is shining and then again after dark. But how does this experience change if these cities are seen from above? And I'm not talking about just aerial photography this time.

In the following video, astronaut Don Pettit takes us on an orbital tour around the world of cities at night. He explains the challenges of capturing such clear images from space, as the International Space Station travels around the globe at over 17,000 miles per hour. Try going that fast and capturing a high-resolution, blur-free image from your point and shoot. It's not going to happen. But Pettit and his colleagues on the ISS assembled a sophisticated mechanism that cancels out orbital motion and produces the clear, striking images you see here:

Pettit's admiration of human settlement patters comes through in his commentary. His most insightful observation is that "Cities at night are caught in a triangle between culture, geography, and technology." These elements influence everything from a city's color and brightness to its geometry. Just as cities shape our actions, experiences, and quality of life, so too do we influence the forms our cities take. In part one of this series, I made the point that cities from the sky are works of art, and Pettit shares this sentiment: "We do not construct our cities by how they might look from space. Cities at night may very well be one of the most beautiful, unintentional consequences of humanity."

This next video will bring us down to earth, quite literally. Shot from the nose of a commercial airplane, we are escorted to the tarmac during its final descent into LAX. As the sun sets and the plane travels closer and closer to its destination, we get a unique look at the City of Angels. Enjoy:

Monday, February 21, 2011

One Party, Two Very Different Views

Can someone please tell me how someone like Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) becomes Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee? In a recent conversation with Ronald Brownstein, Group Editorial Director at National Journal, Upton confirmed, after some beating around the bush and prodding by Brownstein, that while he accepts that Earth's climate is changing he doesn't believe that humans are the cause.

Upton has also been in the news recently for introducing a bill in the House that would block the EPA from regulating carbon pollution, even though 62 percent of people from his own district want him to leave the EPA alone. With these efforts Upton joins former chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee Joe "Government Shakedown" Barton (R-TX) as environmental skeptic extraordinaire. You remember Rep. Barton, don't you? He was the outspoken BP sympathizer during the gulf oil spill last summer:

Thankfully one of Upton and Barton's colleagues on the committee thinks differently about the climate crisis. Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC) just plain gets it. He understands what's at stake. Listen carefully to what he has to say:

Inglis touches on several important points in this address to a House subcommittee meeting on climate change. First and foremost, he makes a thinly veiled threat to climate deniers about saying their comments "on the record." The save-the-environment-for-our-children's-sake argument has long been used to inspire action on these issues, but never quite like this. Inglis says that future generations will not look kindly on those who sat idly by and failed to act on climate change. In doing so he reinforces the sense that his argument is the accurate one. Why else would he be so resolute? He also includes a startling, common-sense statistic to make his point. 98 percent of scientists say that the climate is changing and that we are the cause. Wouldn't you think that means we should heed their advice? And finally, Inglis makes an argument that his "free enterprise colleagues" can relate to more directly: economic opportunity.
"[The Chinese] plan on eating our lunch in this next century. They plan on innovating around these problems, and selling to us, and the rest of the world, the technology that'll lead the 21st century. So we may just press the pause button here for several years, but China is pressing the fast-forward button."
It is perhaps important to point out that at the time of this speech Inglis knew he wouldn't be serving another term in Congress. A Tea Party primary challenger made sure of that. Regardless of his impending exit from national politics, it took courage to say what he said and defy his party. This is something that other Republicans like Lindsay Graham (R-SC) have toyed with but rarely committed to on the topic of climate change. Oftentimes when I think of Washington these days I'm frustrated that our political system has collapsed into the stubbornness and pettiness that we observe today. It's refreshing though, when someone like Bob Inglis surprises you and says something that actually makes quite a bit of sense.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Bridges Under Bridges

Last October a brand-new expansion of New York City's Willis Avenue Bridge opened to traffic, replacing it's crumbling ancestor built in 1901. The coolest part of the story, however, is how the bridge got there. The 2,400 ton span was transported 136 miles down the Hudson river on a double-wide barge, certainly a modern infrastructural feat. Photographer Stephen Mallon and his team were aboard to document the entire journey from Coeymans, NY to 125th Street. In total they took over 30,000 stills and used them to assemble the video below:

To see more of Mallon's work, explore his website.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Cities from the Sky, Part One

We all know what cities look like from the ground. They are the spaces in which we live, work, and play. But there is another view of cities that we rarely experience, and one that can help form impressions of the places we inhabit: from the air. Photographer Christoph Gielen has taken it upon himself to critique the predominant American urban form, the surburb, from this very vantage point.

Take a look at some of his photographs (click on them for a closer look):

Let me ask you a question, are these neighborhoods or works of art? The last two images especially, with the integration of the water bodies and the curving features, suggest the latter. Sure, I've been harping on the aesthetics of cities quite a bit in my most recent posts, but I can't help it. I know you see or feel some aspect of what I do. Learning to "read" cities, from the ground and the air, is exciting. A deeper understanding of your surroundings deepens your connection (or aversion) to that place.

But let's move in another direction for a moment. The argument can be made that cities from above tell us very little about what it actually means and feels like to live in these locations on the ground. I would agree with this point. But the fact remains that when these aerial views are paired with knowledge of what life is like in these places, undeniable truths about patterns of urban settlement are revealed.

I think the following picture illustrates this point particularly well:

A few things should jump out at you immediately. The desert, for one. The mountains would also be a good guess. But if you look at it more closely you will see that there are only two points of access, and both of them feed into the collector road to the right. You'll also notice a pretty bizarre street layout. The network of loops and cul-de-sacs makes a better labyrinth than it does a connected, walkable neighborhood. Not that there's anywhere to walk to, of course. So yes, I have never been to this development, but its aerial signature nevertheless tells me something about it.

Gielen himself hopes that this method of reading of the urban landscape will help guide development decisions in the future. In this New York Times article, he says "As with all my work, I was interested in finding a formal perspective uncommon enough to startle viewers into a reconsideration of our built environment."

To see Gielen's full portfolio, check out his website.