Monthly Archives: April 2018

The 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 acid-tinged venom of exasperation of a man of the midwest, in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. Long before Donald Trump asked where the heart of the nation’s heart lay, and railed against cities Gass did quite cuttingly with far greater acumen of the versions of nature accessible to city-dwellers, as images that replaced the nature world: “His parks are potted plants.” But the significant greenspace that long defined San Francisco and the East Bay–as well as nearby less urbanized areas–suggested both a unique sort of habitat, and a confluence of not exactly rural but open space and green corridors in an urban environment.

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–not to mention its greater seismic risk–have created a somewhat model urban area, unique and exemplary even in an age of globalization and climate changes, when San Francisco, if not exactly low-lying, faces significant threats from sea-level rise. But the fostering of a new relation to urban habitat has left the Bay Area and city far less insularly defined in relation to nature: if Rebecca Solnit rightly observed that the old geographers were wrong only in one–if one significant–way in describing California as an island, the significant surviving greenspace, cultivable land, and open space in the state, while under threat, extends to San Francisco and much of northern California, and significant parts of the southern coast. If the state is known for giant redwood forests and sequoia groves, strikingly significant habitats enter San Francisco’s own natural ecology.

The recalibration of the place of nature to which San Francisco has been long open has long been measured as something that is threatened and endangered in its scarcity, as paving of asphalt and concrete have dramatically changed its landcover, toward a shift to appreciate and embrace its nature, and indeed embrace the benefits of cultivating not only plants, but rather ecophilia. The celebration of an urban environment far often reduced to being mapped for seismic peril and proximity to fault-lines offers a deep picture of the specific formation and sustainment of a rather unique coastal habitat, both based on accurate data and pushing the boundaries of data visualization to excavate a rich record of–and promote a wonderfully tactile relationship to–broad concerns of ecology and environmental history.

The engaging design of the 2018 map commissioned by Nature in the City begins from a datapoint of each and every tree and green space the city offers, but fosters a productive way of looking at the urban environment, different in that it focusses far less on the pests we often seek to eliminate from our homes with urban fastidiousness, than to appreciate the range of species beside which city dwellers live, despite their frequent focus on roads of paved concrete: in a map that embraces the city at the end of the peninsula from bay to sea, the living cornucopia of habitat that spans the urban environment offers a new way to understand this urban space.

Nature in the City/2018

Although ecosystems are the most living areas of cities, they remain hidden from view on city maps of the built landscape or paved roads that define the mobilty of “urban” life.  But we often fail to orient ourselves to the extent of urban environments in most maps. And the changing vulnerability of cites to climate change and extreme weather has directed increased attention to the vulnerability and instability of urban space, in ways we are still taking stock through maps, the question of what maps best orient us to the future of the city have provoked increased attention from maps of sea-level change, to maps of vulnerability to earthquakes and seismic risks. No city has been more subject to such demands for recalibrating its lived space, perhaps, than San Francisco, the city that is most conspicuously built on several fault lines–so much that the expansive recent downtown rebuilding is cast as a “seismic trap” or a disasters waiting to happen–showing the spate of high-rise construction–

New York Times/“San Francisco’s Seismic Gamble” (April 17, 2018)

–against the backdrop of the widespread urban devastation of the 1906 earthquake on its hundred and twelfth anniversary, as if to suggest that the memory of that devastating event has receded into the past of public memory.

The grim image of a dangerous and unruly world of seismic shocks and faultiness is a contrast to the cornucopia of habitats and biodiversity of a city like San Francisco sustains. The power of the image of devastation asks incredulously how San Francisco has allowed the construction of large downtown buildings on such shaky terrain, as if the lessons of the past weren’t ever learned, lest the fears of fault-lines be forgotten, and the dangers of devastation that led to longstanding opposition to skyscrapers that have rampantly transformed New York City’s skyline be introduced.

To cast this change as local–or the charge of a local correspondent who arrived in San Francisco–is a projection of the parochial. The changes in urban skylines are nothing if not global, and the concession to building of skyline allowed the risk posed by underground fault-lines to be forgotten by the extent to which realtors have persuaded the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection to undertake a building boom despite seismic risk. The disturbing fantasia of the city destroyed by nature is no doubt an echo of the increased natural risks posed by climate change, risks of sea-level rise, and surging seas. The unharmonious relation to a world out of joint seems brilliantly condensed in the nightmarish image of urban apocalypse, echoing the struggles for global survival in early 1970s flicks like Earthquake! or 1998’s Armageddon, the benefits of cultivating a harmonious relation to nature, in response to the distance from nature in the shadows high rises cast on litter-strewn paved streets.

William Wordsworth was worried about psychically degrading nature on man of the “outrageous stimulation” city-dwellers sought–as if urban life provoked a change in the nervous constitution. A better example of the stimulation of the urban imaginary cannot be found than in the transformation of the skyline by vertical building,–even if the creation of urban canyons wasn’t what Wordsworth meant–the fear that a quest for excesses of sensory stimulation would fail to meet an “inborn inextinguishable thirst/Of rural scenes,” the question of how to compensate the losses that Wordsworth saw as the primary casualties of the build environment has found a new source of nourishment in the marriage of art and cartography that the Nature in the City project, inspired by the unique natures within San Francisco; lush parks contain live oaks, man-made lakes, sprawling botanical gardens, and mountainous natural preserves, and of integrating their mosaic of green that the ambitious 2-D project filled in of a green urban environment, using cutting-edge LiDAR technologies of tree density and canopy height to recast paved landscapes as something more like a living habitat, rather than the zoos that Gass described most city-dwellers use to be spectators of great cats from behind bars, as if to confirm their remove from a living habitat they are condemned to eroticize and confine to leisure time.

Nature in the City/2018

By placing this image of nature within the urban setting, against an image of the historical shoreline of a city whose modernization accommodated piers along its bay-facing waterfront, dramatically extended by landfill, to invite the viewer to peel back the earlier contours of its coast, as if to bring the nature of the city back into balance with its built space.

Nature in the City/2018

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Filed under data visualization, data visualizations, environmental geography, map design, San Francisco, San Francisco Bay

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

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