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What happens when you have a picture of the entire world? 

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by Jonathan Zisk

Jonathan Zisk is a second-year Master of City Planning student concentrating in sustainable transportation and infrastructure planning. He comes to Penn with an English degree from Reed College in Portland Oregon. He believes that cities are remarkable spaces for sustainable and equitable life and wants Chestnut and Walnut Streets to be permanently closed to cars. 

[1] Olanoff, Drew. “Inside Google Street View: From Larry Page’s Car To The Depths Of The Grand Canyon.” TechCrunch (blog), March 8, 2013. 


[3] Google Maps Street View. “Celebrate 15 Years of Exploring Your World on Street View.” Accessed December 9, 2023. 

[4] Shet, Vinay. “Go Back in Time with Street View.” Google, April 23, 2014

[5] Li, Xiaojiang, and Carlo Ratti. “Mapping the Spatial Distribution of Shade Provision of Street Trees in Boston Using Google Street View Panoramas.” Urban Forestry & Urban Greening 31 (April 1, 2018): 109–19.

[6] Smith, Cara M., Joel D. Kaufman, and Stephen J. Mooney. “Google Street View Image Availability in the Bronx and San Diego, 2007–2020: Understanding Potential Biases in Virtual Audits of Urban Built Environments.” Health & Place 72 (November 1, 2021): 102701.

[7] Berners-Lee, Ben. “The Semiotics of Digital Cartography at the Geoguessr Interface: A Practice-Oriented Case Study.” New Media & Society, March 31, 2023.

[8]  Ingraham, Allison L. Rowland and Chris. “How Google Street View Became An Art Form.” Fast Company, May 25, 2017. 

In 2014, Google subtly introduced a new feature to Streetview: the ability to toggle between different dates of panoramic imagery. The results were nothing short of extraordinary. Via any internet browser, Streetview users could suddenly watch the world change before their eyes. Google’s tweak to their user interface dropped a visual time machine into our laps, and the city planning world has only scratched the surface of this tool’s potential. 

   Streetview’s innovation comes in the form of scale and access. Its panoramic images of streetscapes are more extensive and accessible than any made before, yet follow in the path of conceptual precursors who displayed the power of capturing and recapturing urban panoramas. Ed Ruscha’s Sunset Strip project is preeminent among those. Ruscha made regular panoramas of Los Angeles’ Sunset Boulevard for over 40 years, and in doing so captured the evolution of the street’s changes, from the mundane to the monumental. Ruscha’s Sunset Strip project is an illustration of the potential that Streetview has granted to its millions of daily users, with uses from data mining and machine learning to urbanist activism and gaming. All of these uses are enabled by the trove of information that exists in sharing photographs of our built environment. 

An attempt to photograph the world: Google’s temporal streetscapes

   Besides a fascination with technical achievement, a curiosity for the world, and Silicon Valley hubris, it is unclear why Google undertook Streetview. Streetview spun out of a Stanford engineering project and began by trying to photograph every street in San Francisco using Google founder Larry Page’s personal car. Early results were merely “interesting,” but didn’t gain internal buy-in until the project was greenlit in 2005 and began development towards becoming a true Google product – the product being offered was a panoramic photograph that covered every road on earth. [1]

   In 2010, Google engineers celebrated the fifth anniversary of the project and explained that “the idea of driving along every street in the world taking pictures of all the buildings and roadsides seemed outlandish at first, but analysis showed that it was within reach of an organized effort at an affordable scale, over a period of years—at least in those parts of the world where political systems make it possible.” [2] Google does a poor job of articulating the utility of Streetview. Whether more extensive explanations are for internal use only, or if they go fully unarticulated is unclear. However, Google’s dedication to the project can only be explained by their recognition of the immense potential inherent in having an image from everywhere in the world. 

   Google Streetview has established a monumental data set of the built environment. By the project’s 10th anniversary in 2015, it had taken 220 billion images and driven over 10 million miles across 100 countries. [3] Vast swaths of the world are now available for exploration, research, and enjoyment from behind any computer or smartphone. 

   On top of their already unprecedent services, Streetview’s 2014 inclusion of historical images richened its offerings. In a blog post to announce the change, Google project manager Vinay Shet wrote that, “[t]his new feature can also serve as a digital timeline of recent history, like the reconstruction after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Onagawa, Japan. You can even experience different seasons and see what it would be like to cruise Italian roadways in both summer and winter.”  [4]

   Though announced as a glorified software update, accessible historic Streetview imagery should be considered a notable moment in human history – Google gave its users the ability to visually go back in time and see how the world around us has changed. Almost two decades into Streetview, the project is robust as ever, with high-trafficked cities receiving new Streetview updates every few years. Any internet user, without paying extra or even having a Google account, can access this trove of temporal streetscapes. The results of the tool have been predictably diverse and ingenious. 

   Since its widespread rollout, Google Streetview has been used for day-to-day navigation, for data mining to assess urban environmental, social, and infrastructural conditions, [5] for public health audits, [6] for study of the behavioral psychology of navigation, [7] and for use by artists who plumb its depths to select readymade images out of street scenes. [8] Each of these uses capitalizes on Streetview’s tremendous trove of data to shape how we view the world. 

   Google Streetview images are used widely in city planning offices for existing conditions analyses and have become pervasive on social media for their ability to depict changes in urban policy. Housing advocates regularly engage with the effects of zoning reform on housing supply by sharing before and after images of increased density in urban spaces. These Streetview image pairings optimistically depict the speed with which urban spaces can change to address pervasive social issues. The images encourage viewers to think about the built environment as the product of tangible policy and social decisions, rather than as an unchangeable condition of city life. 

Image: Sunset Strip Collage
Source: Jonathan Zisk 

[9] Browning, Kellen. “Siberia or Japan? Expert Google Maps Players Can Tell at a Glimpse.” The New York Times, July 7, 2022, sec. Business.. 

[10] Condon, Ali. “Man Who Can Pinpoint Exact Locations from Tiny Details in Photos Explains How He Does It.” UNILAD, April 26, 2023. 

[11]  “Plonk It,” Plonk It, accessed November 12, 2023,

[12]  Kusahara, Machiko. “The Panorama in Meiji Japan: Horizontal and Vertical Perspectives.” Early Popular Visual Culture 18, no. 4 (October 1, 2020): 400–421.

[13] Gleason’s Pictorial. Gleason. Frederick, 1852. 

[14] “Sunset Over Sunset.”

[15]  Baca, Miguel de. “On Ed Ruscha’s Books, Los Angeles, and Peripatetic Flow.” Art in Print 9, no. 2 (2019): 46–50.

Gamers study the built environment

   However unexpectedly, online gaming has proven to be among Google Streetview’s most popular uses. Online gamers use the game GeoGuessr to study the non-monumental, under-appreciated quirks of our built environment, especially of the industrial vernacular architecture that lends our cities, towns, and rural highways unique characteristics. 

   Alton Wallen, a Swedish software engineer, launched GeoGuessr in 2013. The game taps into Google Streetview in order to use its imagery for fun. [9] In each round, GeoGuessr randomly selects locations in Streetview and gives players the opportunity to guess where they are on a world map. The game was long a site for curious players to attempt an unbeatable and entertaining challenge. After all, there is no way to identify the location of any spot in the world. However, in the last few years, especially over the course of the Covid-19 Pandemic, GeoGuessr players took up the challenge of getting better at the game than anyone imagined would be possible.

   GeoGuessr has blossomed into a streaming juggernaut, with millions watching live game play and YouTube recordings of players who deftly sift through the forensics of a streetscape and pinpoint themselves across billions of possible locations around the globe. Professional Geoguessr player GeoRainbolt has gained prominence on TikTok by showcasing his ability to pinpoint Streetview imagery after seeing an image for less than a second. [10]

   The game now has over 40 million accounts and the GeoGuessr community is one of the greatest forces for studying and cataloguing vernacular architecture across the globe, all for the purposes of satisfyingly navigating rounds of a competitive video game. Players study the way different countries and regions erect bollards, tile their roofs, and string their telephone wires.[11] In short, they are filtering the mountains of information contained in Streetview and identifying traits that make each part of the world stand out as simultaneously interconnected and unique. 

   While GeoGuessr pros catalogue and memorize the ways that different regions mark roadways and design cityscapes, they are inadvertently unveiling the limitless potential for how we can construct our built environment. Knowing that streets do not have to be built the way that we’ve always built them is a powerful idea. By facilitating a study of our differences, GueGuessr uses Streetview to help us see the built environment as a collaborative, progressive project. 

Streetview’s predecessors

   Google was not the first to try and take a picture of everywhere in the world. Urban panoramas have captured the curiosity of audiences for centuries, from Meiji Japan [12] to 20th Century New York City, [13] but technological advances have allowed temporal repetitions of these panoramas to showcase the dynamism of cities.

   Prominent among Streetview’s predecessors is Ed Ruscha’s Sunset Strip project, which entailed the recapturing of panoramic images along Los Angeles’ Sunset Boulevard roughly every five years from the 1960s to the early 2000s. [14] Ruscha, an American pop artist and conceptual photographer, approached the city with a deadpan aesthetic that proved invaluable for studying the modern American built environment. Ruscha’s work serves as a conceptual bridge between modernist street photography and the maximalist technocratic advancement of Streetview. Ruscha’s geographically-constrained Streetview-style project shows the dynamism that our cities hide in plain sight and contextualizes the generational scope of urban change. 

   In 1966, Ruscha published the first and only official installment in his Sunset Strip project, an enigmatic book called Every Building on the Sunset Strip. The book consists of a single accordion page which unfurls 25 feet to reveal a panorama spanning one and a half miles of street frontage on both sides of Sunset Boulevard. The book is simultaneously a parody of Robert Frank’s road trip photography and a mesmerizing work of postmodern realism. Every Building is a landmark depiction of American space: the Sunset Strip, with all of its star-studded hangouts, Hollywood billboards, and rough around the edges allure. Ruscha took to his project assiduously, manually stitching each photo together, labeling side streets and alleys along the way, leaving no piece of land out of the image. [15]

   Aside from its humorous presentation, Every Building is an achievement in conceptual art that displays an urban environment through consistent, transparent editorial choices. Ruscha photographed a discrete stretch of roadway with such careful consistency that he eventually mechanized the process for reproduction on an industrial scale. Every Building makes an artistic advance by limiting the impact of the artist’s hand in order to represent the world with as few modifications as possible.

   Ruscha’s 1966 project was the seed for a generational attempt to document changes in the built environment. After publishing Every Building, he kept the project going, rephotographing Sunset Boulevard for the next forty years. [16] The project now includes twelve incarnations of Every Building, each one displaying the subtlest and most dramatic changes alike that occurred along the street in the time elapsed. 

   By recapturing Every Building, Ruscha turned his original project from a onetime conceptual achievement into a temporal streetscape whose significance gained complexity with each iteration. Ruscha’s sequential panoramas visually accelerate the pace of urban change and allow viewers to see the city evolve before their eyes.  

Stitching together Ruscha and Streetview

   To illustrate the utility of Ruscha’s Sunset Strip project, I hoped to recreate one of the era’s iconic images of Los Angeles using Ruscha’s panoramas – Robert Frank’s photograph of a statue on the Sunset Strip, as included in his landmark 1958 book, The Americans. The Americans was a tremendous influence for Ruscha, who modeled some of his own first photography projects on Frank’s, especially his 1963 Twentysix Gasoline Stations. [17]

   To my initial dismay, the statue photographed by Frank had been removed by the time Ruscha could photograph it. However, its absence underscores the treasure trove hidden in Ruscha’s work. Ruscha didn’t have the chance to photograph the statue, but he photographed the widened boulevard and parking lots that remained in its absence. 

   The statue, it turns out, was moved just a few blocks away, to a park in front of Los Angeles Union Station. Google Streetview captured it many times up until 2019. However, the statue was missing in all following images from that location. 

   By setting out on a foolhardy project to capture the world, much as Ruscha did for the Sunset Strip, Google Streetview captures the often-overlooked social and political movements etched into our built environment. The statue in question was a likeness of Father Junipero Serra, the principal architect of Spain’s California mission system, which systematically repressed non-European cultures in the territory and converted native people to Catholicism. In June 2020, indigenous activists tied ropes around the statue’s neck and pulled it to the ground. [18]

   Ruscha’s work exists in a nexus between conceptual art, historical documentation, and urbanism. Associating his work with Google Streetview allows for an optimistic approach towards navigating the optics of urban change. Collective distaste and distrust for change in the built environment is an essential force for keeping cities equitable and functional, yet the same impulses are often the greatest barriers to making more sustainable transportation systems, building denser housing, and beautifying communal spaces. Temporal streetscapes are an ingenious tool for depicting our built environment as a productive negotiation between cultural preservation and progress. Every city is the manifestation of a collection of an untold number of decisions that shape the dimensions, character, and orientation of space. Temporal streetscape allows us to see this cycle in action.

[16]  Sunset Over Sunset. 

[17]  Wolf, Sylvia, Ed Ruscha and Photography. First edition. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2004.

[18] Miranda, Carolina. “At Los Angeles Toppling of Junipero Serra Statue, Activists Want Full History Told.” Los Angeles Times, June 21, 2020.

Source:  Matt Sylvester, via Unsplash
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