Loving Land from the Air

Flying over the USA heartland is always my favorite flight route. The excitement of gazing out the window distracts me from the long flight, the uncomfortable seats, and the lack of a snack. Above the clouds, the sun is so bright and beautiful; it’s a world you can only see by flying. Once the plane dips below the clouds back to earth the country appears. From 30,000+ feet above the earth, the grid and squares of the land, from the Public Land Survey, are so clear and so telling. The land was divided into townships of 36 square miles and then 1 mile squares, all based on meridians and parallels. Within each square, the shades of brown and green indicate different crops and fields and uses. Roads appears white; rivers appear bluish-brown. Towns are spaced a few miles apart, or so it seems from up so high. The land appears to pass in slow motion until another plane jets in the opposite direction, defining its 100s of miles per hour. Much of this part of the country is the perfect grid, of course with some exception and some roads that come to a T rather than a cross. Occasionally the plane will fly along an interstate, foretold by its characteristic wide lanes and clover leaf interchanges. Factories and their blowing smoke stacks and nearby reservoirs are found now and again among the farmland.

If only the plane would scroll through the names of the towns and states as we pass. Flying from DC to Denver, I imagined the route to be Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and finally Colorado, but I can’t be sure. Regardless of the state, the towns are mostly gridded just like the survey of the land. They appear as clusters of buildings with main roads through the center from one or two points, sometimes with a highway and bypass. It fits with the land. What is always striking is the blatant shape of the new construction or sprawl in its large scale. Obviously evident from the ground by its massive, identical white vinyl houses, empty treeless yards, the developments also appear so different from the air, just as they do on the ground.

Planners, designers, developers, and others responsible may be attempting to incorporate curvilinear streets and other traditional, successful community plans, but from the air they appear as squished centipedes; their bodies the bending streets and their legs the smaller dead end side streets. Perhaps slightly more interesting than a grid, the layout will not fool me. I know these streets are dead ends and cul-de-sacs off a single main thoroughfare, maybe with sidewalks, probably with front facing garages, characteristic of the auto centric development. They might make more sense if streets met each other, enhancing connectivity, not solitude. I know that they aren’t truly walkable because you can’t walk anywhere; you always have to get in your car. Though nearby, these houses appear so isolated from the nearby towns, in such contrast from the towns that appear harmonious, organic, and in sync with themselves.

Of course, these thoughts come from my judgmental eye and my disdain for McMansion auto-centric, cookie-cutter developments in an age when we know what works and what has failed in communities. Why don’t we follow our own advice? The root of the evil is likely lazy and careless development planning, one that cannot be bothered to study actual successful communities rather than theory and nice architectural renderings.

I suppose, however you feel about the landscape from the air, the lesson is in reading the landscape. It’s a story right in front of your eyes about how the way we live is shaped by our land. Highways, byways, gridded towns, dirt roads, farmland, factories, flood plains, new construction, and sprawl – it is all in place to read and to interpret.

With the glamour of airline travel a bygone day, the story of the land is the beauty of flying cross country.