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These stunning satellite images show how growing cities change the planet

See Las Vegas quickly swallow up the desert and suck up its water source–and other images of the balance between nature and our cities

In a satellite image of Las Vegas in 1976, the city still looks relatively small. By 2015, after the population had grown more than six times, another image shows the sprawl of streets, houses, and golf courses into the surrounding desert.

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In a new book of stunning images of cities shown from above, the picture of Vegas is cropped to include nearby Lake Mead, its primary water source. “You actually see Lake Mead retreat and the city grow,” says Meredith Reba, a postgraduate research associate at the Urbanization and Global Change Laboratory at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, who worked on the book, called City Unseen: New Visions of an Urban Planet, with Karen Seto, associate dean of research and professor of geography and urbanization at the school.

Seto and Reba typically publish in scientific journals but wanted to bring the story of urbanization’s impact on sustainability to a broader audience. “Urbanization is literally physically reshaping the planet,” says Seto.

Vegas is still one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S.; by one estimate, over the last year, an average of 4.9 people moved to the city every hour. But it’s dwarfed by Lagos, Nigeria, which doubled in population–to nearly 14 million people–between 2000 and 2016. It’s predicted to be home to 88.3 million people by the end of the century. The book also looks at smaller settlements, like El Salvador, Chile, where the roads were built extra-wide to fit trucks from a neighboring copper mine.

The aerial view, along with colors that illustrate infrared light–vegetation is often shown in red, for example–gives a new perspective on cities and towns. “It’s one thing to drive by these on the ground, but to see it from space gives you a really different sense of the scale, the magnitude, and also just the human ingenuity and human enterprise that’s required to build these landscapes,” Seto says.

The images show how cities have been shaped by the mountains and rivers around them, and how the settlements are changing the environment. In Lagos, coastal wetlands are being covered by development. In Samarinda, Indonesia, sprawling shrimp ponds are replacing mangrove forests. Al-Jawf, Libya, which gets only 0.1 inches of rain a year, is surrounded by irrigated farms. In Jharia, India, thermal images show the heat from a massive coal fire that has been burning since 1916. Before-and-after images (above) show how Shenzhen, China, grew from a fishing village in 1977 to house more than 10 million people by 2016.

The book aims to illustrate the impact that cities have beyond their own borders. “I’m hoping that when people think about the sustainability of, for example, the rainforest, that they think about the sustainability of cities, too, because in order to preserve intact forests, we need to reduce the amount of raw materials going to cities,” says Seto. “There’s no such thing as a sustainable city that doesn’t rely on a larger planetary set of resources.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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