Feet planted firmly on a pier, you might see waves frothing at its sides, or birds plunging towards the water. At the Sepang Goldcast Resort in Malaysia, you might see people wandering in and out of bungalows. But you may not notice that said bungalows branch out into the water in a curious formation. Only from a distance—and from overhead—does it become clear that they’re arranged like palm fronds laid over the water.
From the middle of a crowd, it’s hard to see the edges, and to decipher any sense of what’s happening on the periphery. It’s even harder to imagine a telescopic perspective at a city level, let alone a global one.
Overview: A New Perspective of Earth, a new book by Benjamin Grant, zooms way out. The book—inspired by Grant’s Instagram account—collects 200 pictures all knit together from satellite images plucked from DigitalGlobe, a compendium of time-lapse stills.
My colleague John Metcalfe once called Grant a “curator of startling satellite imagery,” and it seems apt: Grant pans the archive of images for ones that reveal something profound about humanity’s relationship to the planet. The new book has chapters devoted to transit—full of wending airport runways, dizzying highways, and bridges that look whisker-thin—and waste—starring water treatment facilities and sprawling landfills.
But some of the images are just plain fun. The book includes Aspen’s snow-covered peaks, stippled with trees, and a candy-colored racetrack near Marseille. Then there’s the fiery surface of Superkilen park in Copenhagen, and the London Eye throwing an oblong shadow across the River Thames.
And there’s Burning Man, that trippy annual encampment in the Nevada desert. Grant’s book juxtaposes one image from August 2014—in which the pop-up city looks like something out of Star Wars—with another gathered two months later. In the latter, captured after the festival’s conclusion, the desert’s face is scrubbed clean.
No figures are visible in the images; they’re shot from too far away. But that distance helps us understand the deliberate calculations of a stadium and parking lot, or towels and cabanas gridding a beach, or the sleek curves of Ferrari World, an adrenaline-fueled amusement park in Abu Dhabi. In the book, the lush images take up much more space than text, adding up to an effect of challenging preconceptions about how recreation might look across geographies and cultures. “When you think of North Korea, a water slide is not the first thing that comes to mind,” Grant says—but the book includes an image of Munsu Water Park, a state-run facility in Pyongyang that’s also outfitted with ball courts and a climbing wall.
At CityLab, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how cities squeeze play into surprising spaces: by reimagining bus stops or sidewalks as sites of recreation, or by squeezing ball fields into odd shapes to fill in a cockeyed lot. There are ways to carve out spaces for play even in dense hubs.
But there’s also a utility in looking at leisure design on a grander scale. “We often think of play as being natural and instinctual,” Grant says. But, he adds, a golf course or ski slope is carefully molded. Some facets—like lines striping a race course—are both aesthetic and functional. “There are all these rules,” Grant adds, “to make a game make sense.”
By taking stock of an amusement park or bustling shore, Grant writes, “we can more deeply understand the powerful and universal values that drove their creation.” That is to say: The time, energy, and planning devoted to the business of fun.
Overview: A New Perspective of Earth, $40 from Amphoto Books, a division of Penguin Random House.