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Writing About Cities: Courtroom Rules or Virtual Frontier?

In law school evidence class, students learn the hearsay rule, which generally requires a courtroom witness to have firsthand knowledge of the truth of a matter asserted.  Budding lawyers also master the rules for authenticating photographs for use by judge and jury.

Meanwhile, there are less rigorous ways to make a record.  Last year, I reviewed virtual alternatives, premised on Doug Rickard's Google Street View-based social commentary,  A New American Picture.  Rickard has company in the intriguing work of Bill Guffey and The Virtual Paintout, premised on paintings from Google Street View images from around the world.

Which approach should apply to our writing about cities?

On any given day, a high percentage of the day's urbanist press is devoted to articles about places that the authors have never visited. Imagery comes from the public domain, or, like Rickard and Guffey, from desktop travel by Google Earth and Google Street View. Arguably, this easy accessibility expands the reach of both reader and writer.

While courtroom rules should not apply to such new media advancements, we should take pause and consider the risks of virtual visits and secondary sources.  Over-reliance may encourage artistic license best reserved for more creative endeavors.

Consider the images below of a north Seattle arterial, one from Google Street View, and the other from a personal, street-level photograph. Both images suggest a former residential area now used for small businesses.  But are they equally reliable depictions?  

As is often the case on Google Street View, for privacy purposes the business identities are obscured, and building condition is not easily discerned. This vagueness dims clarity, leaving an outline,  a two-dimensional framework which invites speculation.  Is this actually a permitted use?  Or a house with illegal signage? Is this a residential area in turmoil?   Are we witnessing a harbinger of suburban decay?

From the street photo, the maturity of the businesses are clear, and professional services---acupuncture and an optician---are legible. The photo tells us of a sale on eyeglasses and, with closer examination, shows the nature of adjacent businesses. From my personal knowledge of the neighborhood, as the photographer I know that this area has long contained a mix of uses under appropriate zoning. It stands within part of a vital, largely walkable urban neighborhood of smaller houses and modernizing businesses, amid a post-World War II "neighborhood unit" configuration.

In fairness, Google Street View provides the essence of the in-person story, and joint use of Google Earth and further internet research would bring a remote researcher close to the "truth".  However, the removed Google Street View artist could easily spin a tale of decline, while the more literal, experiential local street photo tells a story of urban reinvention.

Seldom does writing about cities need courtroom precision.  Yet the value of Google Street View visits is highly contextual.  When appropriately cast, easily accessible, fuzzy depictions will not compromise the writer's final message.  Still, virtual visits are worth careful reflection, as a two-dimensional framework is by nature incomplete.

First image courtesy Google Street View. Second image composed by the author.