Measuring change in a community with aerial images

Utilizing aerial images to measure change in a community can provide a quality, accurate analysis of complex problems while providing strong visual support to assist decision-makers and inform the public.

There is much truth to the famous saying that a picture is worth a thousand words!

For many decades, we have been taking pictures of our earth from above. These images have been used by agencies, organizations, businesses and educational institutions for a variety of reasons to detect and monitor change.

Often, we are faced with problems involving change or perceived change at the local level that requires us to make informed policy decisions that will have an impact on our local community. When these decisions involve aspects of the landscape, such as agriculture, forestry, housing development or environmental changes, we need to be sure that our decisions are based on the best available facts, research and knowledge. However, we often forget that there is much we could learn from aerial imagery that may prove vital to making an informed decision.

For many communities, aerial images are archived and images can be obtained going back several decades. This information can be easily acquired and utilized to assist communities facing difficult decisions. The following example below from Newaygo County, Mich. shows how aerial images were utilized to address specific problems and their role in guiding the decision-makers.

A predominantly farming community in the heart of Newaygo County’s prime agricultural lands was concerned over the loss of farmland acres in production over the past decade. The available information suggested a double digit percentage decrease in actively-farmed land, and there had been a significant increase in new housing. The assumption was that the township ordinance was too lenient, allowing urban sprawl and not doing enough to protect prime agricultural lands. One solution proposed was to strictly limit the areas where new housing could go across the entire township by limiting parcel sizes and splits.

The township planning commission chair, working with the local Michigan State University Extension Land Use Educator, utilized a series of aerial images taken about 10 years apart during this same time period to analyze the loss of farmland. This analysis revealed that the vast majority (approximately 90 percent) of farmland no longer being farmed was not lost to urban sprawl, as was previously assumed. Rather, it was lying fallow. Further analysis revealed that the majority of this land now lying fallow was on soils only marginally suited for agriculture, and changes in the economic conditions of the farming industry were more likely responsible for these lands not being under current agricultural production.

These findings led the township to reevaluate their zoning ordinance from a different perspective. Maps highlighting these findings were created and presented to township officials and the general public. Informed changes were then made to the ordinance that directed future residential growth toward the marginal soil types while protecting prime areas of existing agriculture.

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