Views From Above: City Lights As Seen From Miles High

Around the world, every city offers something different. Though they all have hustle and bustle, lots of buildings, and usually traffic, when you’re on their streets you would never mistake San Francisco for Cairo, Toronto for Tokyo, or Berlin for Rio de Janeiro. But what about from space? During the day, these cities tend to blend in with their surrounding countryside. However, when lit up at night, it’s easy to see how varied these cities can be.

Is it possible to tell anything about the life and culture of our cities when viewing their lights from above? You might be surprised at how much.


Can you guess which cultural icon jumps out of this landscape?

Las Vegas Strip From Space at Night
Image via

Said to be the brightest spot on Earth, this landmark stands out because of its brightness and diverse light colors. Still stumped? I’ll tell you at the end of this post :)


You can also tell a ton about a city’s history by looking at the color and pattern of the city lights.

Check out this shot of Milan from above. The streets are irregular and web-like, common in older cities.

Milan from space at night
Image via

Now, take a look at this photograph of Denver, a much newer city. The streets are mapped out in a much more orderly, grid-like way, aligned North-South and East-West.

Denver from space at night
Image via

If you notice the colors of the lights in these two cities, you can also get a better idea of their ages. Milan’s tint is slightly more greenish, meaning many of the streets still use mercury vapor lighting, an older, greener light source. Denver looks more orange, because most of its streets have sodium vapor lighting. However, looking at the few green splotches in Denver, you can even tell where the older neighborhoods are.


The color of city lights can also reveal where in the world the city is located. For instance, Japanese cities are often characterized by their almost exclusive blue-green glow. Check out this shot of Tokyo:

Tokyo from space at night
Image via

The majority of urban areas in Tokyo use green mercury vapor lamps. Only the most newly built areas glow the standard orange.


When examining a city’s lights from above, you can also learn about development, community growth, and infrastructure. Check out this unique photo of two cities from two countries side-by-side – the border towns Cuidad Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas.

Border towns from space at night
Image via

Cuidad Juarez houses at least 1.3 million people, while El Paso’s population is just over 600,000. Though the cities have about the same amount of area, you can tell El Paso’s density is much less.

It’s amazing how much we can learn from a city’s lights alone. What are the lights like in your city? Spill it!

(Still in the dark about that mystery landmark? If you guessed the Las Vegas Strip, you’re right on the money!)

Annie Josey

Annie Josey

Annie was the E-Commerce Marketing Specialist at Pegasus Lighting from June 2012 to October 2013. She has a background in English literature, and loves using language to help illuminate the world. So covering lighting news and tips naturally fit her interests. In her personal time she enjoys painting, biking, and reading.