Atlantic Cities

The Devastating Impact of 30 Years of Sprawl, As Seen From Space

How much have cities in Texas expanded in just the past few decades? A "truckload" I believe is the appropriate regional answer, and now we can actually see those urban centers spread like slime mold with a series of amazing satellite-based animations.

Look, here's the Dallas/Fort Worth region from 1984 to 2012. The immensity of development is almost unbelievable:

Likewise, Houston shows growth that ain't exactly piddlee'o:

These GIFs were recorded from Google's "Landsat Annual Time Lapse" tool by Samuel Aston Williams, a young Texas architect. Williams wanted to contribute something new to a startling series of showing three decades of human-landscape intervention recently produced by a collaboration of Google, NASA, TIME and others.

Williams' mini-collection of bloating cities touches on many continents, although he clearly has a fondness for the Southern and Southwestern states. "I have always had an interest in the new American urban paradigm as seen in the infill of the Sun Belt," he says. "On a thesis level, the growth/intensity of industrial zones at Sun Belt highway intersections is the most underrated urban trend of the decade."

A couple things jumped out at him while studying these animations. "It is interesting to see the 'greening' of the mid-ring suburbs of the '70 to the '90s as the tree canopies matured," he says. "This is in contrast to the concrete jungles of prewar neighborhoods and the virgin developments of the 21st century." (Look again at Dallas/Fort Worth for a good example.)

A few other trends he noticed: Some cities, like Chicago and Philadelphia, grow lighter over time, an apparent consequence of newer, white-roofed buildings crowding out older ones with dark roof tiles. And the shrinking of water sources, whether manmade or natural, is a "sad site to behold," Williams says. "On the other hand, the creation of artificial land in coastal metropolises is increasingly larger in scale (re: Shanghai)."

Here are a few other sprawling cities that he's put out there, beginning with Chicago's domination of the surrounding plains (for the full set of GIFs, head to this Flickr page):

Atlanta takes big bites out of the land:

Watch as the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach grow new arms:

Suburbanization around Washington, D.C., has been hot and heavy. In Maryland and Virginia, that has spelled more McMansions, overpriced condo developments and blocks of cookie-cutter townhouses:

It's a little harder to spot major changes in the fabric of New York:

Lagos, Nigeria, has shown tremendous growth and subsequent deforestation:

Now, hold onto your garters for these urban explosions in Chinese cities, beginning with Shanghai:

Most stunning of all, perhaps, is the complete transformation of the Pearl River Delta, a huge manufacturing region that includes Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Macau:

John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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