John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
The Daily Overview presents refugee camps, environmental horror, Florida housing projects, and fields of lovely Dutch tulips.
Benjamin Grant’s career as curator of startling satellite imagery began with, of all things, a problem with Apple’s much-maligned Maps app.
He was preparing a lecture for friends about space and the overview effect and typed “Earth” to see if the map would zoom out all the way. “It actually went to Earth, Texas, a small town in the middle of nowhere,” says the 26-year-old New Yorker. “The entire scene filled up with pivot irrigation circles, these electric-motored irrigators that go in perfect circles. I was like, Oh my god, this is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”
Since then, Grant has been on a constant prowl for equally beautiful—and sometimes disturbing—landscapes, curating them at his site, Daily Overview. In all the pictures he sources from his partner satellite company, Colorado-based DigitalGlobe, he tries to show evidence of human impact, be it agriculture, mining, transportation, or music festivals. He sometimes goes newsy, too; when the Nepal earthquake hit in April, he found an image revealing emergency shelters popping up all over Kathmandu.
In his years of sifting, Grant has had two shots particularly stick with him for very different reasons. One depicts huge rows of gumball-colored tulip fields in the Netherlands—an “amazing view of harnessing the landscape,” he says. The other shows the world’s biggest encampment of refugees in Dadaab, Kenya, which held hundreds of thousands of Somalis trying to escape war and hunger.
“It looks like beautiful red earth with perfectly ordered tents on it. You might say at first, ‘Wow, I would hang that on my wall!’” Grant says. “When you read what it actually is, it's horrifying—you can get an idea of the scale of what’s going on.”
Grant’s endeavor has gathered wild support on Instagram, and he now has a coffee-table book from Penguin Random House scheduled for next summer. “I never expected it to spread this big,” he says. Here are some of his more-profound finds, beginning with one from this year: