Geography/Environmental Analysis 147:

The Natural History of Visibility, Vistas and Panoramas

Eric Doehne

"You should never trust air you can't see”

– Woody Allen 

(when asked why he preferred to live in New York)

“I slept there last night in the clear, transpicuous air.

It was the sweetest sleep of years”

– Daniel M. Berry

(in a letter about the future site of Pasadena, 1873)

Course Description and Rationale

This course uses visibility, vistas and panoramas to investigate the science and history behind how we literally see the world.

How far we can see on a clear day? Is visibility a useful proxy for the health of the atmosphere? Why do we search for high ground when visiting a new city? What are the connections between Edvard Munch's The Scream, Krakatoa, and modern geoengineering? This course covers a range of intriguing environmental issues: the chemistry of air pollution and natural aerosols; light pollution; visual perception; atmospheric research and optical phenomena such as airlight, crepuscular rays and the green flash; and popular vantage points such as the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The course will also examine historic descriptions of vistas by Mark Twain, Balboa, and Pliny. The history of watchtowers, lighthouses, fire lookouts, observation decks and scenic outlooks is surprisingly long, varied and intimately associated with important views. Legislation and regulations designed to protect views, visibility and air quality in scenic areas and cultural landscapes are a significant part of efforts to preserve our environment.

Visual assessment is a key component of environmental impact analyses (EIR & EIS) used to disclose development impacts. Related topics covered in this course include GIS, vistas and visual expression (art, maps, time-lapse), and the development of professional, academic, and popular vocabulary, as well; as legislation and analytical tools related to visibility and views.