Christopher Gielen’s Aerial Photos of Sprawl

In one session at the TED Mid Atlantic conference, German photographer Christoper Gielen showed his startling aerial images of American sprawl, but asked viewers to consider them as an “aesthetic experience.” Shot while hanging out of a helicopter, Gielen’s photos demonstrate that very similar sprawl shapes appear across the country.

To find his sites, Gielen first examined statistical databases and honed in on areas with the highest foreclosure rates, which he said indicate where the most unsustainable development is. In Houston, he found perfect web-like networks of prefabricated houses with trees exactly in the same place. One community in Nevada (see image above) is “so perfect” incoming aircraft use it as a marker on their way to the airport. As for the community, “it’s sold as active living, but it’s isolated in the middle of the Nevada desert. It’s a prison of our own making. People are really inside their cars or homes watching TV.”  

The high foreclosure rates among communities in Florida and Arizona demonstrate that many of these sites are economically unviable, but Geilen says they are also environmentally destructive. In one Florida sprawl community (see image below), the wetland was drained then water was reintroduced into managed channels. “The flow of the Everglades is being slowly cut off by development.”

While land-use policymakers want to “reconnect the severed arteries of the Everglades” and create “archipelagos of development” in a sea of of untouched landscapes, many sprawl communities continue to be built.

On a more existential note, Gielen also asked why he was seeing the same forms over and over again in different parts of the country. “There must be some geometric sociology. Why do these shapes — circles, stars, or webs — come into form? Is there something deep in the human psyche?”

See Gielen’s photographs, which he will publish in a book next year.

Image credit: (1,2,3) Untitled / Christopher Gielen

2 thoughts on “Christopher Gielen’s Aerial Photos of Sprawl

  1. R. Gus Drum 11/17/2010 / 1:13 pm

    Those are interesting photos of the plague of sprawl so prevalent across the US.

    Another interesting exercise is to compare through GIS the land cover mapping provided by USGS during the years 1992, 2001 and now for 2011 for the land cover category labeled “urban cover”……it’s scary to see the changes in many areas over that span of time… unison let’s all say…….”stormwater runoff?”

    My guess is that the geometric shapes of residential development are a result of maximizing land use for residential lots and standards for residential streets (usually way overstated)……….curiously looks like the geometric shapes theorized for the most efficient distribution of urban centers on a flat plain.

  2. M. D. Vaden of Oregon 12/08/2010 / 8:36 pm

    Some folks have been conditioned to think this way and evaluate development this way (calling images like this urban “sprawl”).

    When I see a photo like this, it equally denotes “urban compaction”. Farmland is probably the apex example of what could be called by some as urban sprawl. But most people have little “beef” about farms and farm houses. It’s coordinated requirement and development in confined areas that produces what is seen in these images.


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