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Mapping the military

For the last two-and-a-half centuries, the U.S. military has significantly shaped urban development in North America and beyond. And even though it is currently the world’s largest building contractor and land developer—owning nearly 30 million acres of land and facilities across the globe—the public has very little idea what all that building or geography looks like.

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“There is a pretty large void in urban history surrounding the military and its influence on the shape of cities and regions,” says Pierre Bélanger, an associate professor of landscape architecture and urban planning at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD). “The lack of spatial and geographic information is both amazing and alarming. The military’s more than $500 billion development budget is publicly presented with little more than a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet on the website of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Installations & Environment.”

Now, with the help of an $11,000 BSA Research Grant in Architecture, Bélanger is working with a research partner to chart the ever-changing shape of the U.S. military’s operations.

Last November, the researchers started compiling information from a wide array of public sources—including the Department of Defense’s Base Structure Report, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Formerly Used Defense Sites and the Federal Aviation Administration—to inform the creation of a series of visualizations. By the end of this year, they hope to have these ready for peer-reviewed publication and a related traveling exhibition and symposium. (Their research is also sponsored by Harvard GSD, the Harvard Medical School Milton Fund and the University of Oregon.)

The first set of maps created by the research project will show every U.S. military base constructed in the country since the Revolutionary War. The maps also will plot when these bases were created, closed, realigned or decommissioned.

It is not just a mapping project of the past but also a projection of the future, according to Bélanger. Given that direct and indirect military industrialization spawned almost 75 percent of the 4,000 Superfund sites awaiting cleanup across the United States, “shouldn’t we better understand the processes and forces that created them in the first place?” he asks.

“Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a series of base closures and realignments over the past 15 years,” continues Bélanger. “The bases turned over to the civilian world to be urbanized have brought attention to the contamination, legacy and historical issues associated with the sites.” As an example, he cites the nuclear proving grounds in the American Southwest—and the persistent, serious groundwater pollution and radioactivity that resulted from their role in military history.

The second set of maps will show the 4,000-some U.S. military facilities operating worldwide—a number that is growing even as the footprint of airbases and military facilities across the United States shrinks.

Researcher Mark Gillem, an assistant professor of architecture and landscape architecture at the University of Oregon, is coordinating these maps as an extension of his research for his book, America Town: Building the Outposts of Empire. For America Town, Gillem, a former active-duty U.S. Air Force officer, created case studies of several U.S. military facilities that show how the U.S. military reproduces American suburbs, complete with tract homes and strip malls elsewhere, in the world—regardless of other countries’ culture of land use.

For both legacy and current operations, the researchers plan to create additional maps that zoom in on different areas for more definition.

For example, one such map will illuminate the urbanization of the area surrounding the I-495 Beltway in Washington, D.C., and Virginia. “Following the shift towards defense-contract outsourcing in the 1980s and ’90s, defense companies and IT consultants began congregating around the Pentagon,” says Bélanger. “It’s extremely banal development in many respects. But what’s striking is that, although this growth looks very ordinary, it represents a tremendous concentration of power and outsourced intelligence in this region.”

The researchers hope that their work will better illuminate the U.S. military’s intentions and direction by adding a dimension, both spatial and urban, not typically addressed by government sources or the mainstream media.

“Because we are used to looking at large-scale systems, designers are well positioned to communicate information in a way that neutralizes ideological positions and allows the public to make well-informed decisions and opinions,” says Bélanger. “It’s a tremendous strength to make invisible geographies visible, but one that we as a design field don’t exploit or leverage enough.”

Genevieve Rajewski is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers science, nature, animal issues, travel, food and passionate people for acclaimed publications such as Smithsonian, Washington Post Magazine, and the Boston Globe. Her website is