I’ve recently been spending a lot of time in airplanes, and I find looking out the window down at the ground fascinating. We haven’t–for most of human history–had the ability to get above ourselves and understand the world spatially from above; rather, most of our spatial and daily experience is navigated on the ground. Yet as planners and designers, we work predominantly in plan, at 2000 to 10,000 feet above the place where our pen strokes will translate eventually into real-time experiences.
Maps, in history, have been coveted for their secret sources of information. Maps represent our understanding of flows in space and time, and our ability to communicate what’s going on physically and relationally. Kevin Lynch’s work on the imageability of the city comes to mind, and his studies of how we each create mental–and predictability inaccurate–concepts of the places we inhabit. It also reminds me of Richard Wurman’s work on understanding (previously published on our site, here), and Lauren Manning’s descriptions of different types of visual communications. And I wonder: will seeing our world from the skies help us make better places?
And today, as millions of planes zip back and forth across the skies, we get the chance to see out the window at the patterns we’ve printed on the land. Did we do well? Did we make something good? Are we proud of the way we’ve linked water, earth, people and settlement together? As I look at the prints of highways and stripes of green the muddy rivers merging, the giant swaths of concrete and asphalt; the cookie-cutter stamp of the American Dream imprinted in suburb after suburb, reminiscent of James Howard Kunstler’s laments in The Geography of Nowhere, or again in his later book Home From Nowhere–and I muse, is this the best of what we’re capable of?
Below is the journey out the window from Dallas-Forth Worth to Omaha, Nebraska.