Humankind’s impact on the world is obvious, but our spatial patterns are sometimes difficult to recognize from the ground.
Publicly accessible, high-quality satellite imagery has been a game changer in terms of understanding the scope of forces such as urbanization and land use patterns.
Google Timelapse Maps
Google Earth’s timelapsed satellite maps capture the drastic changes the planet’s surface has undergone over the past 34 years. Each timelapse comprises 35 cloud-free pictures, which have been made interactive by the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University.
Three different satellites acquired 15 million images over the past three decades. The majority of the images come from Landsat, a joint USGS/NASA Earth observation program. For the years 2015 to 2018, Google combined imagery from Landsat 8 and Sentinel-2A. Sentinel is part of the European Commission and European Space Agency’s Copernicus Earth observation program.
Deforestation, urban growth, and natural resource extraction are just some of the human patterns and impacts that can be visualized.
Editor’s note: to view the following timelapses, press the play button on any map. You can also view individual years in the time periods as well. On slower internet connections you may need to have patience, as the series of images can take some time to load or display.
Cities and Infrastructure
Urban Growth: Pearl River Delta, China
Up to 1979, China’s Pearl River Delta had seen little urbanization. However in 1980, the People’s Republic of China established a special economic zone, Shenzhen, to attract foreign investment. In the following years, buildings and paved surfaces rapidly replaced the rural settings around the river delta. This is the Lunjiao area just south of Guangzhou.
Urban Growth: Cairo, Egypt
The present-day location of Cairo has been a city for more than 1,000 years, and its constrained urban footprint is now bursting at the seams thanks to Egypt’s population growth. A new city is being built in the nearby stretch of desert land (agricultural land is scarce) that will one day replace ancient Cairo as Egypt’s capital. If the government’s ambitious plans are realized, this desert boomtown could have a population of over 6 million people.
The Egyptian state needed this kind of project a long time ago. Cairo [is] a capital that is full of traffic jams, very crowded. The infrastructure cannot absorb more people.
– Khaled el-Husseiny Soliman
Urban Growth: Phoenix, Arizona
According to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, Phoenix is the fastest-growing city in the United States. Over the past two decades, the suburb of Chandler evolved from agricultural uses to sprawling residential developments. This pattern was repeated in a number of cities in the Southern U.S., most notably Las Vegas.
Construction: The Brandenburg Airport, Germany
Berlin’s long overdue Brandenburg Airport began construction in 2006, with the airport initially expected to open in 2011. However, the airport has been subject to numerous delays and the airport now has a new opening date. Berlin Brandenburg Airport is now expected to open on Oct. 31, 2020.
Megaproject: Yangshan Port
The Port of Shanghai became one of the most important transportation hubs in the world after the completion of its offshore expansion – the Yangshan Port.
Building this massive port was a gargantuan engineering feat. First, land reclamation was used to connect two islands 20 miles southeast of Shanghai. Next, the port was connected to the mainland via the Donghai Bridge, which opened in 2005 as the world’s longest sea crossing. The six-lane bridge took 6,000 workers two and half years to construct.
In 2016, the Port of Shanghai was the largest shipping port in the world, handling 37.1 million twenty-foot container equivalents.
Mining: Chuquicamata, Chile
Chuquicamata is the largest open pit copper mine by volume in the world, located 800 miles north of the Chilean capital, Santiago. In 2019, Chile’s national mining company Codelco initiated underground mining at Chuquicamata.
Deforestation: Ñuflo de Chávez, Bolivia
Ñuflo de Chávez is one of the 15 provinces of the Bolivian Santa Cruz Department. Satellite images of southern Ñuflo de Chávez illustrate deforestation from agrarian expansion in the jungles of the Amazon. From the air, the deforestation takes on a unique grid pattern with circular clearings. Developed as part of an organized resettlement scheme, each circle is anchored by community amenities and housing, and surrounded by fields of soybeans cultivated for export.
According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, 8.4 million soccer fields of land have been deforested in the Amazon over the past decade.
Shale Gas Boom: Odessa, Texas
The small town of Odessa sits in the middle of one of the most productive shale gas regions in the world, the Permian Basin. The region is expected to generate an average of 3.9 million barrels per day, roughly a third of total U.S. oil production. While the gas may come from underground, the pursuit of this source of energy has drastically altered the landscape, marking the terrain with roads, wells, and housing for workers.
Drying of the Aral Sea: Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan
It took almost 30 years to make a sea disappear. When the Soviet Union diverted the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers to irrigate cotton and rice fields in the 1960s, it turned the Aral Sea into a desert. Once the world’s fourth largest lake, the region is struggling to restore water levels and aquatic habitats.
Glacier Retreat: Columbia Glacier, Alaska, USA
The Columbia Glacier is a tidewater glacier that flows through the valleys of the Chugach Mountains and into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Increased temperatures initiated a retreat in the length of the glacier over three decades ago. Once in motion, a glacier’s retreat accelerates due to glacial mechanics. It is one of the most rapidly changing glaciers in the world.
Changing Rivers: Iquitos, Peru
Not all change is from humans. There are natural physical processes that continue to shape the Earth’s surface. For example, rivers that experience heavy water flows can be altered through erosion, changing the bends.
Better Perspectives, Better Decisions?
Often, the greatest impacts that occur are out of sight and mind. However, with the increasing availability of satellite technology and improved distribution of images through platforms such as Google Timelapse, the impact of human activity is impossible to ignore.
The bulk of visible changes come from human economic activity, because it is more easily observable on a smaller time scale. However, it’s also worth remembering that there are still many natural processes that take generations, if not thousands of years to affect change.
It is one thing to hear the facts and figures of humankind’s impact on the environment, but to see the change is a whole other story.
Visualizing the Footprint of Highways in American Cities
Highways improved mobility for the average American, ingraining the automobile into the urban fabric of American cities, for better and worse.
Visualizing the Footprint of Highways in American Cities
Driving on the open road is a defining feature of the American experience, made possible by coast-to-coast highways. It defined a generation of life and ingrained the automobile into the urban fabric of American cities, for better and worse.
Today’s animations show how highways reshaped the downtown cores of six American cities and created new patterns of urban life. But first, some background information on the creation of the interstate system.
The Interstate Highway System
The U.S. Interstate System was created on June 29, 1956, when Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act. It would eventually run 46,876 miles, cost $521 billion and take 36 years to complete.
From San Diego to Bangor, the interstate highway system connected Americans and opened up the country to commerce and geographic mobility like never before, but for all its benefits, this new transportation network ripped through established patterns of urban and town life, creating a new era of urban development.
The Legacy of Highways: The Suburbs and Inner Cities
The vast geography of continental America helped to entrench personal mobility and freedom into American society. Highways and automobiles accelerated this lifestyle and even changed the shape of entire cities.
According to Prof. Nathaniel Baum-Snow of the University of Toronto, between 1950 and 1990, the population of central cities in the U.S. declined by 17% despite a population growth of 72% in larger metropolitan areas during the same period. Baum-Snow posits that, had the interstate highway system not been built, central cities’ populations would have increased 8%.
Firms followed the workers to the suburbs, but the highways system also created additional benefits for these firms. Cross-country road access freed manufacturing from ports and downtown rail hubs, while allowing economies to operate across larger distances, altering the dynamics of typical urban economies.
Faced with this new reality, inner cities struggled in years to come.
The introduction of highways created an increase in the supply of land for development through faster commutes to outlying areas. In 1950, half of all jobs were located in central cities. By 1990, less than one-third of urban jobs were located in the core of American cities.
“Not TV or illegal drugs but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities.” Jane Jacobs, Author The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Benefits of new development accrued to the outer areas while the construction of the highways in inner cities displaced largely low-income communities, segregated neighborhoods, increased the amount of air and noise pollution, devalued surrounding properties, and removed access to jobs for those without a car, further concentrating poverty.
Before and After: Six American Cities
A bird’s eye view of six American cities reveals what was and what is now. By overlaying existing highways over the neighborhoods they replaced, it becomes clear how much interstate construction drastically altered America’s urban landscape.
Public opposition to the construction of I-980 was so strong that developers abandoned the project in 1971, only to complete it over a decade later.
The I-95 carved through Miami’s largely black Overtown neighborhood. The construction of a single highway cloverleaf resulted in 20 square blocks being demolished, displacing over 10,000 people in that community.
The I-95 comprised unconnected segments between 1957 and 1965 through the densest urban areas in a deliberate effort to prevent premature suburbanization and to revitalize the downtown core.
The I-71 cuts downtown Cincinnati off from its waterfront and a massive freeway interchange forced the destruction of dozens of blocks west of downtown.
Freeway construction transformed Detroit between 1951 and 2010. Previously, its downtown had been surrounded by a high-density street grid. Today, it’s totally encircled by freeways.
Rochester is one of many cities opting to undertake freeway removal projects.
As the dotted line above shows, the “moat” surrounding downtown is slowly being removed. The city used reclaimed land from the Inner Loop freeway to construct three mixed-use developments that include below-market-rate units.
The Future of Urban Living: Do Highways Matter?
A new era of living is reconsidering the impacts of these highways on urban centers. As property values rise and existing housing stock is pressured, there are growing concerns over the environmental impacts of suburban life. As a result, urban planners and residents are looking to revitalize city cores and re-purpose land occupied by burdensome slabs of highway concrete.
Since 1987, there have been more than 20 urban highway segments removed from downtown cores, neighborhoods and waterfronts, mostly in North America. The pace of removals has picked up significantly and an additional 10 highways are now planned for removal in the United States.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, American cities have seen their traffic plummet. Rush-hour trips into cities are taking nearly half the time while some are not even commuting at all.
While this situation is likely temporary, it is offering a moment for reflection of how cities operate and whether the car should be at the center of urban planning.
*Hat tip to Shane Hampton, whose 60 Years of Urban Change compilation served as inspiration for this article. Visit that page for many more examples of highway impact on cities.
The Anatomy of the $2 Trillion COVID-19 Stimulus Bill
A visual breakdown of the CARES Act, the $2 trillion package to provide COVID-19 economic relief. It’s the largest stimulus bill in modern history.
The Anatomy of the $2 Trillion COVID-19 Stimulus Bill
The unprecedented response to the COVID-19 pandemic has prioritized keeping people apart to slow the spread of the virus. While measures such as business closures and travel restrictions are effective at fighting a pandemic, they also have a dramatic impact on the economy.
To help right the ship, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act — also known as the CARES Act — was passed by U.S. lawmakers last week with little fanfare. The act became the largest economic stimulus bill in modern history, more than doubling the stimulus act passed in 2009 during the Financial Crisis.
Today’s Sankey diagram is a visual representation of where the $2 trillion will be spent. Broadly speaking, there are five components to the COVID-19 stimulus bill:
|Category||Total Amount||Share of the Package|
|Individuals / Families||$603.7 billion||30%|
|Big Business||$500.0 billion||25%|
|Small Business||$377.0 billion||19%|
|State and Local Government||$340.0 billion||17%|
|Public Services||$179.5 billion||9%|
Although the COVID-19 stimulus bill is incredibly complex, here are some of the most important parts to be aware of.
Funds for Individuals
Amount: $603.7 billion – 30% of total CARES Act
In order to stimulate the sputtering economy quickly, the U.S. government will deploy “helicopter money” — direct cash payments to individuals and families.
The centerpiece of this plan is a $1,200 direct payment for those earning up to $75,000 per year. For higher earners, payment amounts will phase out, ending altogether at the $99,000 income level. Families will also receive $500 per child.
There are three other key things to know about this portion of the stimulus funds:
- There will be a temporary suspension for any student loan held by the federal government. This means no payments required and no interest accrued until the end of September, 2020.
- Borrowers with federally backed loans can request forbearance on mortgage payments for up to six months.
- There will be an expansion of unemployment benefits, including a four-month enhancement of benefits. This plan includes freelancers, workers in the gig economy, and furloughed employees.
Amount: $500.0 billion – 25% of total CARES Act
This component of the package is aimed at stabilizing big businesses in hard-hit sectors.
The most obvious industry to receive support will be the airlines. About $58 billion has been earmarked for commercial and cargo airlines, as well as airline contractors. Perhaps in response to recent criticism of the industry, companies receiving stimulus money will be barred from engaging in stock buybacks for the term of the loan plus one year.
One interesting pathway highlighted by today’s Sankey diagram is the $17 billion allocated to “maintaining national security”. While this provision doesn’t mention any specific company by name, the primary recipient is believed to be Boeing.
The bill also indicates that an inspector general will oversee the recovery process, along with a special committee.
Amount: $377.0 billion – 19% of total CARES Act
To ease the strain on businesses around the country, the Small Business Administration (SBA) will be given $350 billion to provide loans of up to $10 million to qualifying organizations. These funds can be used for mission critical activities, such as paying rent or keeping employees on the payroll during COVID-19 closures.
As well, the bill sets aside $10 billion in grants for small businesses that need help covering short-term operating costs.
State and Local Governments
Amount: $340.0 billion – 17% of total CARES Act
The biggest portion of funds going to local and state governments is the $274 billion allocated towards direct COVID-19 response. The rest of the funds in this component will go to schools and child care services.
Public and Health Services
Amount: $179.5 billion – 9% of total CARES Act
The biggest slice of this pie goes to healthcare providers, who will receive $100 billion in grants to help fight COVID-19. This was a major ask from groups representing the healthcare industry, as they look to make up the lost revenue caused by focusing on the outbreak — as opposed to performing elective surgeries and other procedures. There will also be a 20% increase in Medicare payments for treating patients with the virus.
Money is also set aside for initiatives such as increasing the availability of ventilators and masks for the Strategic National Stockpile, as well as providing additional funding for the Center for Disease Control and expanding the reach of virtual doctors.
Finally, beyond the healthcare-related funding, the CARES Act also addresses food security programs and a long list of educational and arts initiatives.
Hat tip to Reddit user SevenandForty for inspiring this graphic.
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