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Thoughts on topography…and it’s been a while!

June 22, 2011

Hello, again. It’s been a while. It’s not that I haven’t been thinking of you — in fact, I often bookmark interesting articles that I want to write about, but somehow I never do…

But with the new season (summer!) comes a new resolution, to try and get back on top of this blog. I rather like the idea of having multiple opportunities to make resolutions every year, actually!

So, to start, a couple of thoughts about topography. I think it’s pretty common in cities to lose sight of what once was — what the city looked like before we modified it by filling in lakes, rivers, and wetlands, buried streams underground, leveled hills to make roads and building sites, and in general paved over large amounts of soil and vegetation. But staying in touch with the topography of our cities is an important way that we can reconnect with the natural world within the city. Here in our neighborhood, it’s clear how the hills are connected to our waterways. My street goes downhill towards Rock Creek, and then rises up again on the other side of the creek and park. Our neighborhood sits up fairly high in DC — if you walk downtown from here, you’ll be going downhill most of the way, as you move closer to the Potomac River.

In his book “Biophilic Cities,” Timothy Beatley describes citizen-led efforts in San Diego to reclaim the unique topography of the city by protecting and increasing access to the city’s network of canyons — a topographical feature that has long been overlooked by many residents of the area. There is abundant wildlife still to be found in these canyons, however, and it’s encouraging to read about all of the efforts underway by local groups, such as Friends of Rose Canyon. The members of this and similar organizations recognize the importance of the natural features that make up the character of their town, not only as places that house wildlife and vegetation, but as places that mark the natural character of San Diego.

Here in DC, large portions of downtown have been extensively modified since the city was created (portions of the Mall and surrounding green areas is landfill, for example). A lot of planning documents and initial maps of the city were lost when the British burned parts of the city in 1814; however, the Imaging Research Center at UMBC has been hard at work digitally reconstructing what the city looked like before the British arrived. Part of the result is an excellent video which visually demonstrates what some of the city looked like in its very early years, including the lost topography of the area.

So next time you’re out for a stroll, give some thought to what the land around you is telling you about the characteristics of your neighborhood. Try to imagine what it would look like without the sidewalk, streets, and buildings. And enjoy your thoughts.

(c) NASA/JPL/NGA

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