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Google Earth: Changing Your View of The World  October 04, 2006

As landscape architects we frequently design on existing sites, in the context of acreage. In most cases we are fitting projects onto property of specific sizes and in locations where they must coexist and work with other land uses. Because of this we are always looking for new tools to help visualize how our part of the puzzle fits into the whole. With but a few clicks of the mouse Google Earth has given us a whole new way to do this – an eye in the sky without having to leave our desks.

Laying the Foundation

The predecessor to Google Earth was an application called Keyhole, and for a small amount of money, you were able to “subscribe” to their service to view detailed maps of of the world, including countries, cities and even small individual job sites. Google purchased the rights to the Keyhole application in 2004 and began offering a basic software application at no charge to anyone with an Internet connection. Of course the free application is a basic version of the software and does not include some other cool tools that allow you to hook up to a GPS system and offering high quality mapping. This “upgrade” is available for only about $20.00 for individuals and companies can purchase a business license for about $400.00.

Changing the Landscape

What makes Google Earth so groundbreaking and exciting is the ability to move around the entire globe and zoom into a specific site with the touch of a button. Let’s say that you are working on a project in Athens, Georgia. You may be looking to build residential units and are looking for a specific location.You no longer have to get in a car or plane to visit a site. You don’t even have to contact the local planning office. You can simply go to the map interface, type in Athens, Georgia and immediately you will be flown to the city and you can begin to view aerial photos of the areas that you may be interested in using. In this case I was looking for a small site about 10-15 acres in size. However, to be able to check out sizes in an exact manner, you will have to purchase the upgrade (FIG1). This allows you to create a polygon to outline what you may consider the property lines and it will calculate an acreage, similar to a CAD program.

“Create a 3D model in SketchUp and import it into a Google Earth image so you can see how your project will look in context with the actual site surroundings.”

Other useful and fun applications of the program include the ability to produce 3D terrain models of areas that have updated photo information. As an example of this I thought it might be interesting to use the Matterhorn Peak in Switzerland as an example. The Matterhorn is located in southern Switzerland, on the boarder with Italy. Looking at Fig 2 you can see in plan view what the area looks like from about 12,000 ft in elevation. Using the tools that are available, you can easily rotate the axis and produce a 3D photo realistic image of the Matterhorn and the entire area (FIG 3). Of course as Landscape Architects we may be more interested in viewing a 3D photo of a more urban area, such as downtown St. Louis. Note that in some cases you can turn on a buildings layer and even get a 3D image complete with building “blocks” to simulate true buildings (FIG 4). This sometimes can help in understanding the spaces created without ever leaving your chair. It is quite amazing that only a few years ago, this information was available only through an actual site visit!

The New Frontier

In early 2006 Google bought the rights to what seems to be the hottest new program on the market, SketchUp. Of course you all are familiar by now with the 3D modeling program that seems to have taken over every Landscape Architects office in the country. As smart as the Google people are in finding and buying products to add to their stable, they also are smart enough to be sure that their acquisitions can work together. In this case, you now can create a 3D model in SketchUp and import it into a Google Earth image so you can see how your project will look in context with the actual site surroundings. I pulled the image of a Fine Arts Palace from the Google Earth website (FIG 5). It shows how this massive building would be placed on the site and in the 3D view you get an idea of what the adjacent areas are and how the two would interface.

Furthermore Google Earth now can interface with many GIS programs. This allows you to overlay GIS projects onto any existing site, and again visualize how the new and existing features work with each other. The program also has an online directions type tab, that will allow you not only to get from one point to another, but will also “fly” you along the route so that you are familiar with the turn by turn directions.

Google Earth is a very useful and interesting tool, even as a “free program.” The upgrade, for only $20.00, is hard to pass up because of the ability to print high quality images directly from the screen. Unfortunately, at this point the image quality available from the free version may be a little questionable.
Whether you are only interested in testing out Google Earth on a trail basis or planning on fully integrating it into your business, the possibilities of this new technology are very exciting. In addition to making our lives easier as landscape architects it is changing the way we view the world around us.

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