Center for Environmental Science Applications (CESA)

Finding solutions to sustainability challenges by linking ideas, people and resources

Urban remote sensing is a powerful tool to assess and compare both how urban forms evolve and how applied solutions to urban problems are developed. Analyses can involve in-depth cross-comparisons of cities across geographic areas, nation-wide or globally. Each remote sensing "measurement" is a synoptic point in time and space that can have high temporal resolution, and allows for the acquisition of data that may be too costly to collect in-situ. The data is also not constrained by political boundaries or hindered by differing collection methods. Quantitative as well as qualitative comparisons can be made for past, present, or future temporal and spatial patterns of urban development trajectories. By incorporating social and economic data with remote sensing analysis—such as public health, population, industrial data, or patterns of vulnerability—issues of sustainability can be analyzed and studied.

Features of Urban Remote Sensing 

  • Each measurement covers a complete spatial area at a point in time
  • Measurements at occur specific times and multiple scenes can allow for quantification of change over time
  • Capacity for description, classification, measurement of physical properties impossible to get in-situ
  • Capacity for routine periodic updating and comparison of measurements
  • Regional / Global Comparison of Measurements over time
  • Measurements are not bounded by political boundaries and are collected in the same manner globally

Examples of Applied Urban Remote Sensing 

  • Mapping environmental parameters( such as micro-climate, heat island, access to open space, amount of impervious surface, amount of vegetation) and assessing the geographic differences within a region and connections to social, economic, or ethnic divisions        
  • Tracking urban area growth and change: speed, density, direction, structures, impervious surfaces, land use consumed
  • Determining spatial arrangement of green/open space within cities and at periphery: amount distribution, linkages
  • Monitoring changes on the urban fringe: farmland conversions, wetland infringement, biodiversity threats
  • Analyzing land cover/land use changes that influence urban climatology and atmospheric deposition
  • Studying urban growth as it intersects areas of potential environmental hazards: earthquakes, subsidence, mudslides, floods, etc.

 Additional Resources 

NASA – Dr. Nicholas Short’s Remote Sensing Tutorial – very comprehensive - from basic to technical information
NOAA Remote Sensing Overview – basics with a focus on applications