John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
German scientists made this excruciatingly detailed simulacrum of the “global urban footprint.”
If you want a quick but lovely revelation of where the world’s urban population lives, try this animated model from German scientists showing the most built-up areas in the world.
The Global Urban Footprint model—recently featured by the always-entertaining Maps Mania—paints in inky-black the urban regions where more than half the world’s population resides. The German Remote Sensing Data Center made it with 180,000 satellite images to achieve an incredible spatial resolution of about 40 feet. (The full resolution isn’t available with the online version, as it’d probably cause computer devices to overheat and melt through the floor.)
White is not meant to mean “devoid of all human life”; rather, the model’s creators chose the monochromatic style to emphasize the patterns of developed regions and help with the “analysis of urban structures, and hence the proportion of settled areas, the regional population distribution, and the arrangement of rural and urban areas.” (Find a detailed explanation of how they achieved this stylistic effect here.)