Monthly Archives: April 2018

Natures of San Francisco

“A man in the city,” wrote American novelist William Gass, “has no natural thing by which to measure himself.” Gass wrote, in two thirds of the way through the last century, thinking mostly of the cities on the east coast of the United States–but not only. Since then, the measurement of man has been outsourced to numerous devices–from not only height and weight, but calorry intake, income, carbon footprint, and racial identity–Gass was, as a resident of the Midwest, aghast at the notion of nature in the city, and of the reduced relation to natural habitat: “Nothing can live and remain free where he resides but the pigeon, starling, sparrow, spider, cockroach, mouse, moth, fly and weed, and he laments the existence of even these and makes his plans to poison them,” Gass writes with an exasperation of the midwest, in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, before moving to zing the city-dweller: “His parks are potted plants.” Awareness of the biophilic needs of urban inhabitants for contact with urban greenspace, that has prompted active redesign urban environments in an overpaved world, responding to evidence greenspace reduce stress and mental illness, mapping the presence of nature in the city can hardly be reduced to parks.

Long before politicians railed against cities, asking where the heart of the nation’s heart lay, this icy put-down summoned the identity of the interior to dismiss the paltriness of urban parks as poor replacements for the nature world. But the if the built centers of San Francisco have grown in recent years–both in its downtown skyline and neighboring Oakland–as any departing airplane can see–the maps we make of our changing cities demand we attend to how they invite us to explore and navigate urban space in all its dimensions–including the role of the city as an ecosystem.

San Francisco from the Air, 2020/Shmuel Thaler/Instagram

We bristle in San Francisco at the dismissal of our built environment, or the urban assets of verticality as a measure of cosmopolitan urbanism. From the seat of the departing plane, one might forget that the city not only borders significant greenspace across the Bay, but that San Francisco and the East Bay are living habitats.

We who live in the city are more accustomed to see a unique sort of habitat, and a confluence of not exactly rural but open space and green corridors in an urban environment. Even as vertical crowding may eclipse its green, the urban ecosystems they nourish prevent the symptoms of urban dysphoria associated with built environments, and notwithstanding threats of seismic disturbance or sea-level rise. Gass’s rather bone-chilling evocation of the coldness of rural isolation eclipses the real work of nurturing deep ties to a abundant ecosystems in San Francisco’s built space. And in an age when trees, and urban greenspace, face threats of car pollution, extreme weather, and the uprooting of trees to make way for construction sites or trim branches for urban safety or interference in above-ground power lines in many Bay Area cities, the value of absorbing CO2 and preventing floods by absorbing water have created a virtual boom of greening urban space.

Increasingly, we are attendant to the urban habitat they offer, beyond the cult of verticality as a metric of urbanity. Trees have been increasingly seen as presenting a basis for the future flourishing of cities and sustainability of urban space, with the growth of greening projects across the developed world: since 2007, an active New York City overseen by Bloomberg rooted over a million trees in urban space, and have taken root in London, where Mayor Sadiq Khan aims to make it the first “National Park City” while Paris is building four inner-city urban forests by 2020. While building heights provided a measure of a metropolis in the twentieth century, projects of urban greening have led to a search for more climate-tolerant trees–including “resilient” non-natives, like the three-toothed maple, even if urban planners are wary of invasive non-natives: Ireland’s commitment to plant 440 million trees by 2040, and hopes in Ethiopia to plant five billion seedlings in a year suggested a positive project of greening before the coronavirus pandemic, and an optimistic foot-forward re-engineering of the urban biome of unprecedented scale.

1. It was not always that way, and the spate of overbuilding in San Francisco has led it to aspire to a vertical landscape, as if out of envy of urban skylines of the east coast. If environmental dysphoria might be countered by planting of trees, San Francisco has gained a skyline of something like skyscrapers–as if in spite of its seismic risks–

–while the place of nature in the city in San Francisco, rather than on its outer bonds or beyond its walls, even before construction of a looming Salesforce Tower, we seek still to see as a site for outdoor recreation–

–if we may, as in a recent encomia to the city’s often beleaguered transit authority, bracket its impact as a building by reducing its size, and presence on our skyline, by continuing to render its towers as roughly equal to the TransAmerica Tower familiar as a point of reference that once dominated it in the past, as if its skyline remained roughly uniform.

The transformation of overpaving urban space has led to city maps that are more reliant on a strictly automobilistic perspective, as Google Maps and Bing are drawn from the perspectives of a space that is inhabited by cars, more tan the wildlife of the city: the perspective of the walker in the city is less easy to approach, in maps that are biased by their exclusion of open space that is so important to one’s mental health and sense of place: if the American West was once defined by its open spaces, “where the pavement ends,” the pavement that spreads out from cities to the burgeoning Bay Area makes it a sort of transportation hub, where cars move along its freeways and downtown, often clogging Market Street, increasing a market for new navigational tools of traffic flow, rather than the open spaces that drivers might even neglect if they did not also wander the neighborhoods off the beaten path: the decal of urban wildlife associated with the car’s perspective is, unsurprisingly, marked the pigeon as an urban inhabitant of peaking into this automobilistic world as if from an Archimedian point–

–whose cocked beaks and blank eyes emerge from the car door’s gleam to note the increased compromising of a biophilic relation to urban space.

And if we may still sense the city is present in nature, overlapping with bodies of water in ways one can still smell in its oxygenated ocean air, one want to map its relation to its environment, and find environments of living species that coexist in and with it, from raven nests or occasional hawks and odd coyote, or the pleasures of the butterfly, cormorant, and heron–that we too often fail to notice and to see, as if to cut off aspects of urban livability to create the environmental dysphoria we seek to avoid.

The sense of San Francisco as surrounded by the Pacific and freshwater basins, and a confluence of saltwater and freshwater, and a terrain whose sandiness and lack of bedrock has limited its urban growth. But the clear and unmistakable sense of being on the water, or lying close to it on three sides–defines a sense of what it is like to move in its micro-climates, and indeed the rewriting of its shores, while expanded by landfill, have resisted the possible dramatic change of an elevated freeway that bound its edges. If one can look back wistfully at the redefining of its relation to land and sea, there is a sense that even if some of the shorelines around the Embarcadero have clear breakfronts, and that undersea rivers, underground shipwrecks, and some bays are overpaved–

–that the older pre-1854 exists in the ocean air that enters its shores, if the coast is fixed. For if the low structures around the shoreline reflect in large part seismic risk, there is will to remain a model urban area, unique and exemplary even in an age of globalization and climate change, not entirely low-lying, but facing significant threats from sea-level rise. The overlapping of ocean and land environments are nicely captured in the species, from shorebirds to insects to thistle to prehistoric radiolarian, that populate the surface of San Francisco in the elegantly dynamic, if static, full-color map from Nature in the City, which presses web-sources and online data into a new illustrated paper form.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under data visualization, environmental geography, map design, nature, San Francisco

Russian Blues

The projected map was a subliminal reminder of the stakes of the speech Vladimir Putin delivered to the Federal Assembly.

For all its modern appearance, the glowing map of the Russian Federation that recalling a backlit screen, seemed an updating  of Soviet-style theatricality and state spectacles.  As if in a new theater of state, the map of a magnified Russia seemed to cascade over a series of scrims that framed Putin’s head during the annual State of the Nation address, which he had moved to weeks before he stood for reelection to a fourth term from its traditional date.  Putin was projected to win the election, but projecting the map under which he stood identified him as a spokesman for Russia, and identified his plans with the future of Russia–

 

Map crisper curved

 

–and allowed him to present a “State of the Nation” that projected the future global dominance he foresaw of Russia within the world, and allowed him to present an argument of protecting the boundaries of Russia, and the Russian Federation, even in an era when boundaries and the mapping of boundary lines are not only contested but increasingly without clear meaning.  Putin’s involvement in aggressive actions beyond the borders of the Russian Federation–whether in the American elections, as all but certain, if of unclear scope; the invasion of Crimea and Ukraine; or in the elections of Brexit and Hungary, or poisoning of Russians in other countries, all distracted national bounds.  But all were presented, in a cartographic sleight of hand, as a vision of Russia as a state of the twenty-first century.  If our current maps no longer follow the “jigsaw puzzle” of the map that the icon of the luminescent map recalled, and the global reach of Russia’s missiles that he claimed could not be intercepted.

 

Russian Missiles

 

Remapping the Russian Federation was the central take-away from Putin’s speech to the Duma–even while allowing that “we have many problems in Russia” with twenty million Russians living below the poverty line, described the need to “transform infrastructure” and claimed that Russia faced a significant turning point in its history, which would alter its relation to space.  Indeed, the argument that Russia “had caught up” with the mapping systems that were used by the American military since the 2003 Iraq War–one of the first international conflicts that Putin had encountered as President of the Russian Federation–and suggested the lack of clear limits to frontiers, or anti-missile rockets to the global scope of a new generation of nuclear-power Russian ICBM’s.  A statement of the resurgence of Russia–and a renewed defense of the foreign policy of the Russian Federation–all but erased or whitewashed Russian military presence in Georgia, Ukraine, and Crimea, presenting the arrival of Russia on a global stage through an awesome holographic map.

The map offered something of a “warrant” or guarantee of the arrival of the Russian Federation on a global stage, and provided viewers a reassuring image of Russia’s prominence on the global map, despite the fairly dire state of domestic affairs and the limited plans for expanding national employment or social welfare.  The value of the map, mesmerizing in its illustration of the entirety of the Russian Federation, provided an illustration of foreign policy and argument of expanded powers of global intervention, by which Putin, former head of state security, sought to suggest its arrival as a ‘strong state’ despite the historical challenges and setbacks of earlier regimes, and what Putin has long seen as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” the break-up of the Soviet Union.  The map met the need to bolster Russian self-esteem, and indeed identifying esteem with the territorial protection of “Russian rights,” irrespective of the boundaries that were drawn or existed on other maps.  For while erasing Russian intervention in Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, the map sought to project an image of the consolidation of Russian abilities for “global governance” as an extension of Russian sovereignty.

It is striking that the map was a reflection of the manner in which Putin had long understood or seen the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as an extension of American claims to sovereignty, in violation of international law, and the new image he wanted to create of Russia’s similar abilities to ignore national boundaries and boundary lines.

 

Putin weapon launchVideo grab from RU-RTR Russian television (via AP), Thursday, March 1, 2018, allegedly portraying Russia’s firing of a nuclear-powered intercontinental missile

The map affirmed the arrival of a new consensus in the Russian states and ethnic republics–members of which were assembled before him–to recognize the arrival of a new role that Russia could occupy and would occupy in the global map.  Indeed, the made-for-television map of the Russian Federation suggested the new relation between local and global–and of Russian sovereignty and international abilities for “global governance” that would be guaranteed by an expanded arsenal of nuclear weapons, in ways that demonstrated the expansive reach of Putin’s Russia far beyond its boundaries, in ways that would upstage the American use of GPS in the Iraq War, and the precedent that that war set, in Putin’s mind, for flouting international law in the assertion of American sovereignty–despite the multiple logical problems that were avoided in making such a claim.  But it seems that much as George W. Bush’s headstrong rhetoric of fighting “terrorism” was adopted wholesale by Putin in subsequent violations of the sovereign rights of Ukraine, Crimea, or Syria–and the justifications for defense of Russian interests as the same as sovereign grounds.
made for TV maps.png
The broadcasting of Russia’s possession of a new generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles, unable to be intercepted, as well as designed to frighten the United States or a feign to enter into an arms race, were presented as the basis for illustrating the lack of Russia’s need to respect any cartographic lines or continental divides.

1.  The pre-election State of the Union address, as if a continuation of the diatribe Putin launched against the West for “trying to remake the whole world” unilaterally and in accord with its own interests, provided a broadside of the determination of Russia to defend its own interests, rather than seeking through military invasion or moving of its troops across borders to “reinstate some sort of empire.”  But his discussion of how “turning points” in history determined the foundation of cities in Russia and its relation to “space” seem on the point–and a bit of pointed positioning in regard to Russia’s future positioning on a geopolitical map.

As if to respond to the ion, Putin focussed most theatrically on its development of “invincible missiles” and nuclear-powered arms as defensive weapons in a two-hour address before a packed hall that was punctuated by repeated ovations and applause.  He  omitted any mention of Russian presence abroad, but focussed attention on the Russian nation as able to protect its allies adequately and preserve its place in a “rapidly changing” world where some states were bound to decay if they did not keep up with the pace of change.  As an almost entirely male audience uneasily awaited Putin, turning in their seats, greeting each other, staring ahead stonily or smirking and nervously straightening blue ties.  All faced the glowing blue map projected above an empty stage in the new venue, as if into their minds, as if in preparation for how Putin would remind them of the problems of charting Russia’s future course, even as they may have been most satisfied with the unprecedented foreign influence Putin had achieved in much of Europe, Hungary, England, and the United States.  When Putin took stage with triumphal music, describing how the “significance of our choices, and the significance of every step we take . . . [will] define the future of our country for decades,” and a new time for Russia to “develop new cities and conquer space” after maintaining the unity of the federated nation and its stability in the face of great social and economic difficulties but still faces the danger of “undermining [its] sovereignty.”

 

Map crisper curved

 

Projected onto multiple scrims, the glowing image of the Russian Federation lit by glowing centers of population echoed Putin’s discussion of stability, and the need to affirm the “self-fulfillment” of all Russians and their welfare through new economic policies, which he assured them had nothing to do with the upcoming elections, but cautioned that the failure to create technological changes would lead to potential erosion of its sovereignty despite its huge potential.

The glowing national map dominated the room overwhelmingly in which the three-term President spoke, describing the as he aimed to win an election to continue his Presidency through 2024, and convince all Russians of his leadership of the nation.  Below the map, unsmiling, Putin solemnly addressed the nation as if he were its architect and the protector of its bounds; indeed, the projection of the fixed bounds of the Russian Federation onto a set of screens behind him seemed to celebrate its continued power vitality after three terms of Putin’s presidency, even as he recited fairly grim statistics about the state of the national economy.  Describing the need to enhance its civil society and democratic traditions, Putin raised the prospect of once again “lagging behind” other nations, its body politic undermined by a chronic disease, and define Russia’s future, if its modernization was not affirmed in the face of .  The continued coherence of the nation reminded viewers that, notwithstanding threats of dissolution after the fall of the Soviet Union two decades ago, and a reduced GDP and natural resources, the Russian state was back.

The map of Russia was projected in isolation from the world, but the image that resembled a back-lit glowing screen became a basis for projecting the power Russia had regained on a global stage.  Rather than imitating the graphics of a paper map, the iridescent blues, splotched with centers of population, called attention to the permanence of the Russian Federation’s borders and affirmed its new place in the world.  The bounds of Russia were protected, the triumphalist image implied, but the place of Russia on the world stage was implicitly affirmed even if it was shown in isolation:  rather than showing people, or including any place-names, the map magnified the idea of Russia, and its futuristic projection suggested the continued power of Putin to transport the nation to modernity, its boundaries protected and affirmed and its defense of allies acknowledged.  While Putin had recently accused the United States of triumphalism, insisting that Russia was indeed “self-sufficient” and denying Russia was “encroaching on its neighbors” as “groundless,” he seems to have relished a new triumphalism, and famously continued to present the invincible military weapons Russia had developed–lasers, ICBM’s, which, nuclear torpedoes, and nuclear-powered cruise missiles–which, while not revealed “for obvious reasons” would definitively displaced the United States from a position of global power and could penetrate US Defense Systems with ease..

 

Video in State of Union address.png

Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under geopolitics, globalism, nuclear strikes, Russia, Russian Federation