John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
A photographer explores by air a forgotten city where nature has forged on.
What happens to a city when all of its residents suddenly clear out? In the case of Ukraine's Pripyat, which was smoked with heavy radioactivity during the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the infrastructure decays like a rotting corpse while nature takes charge in a surge of poisoned forest.
Over the decades, several intrepid documentarians have penetrated the Zone of Alienation to explore Pripyat, former home to 50,000 people. But as far as I can tell, nobody did it with a drone until Danny Cooke came along with his video, "Postcards from Pripyat, Chernobyl." A freelance photographer from the U.K., Cooke found things in the ghost town wilder than one might expect: golden flowers sway in the wind, trees grow on roofs and on a half-sunken boat, and ivory-colored birds patrol the skies. There's even the mark of human activity in the form of graffiti.
The overall impression is one of desolation, though: Paint and plaster slough off walls like bloodless skin, and a most depressing amusement park features a frozen Ferris wheel and rusted-out bumper cars that will never bump again. About this eerie footage, Cooke writes:
Chernobyl is one of the most interesting and dangerous places I've been. The nuclear disaster, which happened in 1986 (the year after I was born), had [an] effect on so many people, including my family when we lived in Italy. I can't imagine how terrifying it would have been for the hundreds of thousands of locals who evacuated....
There was something serene, yet highly disturbing about this place. Time has stood still and there are memories of past happenings floating around us.