OP-ED: Google Street View Makes Debut

By James Fletcher

With the launch of Google Street View this week, Vancouver residents can now see our city through new eyes. The technology is impressive, offering up-close 360 degree views of the city’s streets and lanes, and is searchable with Google maps.

By now most of us have looked at our own home, spied on our friends and neighbours, and tried in vain to spot familiar faces on the street. However, once the initial novelty and voyeurism has faded, citizens will be left with a powerful new tool. How can it be put to practical use?

The implications for democratic debate and discussion of urban issues are of interest to Think City and other urban affairs activists. While initial criticism has focused on privacy issues and concerns, there are other issues that deserve our attention. Anything that encourages Vancouverites to examine, scrutinize and debate about our public realm cannot be a bad thing.

Streets are the most economically important and spatially significant form of public space, and yet in much of Metro Vancouver they are a forgotten and neglected resource. Perhaps Street View will begin to start a long overdue conversation about our streets.

Street View could also be a powerful tool for public engagement for community groups. Whether you’re fighting for a stop sign, against a highway expansion, or trying to get curbs on your street, or space for a community garden, it’s always easier to show people the area than to describe it. Likewise, government agencies could use Street View and digital animation technology to enhance their public consultation exercises and give the public opportunities for meaningful input at the planning and design stages.

More broadly, the technology will be embraced as a tool for research and public education. Much like Vancouver’s open data initiative, Street View helps put information in the hands of citizens – and it’s up to us to find new ways to use this technology and integrate it into our lives.

There is perhaps a danger that the images in Google Street View will become the accepted and unquestioned definition of reality, as people can easily forget that each image is nothing more than a snapshot of a particular place at one moment. The nature of street life changes hourly, daily and seasonally, and the same street can have a completely different atmosphere at different times.

It is also unfortunate that Google Street View was collected only from the perspective of the driver of a vehicle, because the world looks very different through the eyes of the pedestrian. Distance, time, topography, exposure to weather, lighting, safe street crossings, and the relative scale of buildings and roads make the urban landscape appear very different from a pedestrian’s point-of-view.

The tendency towards car-centric urban design and policy making may be further reinforced if developers, architects and public agencies allow themselves to be too influenced by the images from this one tool.

Jane Jacobs famously said that to know your community you have to get out and walk it. Google should heed her very sage advice as they further refine their Street View program. As an aside, Think City has received a lot of positive feedback on this year’s Jane’s Walk, and we are happy to say Jane’s Walk will be back in 2010 stronger than ever.

Street View is a powerful technology that will help people to better understand our urban environment. Let’s acknowledge its flaws and limitations, and encourage Google to continue to improve Street View. As citizens we should explore our city online – as well as on foot.

James Fletcher is the editor of the Think City Minute. 

OP-ED articles do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Think City. To make a submission to the OP-ED section of the Think City Minute, please email editor@thinkcity.ca for details.


resoonse to James Fletcher's op ed

Thanksgving Monday/09: Thank you, James for your learned and indigenous views on this new tool of self-examining our selves via our actual streets' view. It is tempting all right to use this and protect against the temptation to abuse. Always helpful, too, to have Jane Jacobs evoked! So, to be aware: walking yes; also, cyclying and talking to the binners who regularily patrol our alleyways, eh? Just how much of our street is taken up by just pavement for cars, trucks, [thankfully] buses, etc. is overwhelming. Thank goodness for the still intact soil: for scenic relief, community gardens, play, rest & rcreation, animal life, and the whole "nature of things". Press on....pacefully: barry


Great article. I haven't looked up my house yet, but maybe more tellingly, i immediately looked up Main and Hastings. And although it was obviously shot in the early morning, it instantly made me jealous; jealous that I had not done the same. The scope of the project is just that much more impressive when you see your own community. It is with that it shares a lot of the same characteristics of Stan Douglas' 'Every Building on 100 West Hastings'. It is an examination of ourselves. 'People live here', or 'we made this' come to mind without the inherent didacticism often involved in discussions about the public sphere.

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