Launched in in 2007, the Street View feature of Google Maps has done wonders for misty-eyed nostalgia and real estate voyeurism. That is, the technology has made it dually possible to remotely revisit your childhood cul-de-sac and place yourself squarely in front of that fixer-upper of a dream home across town that might, fingers crossed, come on the market sooner than later.
More recently, Google Street View has embraced armchair adventure tourism and gone off-road, so to speak, with the addition of dozens of far-flung — and a few not all that far-flung — destinations ranging from the Galapagos Islands to Grand Canyon and the Pyramids of Giza. Does the fact that you may never have the chance to visit the Citadel of Qaitbay, the Wieliczka Salt Mine or Finland’s one-and-only Santa Claus Village in your lifetime keep you up at night? Now, you can visit all three in a single evening through the magic of 360-degree panoramic imagery.
While Google Street View has previously offered up a number of major national parks for virtual visits, a new initiative launched in collaboration with Philadelphia Parks & Recreation and the Fairmount Park Conservancy will make it possible to leisurely saunter down the trails — all 200 miles of them! — and visit various points of interest found within America’s largest urban park system. Philadelphia, home to Fairmount Park, will be the first city to digitally document its entire park system on Google Street View as part of the tech giant’s Google Trekker program.
"What this technology and opportunity provides is an enhanced way for visitors to connect with these special places in the U.S. in a way they may never have before," states the Fairmount Park Conservancy in a press release. “Google expects many people may never get to explore this place in person, so they are so happy to open it up for the world to enjoy.”
In addition to this first-in-the-country undertaking with Google, Philadelphia has been on somewhat of a role as of late. In April, it was announced that the City of Brotherly Love will be the first city in the nation to develop a disaster plan to protect its wealth of historic buildings from flooding and extreme weather brought on by a changing climate.
Somewhat confusingly, the name Fairmount Park is used to refer to both Philadelphia’s sprawling flagship park founded in 1855 along the Schuylkill River as well as the city’s entire municipal park network, which includes 63 individual public green spaces. The whole shebang — that is all of Fairmount Park, a system spread out across over 9,000 acres — will be captured now through the end of October by a pair of intrepid new hires for the parks department.
Equipped with a 15-lens camera apparatus that snaps panoramic images every three seconds, the 50-pound Google Trekker backpack is on loan — so Philadelphia better work fast to capture every nook and cranny of its park system within the allotted six-month time frame. From the sound of it, the city hired the right gents to perform the task. Both experienced hikers, Conor Michaud is a gym instructor and Gint Stirbys is a professional mover. On their feet from 9 a.m. through 3 p.m., the roving documentarians will alternate duties — one will don the super-hefty camera-backpack while the other will walk ahead to clear the parks’ trails by removing any obstacles or litter.
The city is paying them each $15 an hour for their services.
This gazebo in Fairmount Park West will be just one of many sites included in Google Street View's urban park mapping project in Philadelphia. (Photo: Tony Fischer/flickr)
Philly.com notes that just a couple of weeks into the six-month gig, the duo have already divided and conquered 11 parks, most of them pocket parks located in South Philadelphia. Stirbys calls the job “a nice little meditative experience.”
I do wonder if he’ll have the same tone when it comes time for him to haul a 50-pound backpack around 4,000-acre Fairmount Park proper in July's sweltering heat.
It’s also unclear if Michaud and Stirbys will be asked to ascend the famed “Rocky Steps” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which straddles the entrance of Fairmount Park.
That said, Michaud and Stirbys, as field technicians, are only responsible for performing the crucial grunt work. While their job is physically demanding, they haven’t been tasked with the real hard part of digitally documenting the country's largest urban park system for Google: the planning. That’s where Nora Dougherty, a geographic information systems specialist employed by the parks department, steps in. Dougherty has devised an elaborate daily schedule so that Michaud and Stirbys just have to follow her detailed instruction with, of course, some improvisation required.
“We have plenty of time,” a confident Michaud tells Philly.com.
Godspeed, young man. And don't forget to use plenty of sunscreen.