Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Review: TerraAtlas: Central Washington, DC

In recent years, high-resolution imagery has become more readily available to the general public. Some web services, such as Google Maps and Google Earth, make use of the satellite images. High-resolution aerial photographs from the Washington area have been incorporated into a new book, TerraAtlas: Central Washington, DC by Naphtali David Rishe.

This TerraAtlas covers most of Washington, DC, and a portion of Arlington, Virginia. It runs from about 40th Street, NW, east to 21st Street, NE/SE; its northern and southern boundaries are defined by approximately Randolph Street, NW/NE, and U Street, SW. These boundaries include the downtown and Mall, Georgetown and the National Cathedral, the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery, Capitol Hill, and Howard and Catholic Universities. The National War College at Fort McNair does not quite make it, nor does the stadium complex. Most of the area east of the Anacostia is left out, as is upper Northwest and Rock Creek Park above Peirce Mill. Streets and landmarks are labelled, making the book a hybrid between traditional street maps and collections of aerial photographs. Images are scaled so that 1 inch equals 0.1 miles.

Images for the book were taken in 2002 by USGS aircraft. Some projects appear as incomplete in the photographs. For example, the Pentagon still shows damage from 9/11, the World War II memorial is under construction, and the Giant supermarket on Rhode Island Avenue is little more than a few concrete walls. Such features date the atlas but do not seriously affect its usefulness.

Several notable landmarks are obscured by fiat of the Department of Homeland Security. The mandated sites seem somewhat arbitrary. Blurred sites include the White House, Observatory Circle, the Capitol, and the Senate and House office buildings. However, the Pentagon and Supreme Court are not blurred. What purpose this serves is unclear. The White House and Capitol are two of the most photographed buildings in the country, and images of both, including from the air, are widely available.

Of course, the real fun of a book like this is to study how your city looks from the air. Little details are particularly striking - trains pulling in and out of Union Station, a boat speeding down the Potomac, the shadows of trees along the shore reflected in the water. The aerial perspective gives a hint of how birds see the city, and why certain areas are so good for birdwatching. The southern part of Rock Creek Park appears as a solid mass of trees in between equally solid masses of concrete. With Roosevelt Island, the contrast between the park and its surroundings is even more vivid.

TerraAtlas: Central Washington, DC is well-suited for local residents who want to learn more about topography of the city where they live and work, and for vistors from out of town who have an interest in the Washington landscape.

Note: The original text of the review erred in stating that the images were taken by satellites; the images were taken by USGS aircraft.

Full citation:

Naphtali David Rishe, compiler, TerraAtlas: Central Washington, DC. Blacksburg, Virginia: McDonald and Woodward Publishing Company, 2006. Pp. 48; color photographs and index.

To purchase: