Max Bontoft 

Remarkably, flat perspectives dominate our academic debates on human society and urban life. Territory, sovereignty, human experience, all pressed flat to wind their way across maps.

This flat tradition although critical to the formulation of modern nations and the elaboration of their geopolitical operations as they staked claim to the entirety of the horizontal and global territories of the earth fall short when attempting capturing the extent to which we are currently continuing to conquer the vertical.
So, as humans excavate ever deep into the earth and build competitively higher into the skies, saturating tunnels and airspaces with a plethora of machines, vehicles, sensors and platforms, how might we understand the remarkable verticalities of the world?

A (Predominantly) Flat Disclosure

Our built environment can be considered as a direct and specific response to a series of institutional imperatives, often given their validation through their specific categorisations and arrangements. 

The machinations of geopolitics have tended towards flat disclosures. It largely ignores the vertical dimensions and lends itself to being looked across, rather than being cut through. This is a cartographic imagination inherited from the military and political spatialities of the modern state. Yet, in wartime, for all the apparent authority of the printed map, it always remained provisional, belonging to a past that was rapidly receding before the ink had even dried.

During the First World War, which Paul K. Saint-Armour would later refer to as the most “optical war yet”, aerial photography set the printed map in motion. Apprehending the battlefield as a space of constantly shifting set pieces and objects, locating trenches and troop positions, while aerial observation animated the battlefield as a collection of events, tracking troop advancements, drifting gas clouds and the establishment of large artillery. It quickly became indispensable, considered at the time as near to real-time mapping as could be realistically achieved.[1] 

With these changes geography became increasingly concerned with ideas of horizontal exploration and navigation beyond an immediate and stable horizon; one rendered through both cartography and linear perspective. The division and fixing of boundaries in the post-war era leaned heavily on wartime techniques. Utilizing the techniques that had been trialled in wartime to divide up the modern world. This hitherto unavailable technology influencing these new distributions, and how we came to choose their representations them. To this day it governs how we conceptualize, design and construct space. Satellite imagery continuing this process, be it from an expanded field of vision. 

New Subjectivities: Vertical Geographies 

While attention is traditionally focused on top down urban civilization, the schematic cross-sectional view of the world (right), opens a lens on the planet as an urban projection. With patterns and processes of overlap otherwise obscured across various stratum. Not only can heights, depths and levels of different planetary processes be numerically coupled with other metric readings such as changes in temperature or air pressure at different altitudes, they can be spatially combined with any number of hitherto isolated conditions to gain a deeper understanding of  geographical territories and processes. 

Processes that are often rendered disparately in plan, can be better understood and revealed from this alternative vantage point; allowing for a more vigorous response to the overlapping, intertwined and entangled  cityscape.

We see surface now as being rooted deeply in the political projection of spatial power, the separation of surface and subsurface rights revealing hidden, uneven and occasionally violent powers of the State: the process of extraction from resource rich hinterlands  becomes as urban an image as the city-centric spaces of consumers. 

Above the city, sky, clouds, wind and air become not merely our perched, vantage point to the happenings below or an indication of the absence of structure but a thick, fuzzy, complex space: where the conflicts between flows across different airspaces play out above the street.  

When you take a step back and think about it, airspace design and the air traffic control system that dictates it is a small miracle. This complex set of rules, developed and refined since the early days of aviation, keeps planes from crashing into each other or slamming into the ground when trying to land in bad weather. It was exactly these very kinds of tragedies that first prompted authorities to write the aviation laws, subsequently shaping the co-ordination of the skies. In the next decade, technology will transform this all over again. 

The Drone Cometh 

Today new technologies are altering the way we measure and what we measure. Questions arise around increased precision or nuance in measurement. Once more we are faced with the challenges of envisioning and constructing our living-space (the city) along with the control and regulation of it. From 10,000m below the surface of the sea to orbits 35,000kms above, the infrastructure that supports life has extended to previously unimaginable extents. We have explored, occupied, exploited and instrumentalised with a plethora of machines, a vast range of depths and dimensions. Modern visualisations begin to shift our predominantly legal, static and technological view of the world from above and instead encourage us to adopt a more open, longitudinal lens on the processes and patterns of contemporary urbanization. [2]

The  landownership models which historically extended from earth’s core to the heavens above were later altered to respond to technological advancements; the airplane above and the subterranean metro beneath - effectively altering our sectional understanding of the cityscape. This has recently sparked debate as people come to the defence of public air ownership, in the wake of the advent of the automated city. A property type which is quickly becoming not only regulated, but increasingly privatized.

One example in the news recently follows the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority), Amazon , and the developers of The Spire in Canary Wharf, who have colluded to allow changes to the rules surrounding drone flights to that one building. This means that drone delivery will be available for some of London’s wealthiest citizens first. The relationships between wealth, height, and power, can only be solidified during this process of drone/air privatization.

Flying around cities, reveals a system of invisible power – including regulations and geofences – that are governing our aerial endeavours. What comes into focus is the vertical enclosure of commons; an air grab rather than a land grab. Geographer Jeremy Crampton suggests that not responding to this, could lead to dire consequences: “It has been long established that the sky is public – otherwise each airplane would have to get permission to fly over your property. This is akin to the concept of international waters on the ocean. But as with international waters, this public space is becoming increasingly and deliberately enclosed, in what might constitute a modern ‘enclosure of the commons’.” [3] 

Atmospheric Commons

With the increased use of drones and robot technologies in general, do we start to see the next iteration of the built environment, encompassing the territory of the sky along with the strata of the ground? Is there a more sophisticated sectional understanding (regulation) of the city in terms of ownership and policy and what might be the consequences of this? What would this look like?

Perhaps it is time to better embrace the airspace above, to imagine the atmospheric commons as a space for public rambling and exploration with drones, balloons, satellites and as-yet-unforeseen flying objects.

1.  Infrastructural conditions of the present and future street, The Cities of the Future. Eugène Hénard, 1910.
2.  The Cover of Underneath New York. Harry Granick, 1991.
3.  The Trans-Atlantic Highway. John Grimwade, 1996.
4.  Los Angeles International Airport. 33°56 33 N 118°24 29 W, 20, 2014.
5.  Altitudes of Urbanization. Pierre Bélanger, 2015

1.  Gabriel’s Map: Cartography and Corpography in Modern War. Derek Gregory, 2015.
2.  Altitudes of Urbanization. Pierre Bélanger, 2015.
3.  Attack on the drones: the creeping privatisation of our urban airspace, 2016