Sprawled out

An aerial photographer captures the altered American landscape with unmistakable clarity

Alex MacLean has spent a lot of time peering down at the American landscape. During 25 years as an aerial photographer, he's logged more than 5,000 hours in his single-engine Cessna Skylane 182, often studying communities from altitudes where mailboxes and traffic signs can still be delineated.

While passengers in commercial jets are quickly lifted far above the clouds, Mr. MacLean often putters along in the 1,000- to 2,000-foot range, doing work for architects and planners.

Flying at low altitudes, he says, gives you "a different look at the landscape and how it's put together. You're in a different scale."

While on assignment, he takes the time to trawl for his own pictures.

"It's sort of like fishing," he says by phone from his Landslides Aerial Photography office in Cambridge, Mass. "If you're out there a lot, you catch things. The things that particularly interest me are in towns and at the edge of metropolitan areas."

To put it simply, he's not a fan of sprawl, or what a photographic exhibit at Boston University's Photographic Resource Center calls "the unchecked and indiscriminate spread of cities, and even rural areas."

MacLean has a number of photos in the show, and his work has earned international attention.

He brings an artistic eye and a social conscience to bear on his work, even while doing contract jobs that help developers in marketing and selling.

Compelling images spur neighborhood planning

This commercial reconnaissance work can be at odds with MacLean's own views of proper land use, but he doesn't waver.

"I guess one way I rationalize this is to say, 'I own the images and I can do what I want with them. And a lot of my images end up being used as bad-practice examples," he explains.

Many of these appear in "Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream," a book co-written by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck (see review, right).

Mr. Speck, director of town planning at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., a leader in neotraditional, New Urbanist community design, says many of MacLean's shots were used in the book because "few images are as compelling as Alex's in demonstrating the distinctions between neighborhood planning and suburban sprawl.

"I think there's often a hidden or not-so-hidden intention behind the pictures he takes, which are always beautiful in a disturbing way," he adds.

Some of these images illustrate the relentless sameness of suburban neighborhoods, their encroachment into natural landscapes, and the construction of ever-larger, high-speed road networks.

"I try to show the absurdity of sprawl and its nonsustainable development patterns," he says. "It's a dysfunctional social pattern that is totally dependent on the automobile. Because you have to drive to function, it discriminates against the old and the young."

Mega perimeter roads and interchanges have become commonplace, but MacLean says they're not limited to outlying transportation corridors.

Once, while flying over the Boston area en route from Hanscom Field in Bedford, where he keeps his plane, to coastal Revere, he spied an incredible confluence of roads in the heart of Medford (see photo above).

He'd driven through the intersection before, but now - freshly paved with new striping on dark macadam - it captured his attention.

This spaghetti bowl of blacktop had a visually striking "crispness" that stood out and illustrated an aspect of sprawl that occurs in built-up areas. "There's this mentality," he says, "that you can pave yourself out of the problem if you make enough lanes, that it's going to be the answer."

Massive roadways may look inviting to people in a hurry, but MacLean says there are downsides that are largely overlooked.

"Few people think about the cost of driving in terms of the expense of the infrastructure," he observes. "It can cost millions of dollars to put in an elaborate interchange. There's also the cost to the environment in terms of air pollution and what these roads do to potential pedestrian environments."

MacLean studied to be an architect, so he works well with architects and designers. In the air, though, he operates almost exclusively solo.

"It's pretty easy," he says. "I can trim the plane so it flies fairly straight and level, then make adjustments with one hand on the [steering] yoke or my feet on the rudders. You can get pretty much exactly where you want to be.

"Right when I take the shot, I rest the [35mm] camera on my left shoulder and look through the viewfinder, holding the camera one-handed. Usually, when I take the shot, I take my hand off the yoke to stabilize the camera."

Mostly he uses his own plane, but sometimes, as for a short assignment on the West Coast, he'll fly commercially and then rent a plane once he's in the area.

Photographs easily understood by everyone

Dolores Hayden at Planning Magazine, published by the American Planning Association (APA), says that aerial photographs, when taken at oblique angles and low altitude, have many advantages in community discussions.

"The images show real conditions, not simulations," she explains. "They are understandable to people with no technical training, in a way that zoning maps and codes, satellite surveys, and traditional site plans are not."

MacLean is the author of "Look at the Land: Aerial Reflections on America" and the co-author of "Taking Measures Across the American Landscape." Another jointly written book - this one on the effects of sprawl on rural settlements - is scheduled for release by the APA this spring.

Sprawl, MacLean says, is too diffuse to summarize in one image, but he thinks cul-de-sacs are an "emblematic type of development form," the essence of what author James Kunstler once described as the "geography of nowhere."

Many of MacLean's pictures convey an Edward Hopper-esque loneliness, a sense of developments devoid of social interaction. One reason for this, he says, is single-use zoning, in which houses are separated from shopping and workplaces. The result can be desolate residential areas, in which two- and three-car garages line the street.

"People use their electric garage-door openers to enter their homes, and that's the last they're seen on the street," MacLean observes.

Among his favorite sights from the air are the "antecedents of the New Urbanism," communities with traditional development patterns. "Vermont villages fit that pattern," he says. "They are mixed-use, mixed-income developments, with really generous public spaces and very pedestrian-oriented." Among his least favorite sights are housing developments blanketing former agricultural land, chain drugstores set back from urban streetscapes by large parking lots, and the many prisons that dot the American landscape.

MacLean likes to think communities are tackling sprawl and that his photographs are helping them do so. "Planning is now much more a public process done on a consensus basis," he says. "Aerial photographs are really great for getting citizens to understand and see what the actual development plans are and what the consequences are. So in that way they are a very powerful tool."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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