Conor Michaud will be spending his summer shooting Philly parks for Google Street View.

May through October. That’s the time span that Philly will have to capture images of the city’s trails for Google Street View, before giving Google the equipment back. The Google Trekker backpack, a 50-pound piece of technology, allows a 15-camera globe (picture an oversized Wiffle ball with lenses peeking through) to grab 360-views along the course of a walk.

So far, Google Trekker has enabled hikers to bring off-the-beaten-path nature preserves and landmarks to Street View. Right now, you can look at places like Petra, or the Salar de Uyuni, the Grand Canyon or the trails of Oahu. Philadelphia is the first urban park system that’ll get mapped with Trekker. The Parks and Recreation Department and the Fairmount Park Conservancy have partnered with Google on the project. Nora Dougherty, lead GIS specialist at the Parks and Rec, has the daunting task of scheduling the hikes.

At the Belmont Plateau, the site of Mondays’s launch.
At the Belmont Plateau, the site of yesterday’s launch.

They can’t map when it’s raining. When it’s slightly overcast, they can make it work. Sunniness is ideal. But on a bright day in the summertime, for example, the greenery may have overgrown in all that light, so Dougherty has to check on that too. Avoiding the grass at its wildest isn’t solely a cosmetic concern. As Dougherty explains, before landscaping “it’ll be hard to see in the photographs— the panorama— the exact nature of how the trails are laid out.”

This project will cover more than 200 miles. Conor Michaud and Gintautas Stirbys have the (awesome) full-time jobs of capturing the images for the project. (Their titles are field data collection technicians.) Stirbys doesn’t think the weight of the backpack will present a problem. He said it’s not that bad after transporting the camera from place to place in a car, and is happy just “be[ing] in the parks all summer” after all. Visit Bucks County had a similar partnership with Google last year to map 13 locations in the ‘burbs.


After the images are submitted this autumn, it will still be another six months to year before the parks are searchable. Google will process them and stitch them together to make the maps open for a myriad of uses. Residents and tourists can utilize it to plot trips. Disabled people can access parks they’d like to see. Procrastinators can explore the Wissahickon from their desks. An old college friend thought it was romantic to plan Google Street View journeys from landmark to landmark for the girls he liked. He’ll be able to add Rittenhouse Square to his list in 2017.

Tim Clair, interim executive director of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, hopes the maps will give Philadelphians “the chance to check things out they never knew existed, come and check out things they wouldn’t otherwise just walk into.”

He adds that they had Philadelphians with disabilities in mind from the outset.

“One of the goals of the project was to give every Philadelphian a chance to experience the park in whatever way they can.”

Cassie Owens is a reporter/curator for She was assistant editor at Next City and has contributed to Philadelphia City Paper, Metro, the Jewish Daily Forward, The Islamic Monthly and Spoke,...