Google satellite imagery that covers the entire globe is a relatively recent technological innovation relative to the history of cartography. Yet, it has been around long enough that over the years, Google has updated the aerial imagery in many parts of the world many times.

This happens more often than you might expect. In fact, in very major cities like New York, Google offers almost monthly satellite imagery from 2004 on, and  even some images from as far back as 1978! (though the quality is understandably much poorer from earlier dates).

On Google Earth, one now has the ability to flip through the various editions of satellite images over the same geographic space, enabling the experience of a city in one of its most fundamental forms: as a constantly changing, dynamic entity, as opposed to the static image that online Google maps offer.

Check out this progression back in time of a small area of Greenwich Village in New York City:

2009

2008

2006

2007

1997

1994

1978

Click on the thumb nails to see a bigger image. Google provides images almost monthly for more recent years, but data becomes more disparate from earlier dates. The satellite imagery from 1978 is almost illegible at this scale.

Though pretty amazing, this feature is  somewhat meaningless to someone unfamiliar to an area of a city, but even to someone very familiar with an area or/of a city. It’s very hard to detect what must be incredible change between 1978 and 2009. An aerial view lacks certain features that are significant to our urban experiences, namely, people, store facades, trees and plants, urban furniture. Instead you get a more generalized sense of change, and meaningful differences register only with major redevelopments.

Take this example near in downtown Toronto:

2002

2006

2007

2009

Notice how the golf course in the middle disappears between 2002 and 2006, and buildings on the right are slowly developed and multiplied on this tract of formerly light industrial land west of Fort York and East of the Skydome. Expect major condo-ization here in the years to come.

The change in land is registered meaningfully in these aerial images.

Another incredible example from Toronto is the ability to visualize the frontier of suburbanization at the city’s edge. These shot are from the Major Mackenzie/Bathurst area, a spot that has seen the transformation of many farms into suburban developments recently:

2002

2009

With close examination, one can see the transformation of farmland to suburban developments, especially in the centre of these photos.

Street view is a relatively more recent innovation, and I am excited for the opportunity to similarly browse through time on the street-view scale – this will most definitely provide a rich and interesting perspective on the way cities change over the years; a plane on which both the subtle differences and major redevelopments of the same street corner will, as never before, be able to be visually experienced. The US street view photos were taken in 2003, and compared to the most recent additions (Romania!), are of very poor quality. An update is immanent, and I can only hope they enable the time-travel function as they do on Google Earth.

The impact of this on our conceptions of space and place is immense. Never before have we had the ability to concretely visualize the change of a place in such an “objective” way. The advent of street-view time travel will definitely further impact our sense of space and history in the city.

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