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Megatransecting Mexico City

In 1999, American biologist J. Michael Fay set out on a project to map and survey the vegetation of Africa’s entire Congo River basin. Heavily promoted by National Geographic as “The Megatransect,” Fay’s feat involved 455 days of walking across 3,200 miles of largely untamed territory. Biologists had actually been using the term “transect” to describe such surveys since the late 19th century, but Fay’s epic-scale journey brought it widespread public recognition. In 2004 and 2005, he and Geographic extended the brand by conducting a “Megaflyover” of Africa, taking photos every 20 seconds during a 60,000 mile plus journey in a small bush plane.

Legendary as the natural surveys of explorer-biologists like Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt are, expeditions like theirs — and Fay’s — are increasingly rare now that most of “the field” has been crossed and recrossed. Geographers have turned their attention toward changes, rather than gaps, in maps of the earth’s surface — particularly those with less than natural causes. So it’s unsurprising that they have become fixated on the sites of the most intense human population growth and activity — cities. By 2008, urban centers contained, for the first time, over half the world’s people.

A long, long walk through London

Most of the environmental effects of urbanization will have been collectively wrought by medium-sized cities, but few single forms of human development appear to have a greater impact on the planet than the “megacity” — and, accordingly, the concept has become the obsession not only of geographers, but social scientists, and political scientists alike. The term — sometimes denoting urban regions with a certain total population, sometimes those with a certain population density — is vague, but generally encompasses cities widely considered to be stupendously vast.

When the idea of the megacity first came into general use, in the 1960s, only cities anchoring highly-developed economies might have qualified. But the phenomenon of rural-urban migration — ballooning the populations even of cities with little to no economic base to support such newcomers — has made a new sort of megacity just as prevalent. Karachi and Manila share the list of the world’s most populated metropolitan areas with Los Angeles and New York. In fact, on any ranking of such vast agglomerations, the only developed countries represented near the top are Japan and the United States.

Given the urban turn in geography, the breadth of some of the world’s most epic megacities, and the differences that made looking at them closely so compelling, it was inevitable that researchers began to undertake the equivalent of megatransects in urban areas. In 2007, Daniel Raven-Ellison of the British educational group The Geography Collective began the Urban Earth project, producing a series of videos from long walks clean across whole metropolitan regions — to be sure, each begins and ends in unmistakably rural landscapes. Following in the footsteps of Fay’s flyover, he and others snapped photos every eight steps. While they honed their method on smaller U.K. cities like Bristol, Manchester, and Tyneside, the most interesting part of the project by far were the videos produced during surveys of three megacities: London, Mexico City, and Mumbai.

Like naturalists canvassing uncharted biomes, the surveyors of the Geography Collective carefully documented the features — architecture, streetlife, traffic — that composed their selected regions’ urban ecologies. They also took care to make scrupulously objective observations: “[e]ach photo is always taken looking directly forward without bias, presenting an urban view which is emotionally challenging for the photographer whose gaze is drawn towards specific people, objects and places,” the project’s website states. Theirs was a scientific approach that contrasts strikingly with similar walks taken by literary “psychogeographers” like British novelist Will Self, whose traversal of New York from JFK Airport to Manhattan was documented in an account peppered with patronizing curiosity about and sometimes haughty contempt for local residents.

The Collective’s methodology produced at least one surprising result. Not just the forward-motion perspective of the project’s photographers, but the almost insane, breakneck pace at which its videos move leave us without all that much time to ogle, assess, and compare the details that make London and Mexico City such culturally distinct places — and, as a result, they appear remarkably similar. It’s true that neither city really shares the same color palette — a distinction that emerges even more clearly in these videos. But with respect to their built environments, we’re left with a general impression that each contains low scale, disjointed suburbs eventually crescendoing to grand, midrise buildings lording over teeming avenues before scaling down, again, to similarly scattered outskirts on those cities’ opposite ends.

Mumbai comes off a bit differently. A peninsular city, the pressure in much of Mumbai, as in similarly restricted locations — like the island of Manhattan — has been to build up. But the Collective didn’t choose to explore the crowded districts tapering toward the southern end of the Mumbai peninsula, instead passing through a cross-section of its northern sprawl, where the city’s dense spine begins to open up and sprawl onto the Indian mainland.

(Although the Collective’s videos appear strikingly representative of these cities’ spatial arrangements, it explained that the reasoning behind its routing was actually grounded in “the distribution of deprivation within cities…where the poorest 20% of the population might occupy 14% of urban space, roughly 14% of the walk travels through these most deprived areas. The length of the walk is also propotionate to the size of the city. Where possible the route also travels through areas with the greatest population densities.”)

The upshot is that the elegant rise and fall performed by London and Mexico City isn’t present in the video of Mumbai; instead, the city’s landscape is presented as a patchwork urbanism of low-rise, informal settlements, high rise housing estates, and the occasional field still lying open and fallow, despite the expanding city. The disruptive, unpredictable rhythm of Mumbai comes out best in this video mashup of all three cities’ walkthroughs, in which the London and Mexico City portions transition between each other smoothly, but the Mumbai scenes interject like atonal staccato notes.

As a result, it might seem difficult, at first, to conclude much about the shape or appearance of the megacity in general — Delhi, which, like London and Mexico City, is largely unrestrained by natural obstacles, and has been able to grow outward and concentrically, might have made a more comparable South Asian subject. But Mumbai’s outlier status might just be the exception that proves the rule: that non-human geography plays a greater role in shaping the most basic form of the world’s swelling megacities than culture or wealth. The Arabian Sea may have dictated that Mumbai be composed somewhat differently, but we can still make out streetside markets akin to Mexico City’s, grayscale tower blocks that take their cue from London’s, and freeway flyovers that slice all three cityscapes alike.

Seen at surreal speed, the arrangements and accoutrements of each megacity underscore certain universal patterns which, in the absence of unalterable barriers — mountains, rivers, oceans — render each of them, to a certain extent, surprisingly indistinct. In a way, that makes these human habitats not unlike their natural counterparts. Compared to the decades a biologist might spend intensely studying a single small area, the rush of a megatransect must feel the same way — half a continent flying by, all of its once seemingly significant partitions softened into a brownish-green blur.

Megatransecting Mumbai

(From UrbanPhoto. Follow Szabla on Twitter.)

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