Seeing a whole new Pittsburgh

Google Earth and Street View are fabulous tools for both professional and armchair urban designers


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For years, Pittsburgh Mayor-elect Bill Peduto has been advocating development that builds on the city's human scale, proximity of buildings and historic architecture. He envisions a city that engages its citizens to promote streets for walking and bicycling as well as public transportation and cars.

That's a great goal, and there's no better way to foster good design than ensuring citizen-planners in all 90 Pittsburgh neighborhoods are familiar with Google Earth.

As a layman who wrote a form-based zoning ordinance for my hometown of Pottstown, I consider Google Earth, and its ground-level cousin, Street View, to be the greatest urban design tools ever created. Anyone with an Internet connection can download it free and visit every corner of the globe on his computer screen. Google Earth provides seamless color satellite imagery of the entire planet, and Street View shows ground-level images along streets and roads in more than 35 countries.

Of course, engineers, planners and design professionals have been using Google Earth and Street View since their inception in 2005 and 2007, but lots of laymen, including planning board members and many other public officials, have never tried them.

I grew up in Mt. Lebanon and have visited Pittsburgh many times since I left. Prior to Google Earth, there were just three ways to see the city: I could drive down the streets, which meant I got only momentary glimpses of buildings and landscapes; I could walk, which allowed me to pause at any point and soak in the scenery but dramatically limited my mobility; or I could use a bicycle as an imperfect compromise.

Now, thanks to Street View, I can meander down just about any street in Pittsburgh on a computer screen in the comfort of my own home. At any point of my virtual tour, I can zoom up hundreds or thousands of feet above the city to get a comprehensive aerial perspective. Looking down from above, I can measure the dimensions of any street, lot or building, and draw a path from one place to another and measure exactly how far it is.

Back at ground level, I can look around from a much better vantage point in Street View than in person, because the panoramic cameras mounted on Google cars are perched 8 feet above the street.

Street View is an easy, efficient and time-effective way to see the world. In the space of one afternoon, you can ramble down a quiet country lane in southern France, check out the beach views in Rio de Janeiro or elbow your way down a crowded Hong Kong street. And wherever you are, it's always a clear day.

Last June, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald led a delegation of 70 Pittsburgh civic leaders to visit Cleveland's Health Line, a dedicated bus line on Euclid Avenue that uses articulated buses designed to function like rail cars, stopping at sheltered transit stations on islands in the middle of the street. Mr. Fitzgerald sees the bus line as a model for a similar system connecting Downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland. I think it's a great idea, based on the 20-minute visit to Euclid Avenue I just made on Street View.

Street View helps us experience -- and learn from -- the world's most beautiful streets. Mayor-elect Peduto wants to make the 11 blocks of Smithfield Street "a grand boulevard of Pittsburgh" with new sidewalks, decorative lighting, trees and perhaps bike lanes, lined with fine shops and boutiques.

There is a world of ideas about streetscapes on Street View. Twenty years ago, urban designer Allan Jacobs wrote a widely acclaimed book, "Great Streets," which examines dozens of the world's most attractive streets -- from Market Street in San Francisco to the Kurfurstendamm in Berlin to Motomachi in Yokohama -- and explains why they are so appealing.

Until Street View came along, it could take a lifetime of travel to see them all. Now most are available instantly on Street View.

Want a park-like atmosphere on Smithfield Street to entice shoppers? Try the Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich. Safe and functional bike lanes? The Dutch and the Danes have perfected them in scores of cities and towns, all accessible on Street View. A pedestrian-oriented street to bring crowds together? It's hard to beat Las Ramblas in Barcelona.

The appearance of the streets and sidewalks where we travel and mingle daily is too important to be left solely to professionals. Google Earth puts the world within reach of everyone, shows us diverse ways to arrange our communities and entices even homebodies to broaden their horizons.

Thomas Hylton is author of "Save Our Land, Save Our Towns." He served 12 years as chairman of planning commission in Pottstown, Pa.


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