Thematic Chronology of Aerial Photography and its Influence on Planning
RP651-Dr. Mark Hamin
Aerial Photography: Its Influence and Application to Planning
Since its development in the late 19th century,
aerial photography has had a dramatic effect
on urban and regional planning by offering
new perspectives on the built and natural
environment. Aerial photography, through its
interpretation and influence, has changed the
way planners think about and solve problems
by vastly increasing the amount of
information readily available to decision-
makers. This paper will explore the most
influential aspects of aerial photography to the United
field of planning from the early 20th century to
Early Applications of Aerial Photography
Although the first aerial photographs were taken from balloons in the mid to late 19th
century, it was not until World War I, and the stability and predictability offered by the
aircraft that aerial photographs began to significantly impact the field of planning
(Newhall 49, Light 126). In building upon the military technology that were utilized in
WWI for aerial reconnaissance and mapping, private firms began to market aerial
photographic surveys to states and municipalities as a tool to properly assess land for
taxing, delineate zoning districts and plan in the regional context (Light 126-127). These
aerial surveys and accompanying “mosaic maps”, not only provided enhanced
information, they were also much more efficient use of time and money resources than
Following the First World War, the United States government made massive investments
in aerial photography and its interpretation for military reconnaissance and intelligence.
The availability of funding helped spurn growth in academic research in aerial
photography and photointerpretation (Light 99). The result was higher-quality photos,
improved mapping capacity and interpretation advancements that were utilized in World
War II (Branch 4).
In the aftermath of WWII the transfer of technology from military to civilian applications
had significant influence on planning. Melville C. Branch, in his book City Planning and
Aerial Information, referenced advanced interpretive techniques, that when applied to the
analysis of urban infrastructure from aerial photographs, could be used to glean
information regarding social and neighborhood characteristics and population dynamic
within certain areas of the urban environment. Branch felt the availability of this
information would be essential to the inventory and analysis of the urban environment
and could be used to shift the planning paradigm away from the “emotionally idealistic,
unimpressive…attitude of evangelisms” that he claims characterized the 50 years of
planning in the United States before World War II, and towards “quantification,
management, the behavioral sciences, and scientific method. (Branch 12, 99).”
In the early 1950’s and 60’s, academics within the planning field followed Branch’s lead
as research in advanced aerial photointerpretation led to housing studies that related lot
size, density and street condition to socio-economic status. In the 1950’s and 60’s aerial
photographs of Boston and Philadelphia were used to help city planners identify urban
blight and focus potential redevelopment projects (Light 128).
The 1960’s and 1970’s are widely regarded as the era of system planning, where urban
problems could be deconstructed into component parts (transportation, land use) to
increase the efficiency of the system (Taylor 64). This “top-down” approach to planning
was influenced by the available technology and information of the era. There is not doubt
that the “top-down” perspective of aerial photography was instrumental in supplying
much of the information that led to the systems planning “top-down” methodology.
Early Geographic Information Systems
In 1962 landscape architect Ian McHarg provided the
intellectual spark for the Geographic Information System
when he used the overlay method to display different
layers of the landscape. He is solution was born from the
nature of a planning problem, the location of a highway
through an ecologically sensitive area (Schuurman 5). In
the late 1960’s the New York State Office of Planning
Coordination contracted with Cornell University’s Center
for Aerial Photographic Research to conduct an aerial
survey of the state that would be combined with ground surveys to develop the first
Geographic Information System (GIS), known as LUNR (Land Use and Natural
Resources Inventory) (Light, 138-139).
While the computer technology at the time was nowhere near advanced enough to
incorporate the aerial photographs into the system, the researchers from Cornell teamed
up with Harvard Graphics Laboratory to create thematic maps that showed the spatial
relationships between physical and socio-economic information (Light, 141). The land
use information that was collected from the thematic maps was synthesized into a data
format that could be incorporated into Harvard’s computerized overlay data (Schuurman
5). While these events only scratch the surface in the historical development of GIS,
they highlight two if its modern foundations, the use of layering spatial information to a
fixed location in a computerized database. This early application of GIS would serve as
the framework for the modern technology that planners use today.
The rapid development of computer technology in the last 15 years, from processing
power and storage capacity, to the information era in the age of the internet has been
instrumental in the development of commercially viable GIS software available to
planners. The technological achievements have led to astonishing advancements,
allowing those with the software the ability to manipulate and analyze spatial,
environmental, economic, demographic and visual data like never before (Schurrman, 5).
For planners, information access has been advanced by federal, state, and regional
programs designed to develop data that can be integrated into GIS. In 1999 legislation
was passed in Massachusetts creating the Office of Geographic and Environmental
Information, which was mandated to create a state GIS for the development and
distribution of “geographic and environmental information in order to improve
stewardship of natural resources and the environment, promote economic development
and guide land-use planning, risk assessment, emergency response and pollution control
(www.mass.gov/mgis).” It is clear from the enabling legislation that the expectations for
the application and capacity of GIS as a problem-solving tool are vast.
Web Access and User Generated Mapping
While modern GIS software increased access to spatial data for planners, the barriers to
entry, through cost and ease of use, makes the software inaccessible for the majority of
public citizens. This is beginning to change however with access to software programs
like Google Earth and web platforms like Google Maps and Wikimapia that allow any
citizen with a computer to access spatial and other data at the local and global scale.
What is most exciting and interesting about these platforms is that they encourage, and
increasingly, are dependent upon, user and community based content (Helft). A recent
article in the New York Times highlighted the importance of user generated mapping
technology, noting that Google Maps no longer uses professional cartography services in
the development of it maps, as it finds user generated content and updates through GPS
devices to be more accurate and dynamic (Helft).
The implications of GPS technology and online mapping for the field of planning are
vast. It is easy to imagine that a community could enlist its citizens to use GPS devices to
map issues related to planning throughout the community. This medium of
communication, providing barriers to technology were overcome, could vastly increase
the participatory influence of planning in practice. Citizens would no longer have to
spend hours at public hearings waiting for their voices to be heard, grassroots planning
efforts could take the form of interactive maps highlighting a community’s most
treasured assets and resources, as well as its biggest concerns.
Aerial Images in the Illustrative Context
While much of this paper has discussed the
use of aerial imaging as a tool to create and
disseminate information, it is important to
note that aerial photography is also an
amazing illustrative tool that helps
professionals, but more importantly the
public, understand historic settlement
patterns, how they have changed over time
and the impact on both the natural and
cultural landscape. In their book Above and
Beyond, Campoli et al use aerial photographs
to paint a vivid picture of how development
patterns and differing land use regulations Above
lead to significantly different manifestations of the built environment with various
implications for cultural and natural landscapes.
Aerial photography has had an enormous influence on urban and regional planning by
allowing insights, perspectives and interpretations into the built and natural environment
that have ultimately served as an illustrative, and diagnostic tool for the field. This is
evident on several levels, from growth of systems planning that evolved from early
interpretations of aerial photographs of urban areas, to simple visual representations of
the landscape from above. The wealth of information available from aerial photographs
played an instrumental role in the development of Geographic Information Systems, and
the integration of accessible, user-friendly web based mapping platforms with GPS
technology has the potential to change the way planners and communities identify and
deal with problems.
Branch, Melville C. City Planning and Aerial Information. Cambridge: Harvard UP,
Campoli, Julie, Elizabeth Humstone, and Alex Maclean. Above and Beyond. Washington,
D.C.: Planners, 2002. Print.
Helft, Miguel. "Online Maps: Everyman Offers New Directions." THe New York Times.
16 Nov. 2009. Web. 30 Nov. 2009.
Light, Jennifer S. From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems
in Cold War America. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2003. Print.
"MassGIS Legislative Mandate." MassGIS. State of Massachusetts. Web.
Newhall, Beaumont. Airborne Camera: The World From the Air and Outer Space. New
York: Hastings House, 1969. Print.
Schuurman, Nadine. GIS: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell. Print.
Taylor, Nigel. Urban Planning Theory Since 1945. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage
Publications, 2004. Print.