The Natures of San Francisco

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.

New York Times/

The dangerous vulnerability of cities has paralleled an attempt to try to take better stock of urban space than the map servers we use provide. For as any server only foregrounds a selective level of local detail, replicating a dominant focus on roads, paved spaces, and buildings, to the exclusion of the constricted habitat that remains on the edges of a city’s built space?  The historical attempt to design a wooden model encompassing a “Huge San Francisco” in detailt, back in the 1930s’ era of public mapping and public art, to preserve a record of the lived city in a set of interlocking 3D pieces that served as a snapshot of the lived city suggests just how much of the city was long green and open to “natural space” in a way that contrasts sharply with the image of the changing built environment of the city to give us pause–

Huge San Francisco/David Ramsey Historical Map Collection
Piece J 4 and Adjoining Pieces, David Rumsey Map Collection

–and to take stock of the natures of San Francisco, and the benefits of different forms of mapping its urban environment in less melancholy ways, and indeed of the importance of taking new stock of a city’s remaining open space–or what that open space is, and how we might best interact with greenspace remaining in the city, and the importance of how we map the urban spaces we live.

While San Francisco was long a center for nature preservation, and indeed the preservation of the country in the city, as the perceptive Bay Area geographer Richard Walker put it so eloquently, the organization of tools to uncover and preserve the current relation between ecological niches, natural environments and the built city becomes the project of the recent Nature in the City map, now in its third edition, offers the symbolic tools built on data to explore the urban environment–absent in most street maps or apps that we use to navigate the city, and to revalue the critical importance of native habitat in the open spaces existing within the city’s built environment, and offers an engaging and timely injunction to attend to and help cultivate it.

The suggestion of the city’s integration with not only its bay and shoreline, here shown as a thin strip of brown that borders on the Pacific, tied to historic estuaries, rivers, creeks, and current parks, presents an image of the city as an integrated whole, in which the blocks and streets foregrounded in GoogleMaps are far less prominent than the deeper continuities that create unique habitats, which are finally presented to the reader. We don’t see the Great Highway, for example, but the sand dollars and , and in Hunters Point find oysters and shorebirds–and in place of navigating a grid of grey, explore a region of butterflies, poppies, and jackrabbits, as well as a coyote, and even, out in the Pacific, the image–in the selection below just a glimpse–of a whale’s tail. The plentiful creatures within the vivid map, which breaks the barrier between cartography and art, reveals a far more engaging, and ethically challenging, question of what it is to map a city and to attend to the built space of a city as a place.

green edges, waters, habitat
Nature in the City map of San Francisco
Google Map of San Francisco from Great Highway

For rather than compile a survey of the built environment, and orient the river to streets, main highways and the neighborhoods we give to urban space, the static map offers an engaging relation to the habitability of a city so often bemoaned as increasingly unhabitable due to skyrocketing rents, gentrification, and evictions.

The quite distinct base-map that folks at Nature in the City organization adopted to invite us to view San Francisco helps to shift that set of associations, and to open up hidden spaces within the city to viewers in ways they might never have had access, putting the place of San Francisco as a part of the thin line of green coast and as a potentially rich set of open spaces, habitat and green.

The rent revisioning of the greenspaces that distinguish San Francisco displace the rush of commuting and explosion of jobs and rents for which the Bay Area may be increasingly known–

–and effectively invite viewers to navigate, and explore, a city where rents have withdrawn most of our attentions from the lived environment. The base map rich with data sets of the multiple green spaces in the city, from parks to all street trees and gardens, as if they and the surrounding waters afforded a palette–which if pictorial in nature, offers a synthesis of public data on open space.

And the data helps to situate the existing habitat that the non-profit has dedicated its energies to encourage, inviting viewers–and residents–to shift their attention from the city streets and built spaces to the conscious cultivation of the wild. The result is to re-focus attention on the habitats of specific animals, birds, fish, and plants across its urban space, in a static map that is made for an audience familiar with interactive mapping forms, and the coding of a rich natural space, extending to imagining its lost estuaries, underground rivers and watersheds, and even the historical shorelines of San Francisco before the addition of landfill.

Nature in the City 2018 (detail)


By orienting us to the lived reality on the ground, shores, and waters around San Francisco, the recent remapping of open spaces in San Francisco by which local environmental non-profit Nature in the City has taken the time and effort to refocus attention from its buildings or paved environment, inviting us to appreciate the work of the non-profit in planning active green spaces in the urban space that San Francisco contains by representing the city’s urban space in a distinct cartographic idiom:  as Nobel Laureate Thomas Tranströmer wrote of how the disbelief of Henry David Thoreau “disappear[ed] deep in his inner greenness artful and hopeful,” cartographers worked to allow readers to detecting habitat within the urban environment in a distinctly Thoreauian marveling of how natural habitat exist within a city that goes often undetected and–as only a map can remind us–isn’t hidden but overlooked.

Nature in the City 2018/draft

Nature in the City paper map helpfully addressed a general reader in the age of bespoke data-heavy maps, coded for individual  uses, using graphics to hone a rich set of databases to invite all readers of the map to examine the intersection of layers of greenspace, parks, and urban trees provide a surface that any viewer can navigate to reacquaint themselves to urban space that questions its edges, centers, and the frame of a greater ecosystem of which the “city” is the microcosm and condensation:  the countryside that we place outside of the walls of the city–extra muros–is revealed to lie instead at its center, emblematized by the coyote who raises his or her head as if to exult in being present in the remaining green environment–a sort of pictorial designation of the indexical deictic reminder “YOU ARE HERE.”  The observer is decentered, for  a moment, in the map however, as one examines where species are located, as if in the recent Nature in the City challenge.

The claim that is invested in most tourist way-finding maps is repeated by the images of a sand dollar, magnolia, jackrabbit, California Poppy, shorebird, whale and two butterflies–each included in the key of the map on its left margin–to remind map readers that “they” are here, inviting discovery from visitors to the city its real urban spaceMuch as a legend to the left margin invites you to cross-reference them with landcover, the icons of animals suggest something like a hide-and-seek game for visitors to explore the actual urban environment and its riches of habitat–habitats that Nature in the City has often encouraged.

The claims of copia and urban abundance that was classically associated with chorographic views of Renaissance cities is almost displaced onto San Francisco’s nourished ecosystem in ways that Nature in the City encourages; the map involves  viewers by inspires endless exploration in ways that attests to its own truly inventive design.  Indeed, the involvement of a distinctly innovative battery of representational tools invite viewers to observe the city as it is rarely seen or perceived.  Indeed, while one usually thinks of coastal California as sites of extreme settlement and habitation–

Although pioneering aerial photographic imagery exists of the prewar space of San Francisco, a fantastic hundred and sixty four aerial photographs pioneered by Harrison Ryker from an airplane that left from the Oakland airfields, which offers a detailed image of the foliage, open space, still sandy regions, and of the city in crisply detailed black-and-white composite photographs–


Ryker 1938/Rumsey Collection, Cartography Associates

–that invite viewers to examine its detailed imagery through the stereoscopes Ryker would patent upon opening shop as an East Bay map-maker.  The aerial photographic map promised a precision and detail that foretold remote sensing, and anticipated the deal of the Nature in the City map, despite its monochrome:  the view it offers of the lines on playing fields, basketball courts, and paths in the Golden Gate Park promised a visibility that would make it appealing in World War II, in ways that prefigured the pointillistic accuracy of remote aerial sensing.  The crisp local detail recently that was recently made available in interactive form online by the indefatigable Donald Rumsey lets one  navigate the composite record of now lost shorelines, the fluid ocean coastline, once-sandy Outer Sunset, Golden Gate Park and Duboce Hill–

GG Park to Bay

–of the same expanse of the recent Nature in the City map in a way that anticipates the detail LiDar surveys of the city by the bay.  The non-profit updated the accuracy of local detail of the crisp black and white composites from the interactive map Rumsey Associates crafted, allowing us to examine current habitats, ecosystems, and animal life within the city and the surprising taxa that inhabit its denser blocks, after the addition of highways, a far denser downtown, in ways that allow the areas of tree cover of different heights to pop at the viewer to suggest the lush urban canvas in which they live, and the map to pop in into three or four–if one counts the temporal of the lost coastal shoreline, inviting viewers to witness and negotiate a sort of counterpoint between built space and remaining urban ecosystems, and directing attention to the overlooked.  The new synthesis of art and cartography accomplished by Lindsay Irving and artist Jane Kim expand and enrich over 500 datasets to fashion a new symbology of pictorial cartography across time, inviting us to compare shorelines, interrogate built spaces, and consider the city not entirely a human space but one from which we benefits where green cover and contact with a range of animal species persists and survives, using code that tracks the growth of urban habitat to provide the basis for a richly interactive tour of the city’s natural resources–a record interactive not by mouse, but by interpretation, inviting viewers to excavate historical habitats for birds, marine mammals, insects, and butterflies, in not only a “deep history” of place, but a deep ecology of the ecosystem that underlies the city as a palimpsest.

Nature in the City Butterfly Flying free.png

Nature in the City 2018 (detail of downtown)Nature in the City 2018 (detail of downtown)

What would it look like, asked the designers and cartographers at Nature in the City, a local San Francisco-based non-profit, to fashion a dynamic map that reveals the habitats that  flourish–and even be nourished–within an urbanized space.  In so doing, the layers of the map act to orient readers to  a counter-map of the built city, foregrounding the spaces of habitat that the group has encouraged across San Francisco and that actively exists on its streets and in its yards.  The new model of urban exploration in the map that is used in the header of this post is based less on navigating the urban space we know, than exploding the nature/urban dichotomy, and pointing us to the cites where nature has taken shape in the urban environment.  The result shocks the viewer, actively inviting them to recalibrate their own reaction to urban space far more actively–and in a more engaged fashion–than one experiences when reading urban maps.  And the practice of reading the map is not only engaging, prompting new activities of looking at one’s own neighborhood or cycling and running route,–but also extremely fun.

In an era of climate change and global warming, developing a positive relation to place–and an unpacking of its complex ecosystem of what Charles Darwin called the “endless form” of nature within a city offers what might be a more therapeutic and healthy relation to place than many digital maps and data visualizations afford their readers.  Rather than focusing on the tyranny of a present–or on a diachronic view of past and present–the “endless form” of how nature interacts with and exists in the city is the focus of their map.  The image that the non-profit created of the spaces of habitat that can be nurtured and encouraged within the city–spaces for animal and plant habitat that are all too often overlooked in or absent from concepts of urban planning–

1. The reorientation to the urban map reminds us of the power of maps to redesign and re-appreciate place in an increasingly urbanized world.  A long tradition of urban maps that celebrates the built environment as evidence of the city’s vital form:  but recent debates about the prospects for urban livability have returned attention to the vital pathways and streams of live that undergird the city’s space; and in the case of San Francisco, perched between bay and ocean, and lying on multiple migratory routes of air and sea, the confluence between urban and natural spaces are perhaps especially salient to be of the moment as we try to remap urban space less in terms of buildings or built structures,–foregrounding empty areas of  light green unfortunately rendered in rather generic flat light green hues in Google Maps that numb our visual curiosity for reading mapped space, or indeed of any of the other map servers we use to navigate the congested streets of urban space.  Even as we are enjoined to “navigate our world faster and easier with Google Maps,” and trust the promises of such enhanced abilities, we too often tend to forget–or not see–ways that might orient ourselves to our surroundings or indeed what other sites in the world we might do well to pay attention to.  If there is a danger that we are at risk of loosing sight of places of nature in our mental geography of urban space, the data rich nature of the map of wildlife habitat compiled by Nature in the City don’t dominate the viewer with data, as strongly as some maps continued to do–

–but offer an ability o reorient ourselves to the dense population of the urban space.

For Nature and the City suggests something of an urban understory that supports a rich variety of habitats, on which we can re-map our place in the city, less to an abillty to navigate our relations to urban space on its streets, but learn how other taxa live in the city, and use its space, in order to appreciate how we can be the best custodians of their habitat.  Indeed, the remove of any grey space from the map’s surface and open face–

SF bay clear shot Nature in the City.png

San Francisco from Golden Gate Park to the Bay (detail)/Nature in the City

The intention is to invite us into urban space through a new set of coordinates, so to speak, that invite the viewer to orient themselves to urban space by an expanded and enriched sense of its habitation not only as a grid, but as a set of corridors of open space.  San Francisco has few dirt roads, fruit orchards, wooden fences, forest canopy or decomposing broad-trunked trees, or choruses of cicadas crowding overgrown fields.  But an abundance of complex habitats define the city raises questions of the vital relation of open spaces to the ecosystem that also inhabits it–and to the endangered habitat that groups like Nature in the City work to nourish and preserve.


Bay Nature/Review of Nature in the City Map

As we increasingly confront pressing questions of livability and the future of the long rhapsodized city of San Francisco, can maps better attune us to the changes of its urban space?  Perhaps the notion of how maps work to “civilize a space” and prepare it for our eyes has changed–or is trying to change.  The notion of cultivating and maintaining the order of a space seems better to respond to the exigencies and unknown future terrain that increasingly defined by global warming, climate change, sea-level rise, and a loss of species.  The sense of what such a civilization would portend–or how the space might be civilized–has been called into question as the role of manmade change in the environment has been questions, and maps struggle to wrestle with and process that change, taking stock of eventual effects of over-building, shifting shorelines, and planetary warming on where we–and not only we–live.

The problem of detaching the urban grid from the environment surrounding is addressed both by the image of San Francisco within migratory routes of birds, ocean mammals, and fish, and a living habitat for animal and plant life, and the increased awareness of dangers of overbuilding in a city framed by notoriously unstable fault lines at the edge of the continent.  Given the complexity of the biosphere in an era when Presidential candidates proclaim their opposition to scientific consensus on climate change or Darwin’s evolutionary theory, the range of open data we have on the local biosphere provides a compelling way to place viewers in a complex ecosystem.  The value of open data to offer a range of yardsticks that can help ascertain the extent to which a bucolic city retains and map its relation to the natural world in the new map issued and designed by Nature in the City, a public interest environmental group whose work raises consciousness about urban greenspace.  While their map is not dependent on data alone, the map’s valuable text reorients us not to its streets, parks, or plazas, or its transit system, but instead to the levels of green cover in each neighborhood and the sort of ecosystems they afford–providing a new way to understand and explore its neighborhoods.

In contrast, San Francisco has been depicted as the center of a different sense of environmental vulnerability, subject to zones of increased seismic risk, based on its situation on a continental shelf:  the different view of a city subject to natural forces and vulnerable to them is increasingly made evident in the recent spate of vertical building.  A recent set of news articles in the New York Times has focussed on the question of how seismic risk was ignored in the expansion of vertical building in the liquefaction zone of downtown San Francisco:  a web-based visualization of downtown compellingly used the new USGS maps of the shaky geological terrain of landfill to invite viewers to judge the questionable basis that sandy grounds to support ambitious skyscrapers.  In a city that long lay close to the ground, unlike other metropoles, the juxtaposition of red extrusions of buildings of the steel-frame buildings that now dominate San Francisco’s skyline are placed against the memory of the 1906 earthquake,as if to show the looming danger of natural risks of their welded joints to inevitable seismic jolts–not to mention the large number of

earthquake sf

–that may well demand them to be inventoried as public risks  by the California State Legislature.   For the recent spate of skyscrapers in the past decade cast a shadow over an iconography of urban hope, journalist Thomas Fuller’s illustrated articles for the New York Times reveals the instability of the city–and the limited safety that that vertical over-building on sand allows to workers in the densely populated downtown.  Using the recent USGS maps of liquefaction areas abasing the buildings of increased height in public records–

liquefactionrisks in red

these maps tempt us to face fears of steel-frame office buildings fracturing, and the possible  paralysis of water-systems and electrical in their upper stories.  The set of powerfully monitory map that suggests an alienation from of builders from the inland Hayward Fault or San Andreas fault lines, and set off alarms to anyone who read the article whose rapid online shares reflect its visceral conjuring of the arrival of the “Big One” far more concretely than earlier maps of the city’s sizable liquefaction zones by the Times, that may traffic in alarmism on the recent anniversary of the earthquake, by inviting viewers to scroll down screens that make them ponder if the supervisors of building codes allowed the construction of real estate that papered over the natural risks of building on sandy ground in an area of high seismic risk.

Seismic Trap?

2.  Where does nature exist, one might ask, in the city?  If nature is often imagined as removed from the city–and perhaps only introduced to it in a form of street art that commemorates the remove, as this recent mural commemorating  the site of the studio of the Japanese-American artist Chiura Obata, who was so enamored of Yosemite Park, and taught in U.C. Berkeley long before he was incarcerated by the War Relocation Authority during World War II, the appearance of a modern mural of the park clashes slightly with its semi-urban setting at 2518 Telegraph Avenue, on an old power station–

Yosemite in Berkeley.png

The sense of disconnect between man-made and natural structures is inverted by the energetic environmentalist activists from “Nature in the City,” a local non-profit long dedicated to preserving the city’s open space–that seeks to direct our attention to the above-ground natural wealth that make the city so livable.  The 2018 map they’ve produced invites attention to the complexity of its ecosystem all too often overlooked in its built space, and a far more detailed local view of the abundance of natural wealth that they same city contains–and indeed, if one scrutinizes the map, abounds.

The map does not examine the recognizable habitats of urban fellow-residents–from pigeons, raccoons, to rodents–or the imagined habitats within urban street murals–

City Birtd in Urban Habitat

–but rather actively invite viewers to attend to the spaces where actual native species from a larger ecosystem, often not associate with the urban environment, inhabit San Francisco, and reveals the vitality of the city as a space, coincident with but outside of the built environment that has dominated most of our most familiar mapping tools.

For over thirty years, Nature in the City has raised consciousness by mapping San Francisco’s open spaces and parks; the recent version more fully foregrounds the nourishing of a range of habitats, from its bayshore to its urban space, in a broader ecosystem.  The result is a counter-cartography to the city as an ecosystem for cars, unpacking non-grey spaces of the map and questioning the clearly segregated divide between greenspace and greyspace on the surface of our maps, which privilege the navigation through paved space.

SF Green Space anti Google

The creation of a paper map, indeed, that can be scrutinized in detail and materially held, recuperates an iconography of cartography through a rich availability of open data, in ways that make in data rich, but not data-centric.  The printed map is itself almost an anomaly in the age of Landsat.  “Been years since I looked at a real map,” comments a character in 1992 in Don DeLillo’s epic of post-war America, Underworld (1997), a micro-history of attitudes to place and space after the Cold War has thawed, that looks back at a lost stability of the world bemoaned after the end of balance of power, in a conversation that turns to the interest in obtaining g some old maps to recuperate a sense of local (if not global) stability.  “It’s a sort of Robert Louis Stevenson thing to do,” Nick Shay muses.  “We have maps of highways and motels.  Our maps have rest stops and wheelchair symbols.”  Shay thinks of the map as a way to access a past world, or examine a lost life.  The new iconography used to map the overlap of an ecosystem in urban space requires a new conventions for a new set of data, and the focus on trees, and the magnification of what greenspace does in a city, and how it acts to create corridors for wildlife, suggests a form of cartographic activism to appraise the future location and role of nature in a city.

The paper map functions, unsurprisingly, unlike the web-based image in the Times, as a sort of negative imprint of the paved grid of urban space, revealing the past shorelines of the city, and the future shorelines predicted to result from sea-level rise and global warming, where the present is “endless form” by which the urban space offers and and will offer an active habitat is displayed as the primary surface to explore and navigate, rather than seeing gridded space of downtown as the primary axes that the dangers of looming seismic threats stand to disrupt.

Seismic Trap?

3.  As if in counterpoint to the concentration of online map servers that orient readers to paved urban space, the map tracks the presence of living forms in the city and directs viewers to vital pathways or corridors.  If such habitat areas are difficult to discern for inhabitants, as Thoreau and Emerson would remind us, they are important to attend to, to resist the longstanding dominance of mapping the city as a built space in ways extremely important.  And as we shift attention from mapping a human imprint on the world to taking stock of what environmental demons that imprint indeed includes–global warming, heat islands, and impermeable landcover–and strive to look for other forms to celebrate by looking at the overlooked within the urban grid, profiting from the observations and efforts of naturalists to remake ecosystems in the city’s urban space–and using their work to ask us to re-orient ourselves to the city.

A reference to Thoreau seems particularly appropriate, as the non-profit has worked to create a reflection on the ethics of mapping urban space and reading maps.  The ethics of reading maps is particularly needed today, and the sorts of deliberate and intensive reading that Thoreau championed–as well as attention to a range of natural forms–is demanded by the third edition of the paper map, whose text, content, and style were deliberated by a team over several years.  The non-human elements most often excluded from the built urban environment as transient and fleeting residents–trees, birds, animals, and insects–consciously gained amazing  visibility by foregrounding habitats and tree cover, uncovering corridors that raise questions about the livability of urban space–even if we rarely attend to them.  Even if the map is printed, it encourages the intensive observation of the world that its degree of local detail, depictions of lost streams and watersheds, as well as the local density of trees, lakes, and islands of urban forest demand, looking further into neighborhoods like the Castro and Noe Valley, but also the Financial District, Chinatown or the Outer Sunset, in ways that reflect its density of a significant level of local data on individual species–

–in order to command a far greater degree of attention than screens or even paper maps command, and indeed to orient ourselves to the dynamic nature of the neighborhoods we work or live.  If the map is “static,” its level of detail suggests a deeper level of interactivity, less of the viewer to the surface of the map, than between indigenous and ndangered species and the city areas where they live.  The level of interactivity it offers illustrates a particularly rich palimpsest in every neighborhood actively encouraged in local neighborhoods, revealing a heightened “local” meanings in its surface.

San Francisco, Greencover in Golden Gate Park, Haight Ashbury, Buena Vista Park


San Francisco, Financial District green cover, with past shoreline marked grey and offshore bathymetry


San Francisco, Greencover in Chinatown, North Beach, and Telegraph Hill, with old shoreline and bay

San Francisco, Trees, Shrubs, and Grass in Outer Sunset

The pressing questions both maps pose for the future of the city recede before the different views they present of the place of nature in the city–ad the arguments they make about urban space.  For in questioning the city as a built structure, Nature in the City  focusses readers’ attention on a complex of lived environments apart from built structures, from which residents benefit.  The exclusive focus on paved physical plant of cities in most mapping tools leave us guilty of treating the limited descriptive parameters of map servers as if they constituted urban reality.

And in this sense, the map has arrived at an opportune time to shift attention from the hulking monoliths which San Francisco residents get their minds around, that seem destined to proliferate across a new skyline, in ways Fuller has repeatedly wrestled even as it has emerged in architetural renderings idealized for future buyers–

Future Skyline?.png

–as a real estate fantasy, dangerously out of touch with actual seismic risks.  And by inviting structural engineers to question the ethics of seismic responses in building codes, calling attention to their limited protection codes for urban residents in what is the most densely trafficked regions of the city, and most occupied by workers (if mostly white collar).  The interactive graphic of the appearance of such downtown mixed use buildings offered a chance to reflect on the effects of the 1906 earthquake and ask if such overbuilding inevitably suggested a sort of seismic trap.

The alarms that the built skyscrapers–without those planned–were cast clusters of danger signs in the scary prospective view of the city’s future ed buildings  of aassess the and an increasing debate over the final and future shape of urban space that invited readers to take stock of  an apparent rush to build on shaky grounds.

Seismic Trap?.png

from New York Times Interactive, April 17, 2018

4.  Is it any coincidence that rather than focussing on buildings, the team that assembled the most recent ecological map of San Francisco for Nature in the City map included not only a female cartographer, Lindsay Irving, and a team of naturalists to “experience dynamic nature in San Francisco” through the efforts of its lead writer, Mary Ellen Hannibal, and its designers Leah Elamin and the wonderful natural illustrator Jane Kim–to create a map designed to be deeply appreciative of the possibilities of interaction with its lived environment that focussed on the multiple possibilities of environmental stewardship, rather than the danger of elevations of building heights that the expansion of vertical projects of construction create.  The sense of opportunities of stewardship of ecological conservation and habitat conservation create a web of possible stories of interacting with the complex urban environment for city-dwellers to appreciate stories about nature and tell them to themselves–in sharp contrast with one of impending doom–a collapse of buildings and towers that would literalize a veritable real estate crunch.

The view of built urban spaces opens a perspective on the city that is not shaped by the hegemony of real estate, or the real estate market, and an economy of scarce housing, but a colorful view shaped by a distinct agenda of nourishing urban habitats, outside the built spaces of the city which coexists with it.  This distinct view affirms a concept of the “livability” of urban space, determined by data gathered independently from its booming real estate market or construction, is something of a new sort of urban enterprise zone–tied less to an economy of goods than of space.  The  inspired team of naturalist and innovative visualizers who worked to collect datasets from which they could design a map that engaged audiences in a new sense of urban space extends the historic efforts of its founder Peter Brastow–now Biodiversity Coordinator at SF Parks–to offer different ways of looking at urban space but invite the viewer to develop a different relation to the city that they though they knew.  By mapping the contours of the urban environment by the green habitat that it offers against the spaces that they thought they knew well, and reorient them to the city that does not privilege built spaces.  Did the distinct team they assembled help to create a view of the city less focussed on its upward extension, but on the sense of the city as a shifting set of borderlands to parks, ocean and migratory paths in which the city lies, nested among them.


The counter-cartography of the recent Nature in the City map offers a different lineage of mapping, shifting attention from the built structures to remind us that we risk filtering our actual experience of urban environments; for map servers, as much as lucre, also blind attention to an environment–or to spaces where we don’t drive–desensitizing ourselves to a delicate environmental balance, and masking the fluidity of habitats that cities include–the extent of open spaces in urban spaces that can nourish a broader ecosystem, even in a built space.  So much was revealed by increased attention to the embodiment of urban space in the recent map of San Francisco by the Nature in the City team, winner of a 2017 Livable Cities Livability award, that devoted increasing attention to finding and describing the parameters and metrics for the livability of a future urban space.  The emphasis on the encouragement of local habitats of native regional species in the city–and their dependence on the availability of water sources and green space–suggest a very different emphasis on the future of urban growth.  Rather than map the intersection of the city with data layers of open space or green space–as have many maps, and as is a relatively easy if provocative GIS trick–the intersecting layers of green space and open space are shown to produce a rich range of habitats for species that the urban dweller can actually experience, perceive, seek, and find.

The future of urban space is surely rooted in its ability to be accommodate lived spaces that encourage habitat in the Nature in the City map.  By tracking local species, the distinctive nature of the city as an active ecosystem suggest a degree of civilization that respects the quite distinctive natural character of its terrain.  In ways as magical as movies as The Parrots of Telegraph Hill tracked the survival of a flock of exotic birds recently counted at three hundred, the map invites viewers to attend not to escaped pets or urban residents as raccoons, pigeons, or feral cats,

but the interwined tapestry of  ecosystems that map how San Francisco offers a complex space of “natural” habitats.  The inventive tools used to map its urban ecosystems incorporates a variety of mapping forms to remind us of deep currents in urban space, from the landfill or sandy grounds remaining under the downtown area to the unique habitat sandy beaches, green spaces, streets, urban forests, watersheds, and gardens, and recover a sense of its living corridors beyond what city parks allow.  The result is both a broad historical perspective on its living record, that allows readers to engage its situation in a broader ecosystem and as a habitat, but a new model for looking at cities and their livability.

The unique base-map serves to track living habitats across the city, using overlays to combine a variety of mapping forms usually seen in isolation. By employing LiDAR orthoimagery of trees, shrubs and grasses across the unpaved areas of San Francisco, as a guide to help us follow the habitats that the greening of a city allows, far beyond an exclusive focus on its parks as in earlier editions.  The revisionary nature of a base-map of urban vegetation help expose living habitats in the city by mapping forms, to show how the city as supports a diverse range of habitats we would rarely discover, but in which the living structures of the city might be best located and situated.  Even if we use our old mapping habits to approach the below map of greenspace in San Francisco–and try to locate where we stand, whose houses we’ve visited, or lived in, or where we remember meeting someone or had fun, as if to try to correlate that experience with the density of green cover, in exploring the actual map we try to “map” those greenspaces into the range of habitat that the city also preserves and includes.

LIdar Orthoimagery SF

Nature in the City basemap/LiDAR orthoimagery of San Francisco with added bathymetry

The density of the layers of open data that the map compressed–tracing the density of greenspace by its elevation and distribution, suggest an extremely sensitive register not only to situate but emplot animal and plant habitat in the city by the bay.   The availability of significant open datasets for San Francisco reveal an intersection between avian and mammalian taxa with its watery habitat so delicately to make one almost forget its place at the edge of the continental shelf, but to map its abundance.   The data rich nature of the map that almost is concealed in its pictorial elegance allows the readers to perform the sort of deep dive into localities that are foreign to most paper maps, indeed, and reflect the increasing skills of aggregating and distilling data in appealing visual forms, and indeed unpacking locality as a complexly variegated form.

The hope is to reorient ourselves to the city as a built environment, to think of it as a capacious space that makes room for the creatures that dwell around it–not urban animals, or foragers like raccoons, geese or pigeons, but historical dwellers of the land-sea continuum that San Francisco’s terrain was defined by, despite and notwithstanding the redefinition of the city as a space for building that was amplified by landfill.  The playwright Tony Kushner evoked the city as a bucolic terrain of a promised land during the mid-1980s in Angels in America—the “undulating landscape lying under the threat of seismic risk,” where danger only lay only in unexpected underground faults.  The conceit God abandoned the world left stage after the 1906 earthquake, due to the changes in human settlement of the globe, is almost returned to in the orchestration of a vast range of data on habitats and tree cover by folks at Nature in the City to create a map able that seems take stock of the deep patterns of urban environments still suggest its closest points of contact with the the divine.  Indeed, the deep reading of the terrain that the Nature in the City cartographer offers to situate the intersection of nature with its urban infrastructure provides a new model to examine the presence of nature in the built world.

5.  For while we are long trained to imagine as architectural landscapes as triumphal achievements, after the conceit of elevated prospective views that magnify the city as human achievement of God-like form–


Jacobo de Barbari, Venetie MD (engraved woodcut perspective map of Venice, 1500)

–we risk perpetuating the urban myth of a space isolated from nature that erase the discovery that the living detail of urban habitats as something of the divine.  And in an age where the from of cities stands to change with global warming and sea-level rise, it’s incumbent to engage and re-examine the city as an environment, for in considering how the city functions as a habitat, less as detached from the world, we can help revise the mythology of the city as separated from the country, or from the variety of creatures, plants, and bugs that contribute to its livability.  And in an era when what a Secretary of the Environment should dedicate attention is still unclear, mapping an urban space that doesn’t account for the flows, currents, and fluid sense of urban space rooted in nature is unconscionable.  If pixelation can dissolve the harmony of the Barbari view,


the detail of the dive into the natural environment in the NITC map provides an opportunity to explore what exists outside, within and beside its built environment.  The availability of rich open datasets possessed by a city as San Francisco provide a counterpoint, allowing the foregrounding of deeper measures of urban change:  mapping such data can better help to embody urban space less reliant on the building blocks of squares, freeways, or paved space, but reveal an intersection of geography with native or indigenous habitat once again encouraged to develop.  Data maps can offer the opportunity and challenge to re-read the city and even to examine areas that foster wildness–and a range of indigenous wildlife–across beaches, urban forests, hills, and in its gardens, beyond parks.  A range of new visualizations of urban space reveal the new ways cities intersect with “natural” space.

The Nature in the City folks have shifted attention toward the many open spaces and gardens in the city, suggesting the forms of vitality San Francisco conserves, despite the challenges of many native inhabitants–from spotted owls to shorebirds like once-threatened snowy plover and the loss of redwoods, by focussing on the species in the city and the Western United States’ largest estuary.  Their map reminds us that as well as being a flyover spot for birds and shorebirds, San Francisco’s Bay is not the only  biodiversity hotspot for large numbers of endangered shorebirds; for the city’s open spaces provide crucial habitat that provides a model at a time of species die-offs and habitat loss–making the map a positive counter-model to such deeply disturbing trends.

Indeed, the city whose living currents they map apart from human life tell a far more positive story than the disappearance of regional watershed whose tidal marsh-lands have contracted by some 90% from 1800 to 2009, as the addition of landfill and diking transformed tidal marsh nineteen times the size of the current San Francisco by nine tenths, leaving much of its former vasst extent in the San Francisco Bay rather than the rich ecology of the delta.

90% decrease of of Bay Area Tidal Marshland, 1850-2009/California Wetlands

The ability to embody a range of open data can foreground and call visual attention to notice the huge diachronic changes in the local environment, or to focus on overlooked living aspects of the current city.

Attempts to embody a range of rich open data can be recast as  a form of resistance and of taking stock of what is often construed a primarily built space.  Indeed, by rehabilitating it as a site of migrations, habitats, and living surface, enlivening a region beyond built constructions., but whose habitats have been nourished by the work of habitat restoration and ecological encouragement undertaken by Americorps and by Nature in the City in San Francisco, starting from an appreciation of migration hot spots around above and in the city, questioning the health of the hoary city/nature divide and inviting us to measure our relation to urban environments by taking a walk in them, or what is left of them, joining Robinson Jeffers on an “unbroken field of poppy and lupin” where horses pasture where “people are a tide/that swells, and in time will ebb, and all/their works dissolve” and we can “indeed decenter our minds from ourselves.”

The layers of the map attend to the overlap between built and ‘natural’ space, and to integrate open datasets of  species can reveal across space.  The third edition of the Nature in the City map foregrounds and helps to discern pathways that move around and in urban space–orienting us to urban ecology in instructive ways around its built space, by focussing on the green space that is maintained in the city in a range of “open spaces” of different scale, from the dunes and shore to urban forests to private gardens not as separate from the city, but as corridors and open spaces to preserve local biodiversity, presenting the living forms of nature coexisting in the city.  The map invites us to explore layers of green space, open space, and built space in San Francisco, a surprising range of local species pop out of within nested habitats, larger than its scale, in ways that use the map’s surface as a form of encouraging attention to the overlooked–and a call to look at–and notice–the overlooked as living parts of a broader ecosystem than most maps attend.

Nautre in the City Centerpiece
Poppy Flower in Pavement.png

By counting and tracking what what exists alongside built space, to reclaim the different patterns that move alongside buildings in San Francisco–from coyote to  hairstreak butterflies or native poppies–and reveal the intersection of built space and broader ecosystems, mapping the city to attend not only to parks and gardens so conspicuously present, but the habitats that intersect around and in its built space, as well as the proximity to underground fault-lines that threaten to undermine its built surface.  And the appearance of the third edition of a spectacular species-centered of Nature and the City’s collation of the environment of the city’s urban space coincided in curious ways with the New York Times‘ remapping of the city’s recent expansive growth atop the liquefaction zones of landfill on the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake.

Whereas the graphic visualization of a mashup superimposing recent structures taller than  provide a basis to assay its overbuilt urban space as part of its nature–and to situate its buildings in a far more cautionary tale about the risks of seismic activity from nearby fault lines–and the difficulty of reconciling the current mapping of built urban space to the nature of geological faults and seismic risk, as if the imagination of architects spurred by a booming real estate market got the better of the undue risks of nearby fault lines.


For although we are increasingly surrounded by a habitat designed for cars, data on species, plant life both re-orient us to and augment our sense of place.  It is a reflection of how the rise of open data promises ways of negotiating an urban space less exclusively than the built environment, however, and of placing the city in natural settings outside the traditional urban view.   A range of static and interactive maps have emerged that grab visual attention in new ways for mapping urban space.  The view of space they offer is oriented less to towering monuments and spires of steel and glass that dot urban areas, or indeed to paved space, than patterns of migration of animals, commuters, sea-level, seismic risk or the underground world of potential liquefaction–to lay claim to attention that disrupts our usual focus on records of built property.  The urban view, often elevated, situates the urban plant as a microcosm of human creation in often triumphalist fashion, the rise of open data provides a basis for unpacking the city that stands to destabilize the position of the viewer, and for looking at what is often overlooked.

For whereas most city maps note clear edges, sharp borders, and crisp divisions to ensure their  legibility, open data–on parks, trees, wildlife sightings, human traffic, cars–challenges our ability to process and draw connections between data in extremely useful ways, that may better orient ourselves to the future of built space–a question that is increasingly on the table–and develop a new sort of visual intelligence to gauge the viability of urban space.  And San Francisco’s Bay Area, recently an important site of greening in America, and of the remaking of the urban space, seems ideally suited to calibrate and take stock of how we are surrounded by actual habitat.  For as such groups as Friends of the Urban Forest, the California Academy of Sciences, and SF Parks have worked to expand and defend “green spaces” of the city in a broader way than parks alone, broadening their appreciation of the role of urban trees, sidewalk gardens, and indeed neighborhood planting events, they have promoted a non-urban sense of the nature in the city and indeed of an “urban forest” that has redefined the city as a habitat–and include the city in the natural world.

As most cosmopolites are increasingly confronted and finding ourselves moving between “non”-places–undefined spaces of transit and liminality, which combine environments but themselves lack defined bounds–airports; highways; websites; hotels; or even tour groups–and look for other places in a decline of public space, we may moreover look at the city and its location as a new space,–less hegemonically mapped or understood as one of government and public administration, but as containing its own natural corridors and environments that are outside the spaces of human government.

The result is a dislocating, but liberating, invitation to measure one’s own relation to urban space–rather than partitioning green pace and built space, maps can open avenues for the shifting conceptualization of relations between nature and cities, often unimaginatively and inadequately demarcated from one another, even for a city like San Francisco, whose distinctive grid is all too often separated from green spaces on its boundary, in ways that the cartographic coloration of both static and web-based maps has tended to reproduce.  Despite the tendency in the 1980s to map the “green city” apart form the “built city”–and focussed on its parks, the importance of understanding spatial continuities of habitat foreground a sense of urban accommodation less anthropocentric in nature but enriching in their density of a new range of information.

San Francisco and Surrounding Bay (1980)

The view of San Francisco assembled over multiple years by the Nature in the City  team maps natural  corridors of habitat use on a survey of all green trees, brush, and grass in the city.  It uses this data invite a new relation to the viewer habituated to street plans as a grid, that attracts viewers’ eyes to its surface in unfamiliar ways to explore the rich palette of its surface to explore the lived environment.  We defamiliarize the city through the space it affords for native species we might not have known–not raccoons, crows, and feral cats, but the intersecting currents of migration that the seven rivers running into the bay nourish, and the kelp forest that attracts whales and marine mammals, to think of the city as an open space, in ways increasingly mandated by the phenomena of global warming and sea-level rise, where the boundaries of urban life cannot be so clearly fixed.  Viewers of the recent map by Nature in the City are invited to investigate a complexly textured relation to water, estuaries, dunes and changing shores by the corridors for habitat they each afford–even in what we habitually map as built environments.

Instead of a focus on the built environment as the city, the recent map invites us to situate the city as a site of ecological change and ecosystems removed from an exclusive focus on the human, but also to call attention to how human decisions can encourage and foster habitats within San Francisco’s urban space in particularly dynamic and beneficial ways.  For starting from a broad sense of urban landcover, developed by both LiDar mapping that is the by-product of the post-9/11 security state, and now used to suggest the security of a green city–

land cover SF

Using such imagery, the inventive folks at Nature in the City have unpacked, over three years and a significant amount of development, what might be best called the “hidden habitat” of the city, putting it in plain view for lucky readers, as a way to reorient their purchase on urban space, in what amounts to a new proposal to see the city as a living habitat as much as a built space.

hidden habitat

In seeking to embody the fluidity of the city as a pictorial surface of habitation, deeply fluid in nature rather than rooted historically in built structures and street plan, in the myth of a timeless city, data on naturalistic observations can be embodied not as discreet pixels on a screen, but to call attention to the health with which urban space is inhabited.  Richard Power’s The Understory describes a deep shift in attitudes to the local landscape that begins by the re-understanding of trees–and indeed the voices of trees–in the landscape that his characters inhabit, and a cultivation of an ability to listen to trees–the ponderosa pine, the cedar, the redwood and others–that have long inhabited forested spaces, and that remain in some northwestern cities, but whose voices most Americans have failed to discern or be able to hear.  The presence of trees, unsurprisingly, provides a basis for the rich habitats that Nature in the City describes in their map, and the data that underlies the map’s illustrational qualities–which are hardly data-centric.

The reorientation to the landscape that Powers’ characters feel revealed before them as they come into contact with the trees is the primary aim of the map, a reorientation to place that disrupts the city to situate it in a larger ecosystem, with intimations of a deep time that the built city hardly registers in its plan–as if to suggest, in its own way, the evanescence of the built environment that might as well vanish from the map, without disturbing the vitality of place  Indeed, as the built environment falls away from Powers’ characters in a moment of liberation that seems almost ecstatic in its communion with the trees of the Western landscape, either in California or Washington–in Stanford University’s quad, trees at night are “otherworldly life-forms . . . from another galaxy, far, far away:  dove tree, jacaranda, desert spoon, camphor, flame, empress, kurrajong, red mulberry” as if an animated surroundings that can be accessed in a deeply instinctual way–the greyspvce of the built environment momentarily falls away in the map’s proposal of revealing an underlying ecosystem that suggests a more appealing human relation to space.

Much as Larry Orman argues that the impact of a map must occur within the first moment of its apprehension–the primary take-away that pops out to the viewer–the impact of the map is immediately apparent in its distribution of green and lack of grey.  As soon as one looks at it offers a take-away of focussing not only the greyspace of the built environment, but the trees that foster its ecosystem.  Such a power in shifting attention from he built to the natural terrain may be a deeply appealing human relation to space–as Powers suggested and as he found it to be–able to call his characters’ instincts out so that they dedicate their life to trees.  The designers of the Nature in the City map suggest a similar Thoreau-ian dedication to looking at and drawing attention to the overlooked, and developing a specific sense of awe in the map, in a counterpart to a medium that is increasingly treated as mundane.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nature in the City designed a map that adopted the techniques Orman personally pioneered at GreenInfo Network of measuring the development of the Bay Area by projecting infrared slides that were originally taken from aerial reconnaissance planes atop two maps to be referenced against poverty, ethnicity, and other census findings on their residents with magic markers, before GIS existed as a readily available tool.  GreenInfo cartographers worked beyond the low-resolution nature of most computer maps to  worked from hand-drawn GIS projections to reveal at-risk regions in the Bay Area, in danger of development, to show audiences  through offset copies that served a sort of ecological samizdat, affirming the need to preserve a Greenbelt to stave off widespread risks of overdevelopment.

The crudely colored offset maps distributed to those alarmed at the loss of greenspace notably identified San Francisco as an urban area almost entirely colored  grey–save for its parks; they  identified the city–during the 1990’s–as open for new housing, rather than as filled with greenspace or open space.  Even in the subsequent maps refined in the visual power of their color palettes, the “city” apart from areas of risks to development, if allowing more greenspace in its form, using GIS to illustrate the risks of urban sprawl, rather than the , but with the agenda to bring computerized mapping to a broader audience of “grassroots” interests, in ways that became GreenInfo Network.

Risks of Urban Development around Bay Area in 1990s/Greenbelt Alliance/GreenInfo Network

The use of orthoimagery to depict the field of tree cover across the city–extending beyond parks to include gardens, street trees, and squares, as well as urban hills, provided a basis to trace the field for a sense of ecstatic wonder at contact with wildlife taxa in the city rendered out of scale as illustrations–expanding the tactile ends of the cartographic message.  Indeed, the placement of images suggests a sense of the discovery of contact with local habitats that the green cover helps sustain.

6.  In contrast to being invited into the warm lived space of the map, the shock value of the rise of skyscrapers in downtown San Francisco is the centerpiece of how the Times website invites viewers to scroll past a prospective view of the destroyed post-earthquake city to find recent high-rises mapped in bright red, above the ruins below.  Although San Francisco was long a low-rise city, the alarms set off by the extrusions provided a point of reflection on the effects of the earthquake, a hundred and ten years after the fact, and the seismological future of San Francisco, or the extent to which it could remain a site for vertical building.  The immediate focus that red-hued extrusions drew to questions of the recent growth of downtown skyscrapers in the delicate grounds of San Francisco’s  liquefaction zone, in contrast, suggests a terrifying image of future catastrophic natural events. Set against the image of 1906 earthquake’s anniversary suggests the danger of the transient nature of built space–and the dangers that human alienation from the environment poses to its residents, as an illogical nature of collective building led to an unprecedented opening of the city’s longstanding tacit building codes. The dangers to which the city has been exposed is suggested by situating the growth of new skyscrapers in relation to the liquefaction areas most likely to fail to support constructions within  areas of landfill, de-centering the city from the human, if for more apocalyptic ends.

liquefactionrisks in red
liq legend

The absolutely terrifying if widely-shared graphic display threatened collapse of downtown skyscrapers and crippling of office buildings as the consequence of wonton construction directly contravening seismic risks:  the buildings that extend beyond six hundred and fifty feet in height pop out for viewers not for the risks they pose to their inhabitants.  The possibility of their debilitation by earthquakes seems to seek put the huge monoliths in their place, and the program for future building, by reminding viewers of the risks of building such skyscrapers at a remove from bedrock, and how nature undergirds the built city.  But by superimposing the extruded images of each tower against the famous aerial photograph of the devastation of the 1906 quake, the visualization foregrounds seismic risk that underscore how cities are no longer able to be mapped as separate from nature–if in a more panicked and alarmist way, questioning the relation of the rush of urban development given San Francisco’s well-known seismic risk, but forcing us to negotiate the concrete data on risk and inviting disaster by departing from a long history of low-rise building that acknowledged natural risks of such hubristic urban development.

For the map of buildings suddenly appears quite scarily to be suddenly out of synch with its site, raising questions about the stability that the sandy ground of mid-Market and downtown by casting them in an bright red, to question how the mixed use skyscrapers recently unveiled as the pride of SF were approved–seeing them as  sites for future danger and paralysis disabled in their electricity after the Big One comes, if they do not collapse.  The journalist’s job is to raise questions of the health of the current state of things, and orient readers to the question of public dangers.


The quite different sort of open data of species and their sightings that the far greener map of Nature and the City suggests the ethical nature of attending not to the division of natural dangers and built environment, but to celebrate the human relation to the natural world, and to learn to embrace natural diversity.  The provocation to consider the transience and dangers of nature Coming on the heals of an inspiring and expanded City Nature Challenge of 2018 which invited amateur naturalists in over seventy cities to share wildlife observations  over two weekends, the charge to “look for nature in their cities” that was first a contest between San Francisco and Los Angeles has provided a global  marking of Spring by two weekends of photographing and classifying species, the inspiring synthesize of historical and current data suggest a deep time of the ecosystems by which San Francisco is and has been shaped.

The maps however challenge our sense of cities as separate spaces–and images of human creation–whose asphalt surfaces of soaring structures demand maps for us to navigate.  But in privileging and prioritizing the navigation of urban space by car, have we collectively come to forget–or indeed erased–other tools of way finding that coexist amidst the structures we have built?   If so, what maps might best work to encourage the replanting and resettling of native species in cities–from rooftop gardening to planting street trees and shore plants, as much as parks, and creating new spaces for urban wildness?  Rather than delimit the sites of “nature” in “the city,” the engaging map orients viewers to how urban space intersects with a broader habitat and lived environment that urban inhabitants want to feel increasingly connected to.  Indeed, perhaps the new sense of the city of San Francisco as having no real bounds–but extending south to San Jose and north almost to Davis or to Sacramento, as a sort of unit linked by asphalt highways, may suggest a new sense of looking for nature in our own semi-urban space.

The ability to gather new data about the city suggests that a bounded image of urban identity is dangerously incomplete.

7. The participatory accumulation of open data provided by websites like  iNaturalist offers a means to shift our relation to space, and explore the city with new eyes.  Indeed, the questions of how to use open space in cities–and to restore local habitat–is both particularly of the moment in San Francisco– which perhaps unsurprisingly won the challenge.  For the data compiled by amateur naturalists allow a different curiosity about the urban environment that helped distinguish this Nature in the City map–the third edition in fifteen years–and offer a far more comprehensive basis to orient ourselves to cities.  Indeed, the point-data of recent observations of taxa iNaturalist helps to compile allows–even on the Google Maps platform it employs–a more detailed and varied topography of nature in the corridors of trees and wetlands of a city in ways we might never navigate.

To be sure, many observations are clustered in its parks, where people travel to photograph and locate nature,  from birders to amateur naturalist.  But the place-marks suggest the broad palette of investigation to map nature in the city in a more dynamic and detailed image of its ecosystem, not only to point people to parks.

SF iNaturalist overview

iNaturalist, San Francisco observations of taxa/City Nature Challenge 2018

SF iNaturalist

iNaturalist, San Francisco and Bay, terrain view/City Nature Challenge/2018

–and indeed the broader basis for how nature populates the Bay Area, in ways that offer a wonderful record not only of observed wildlife, but of the eagerness of amateur naturalists to take stock of the many  taxa and flora that inhabit their own space–and raise questions about new senses of continuity and habitation. For even if the markers of naturalistic observations can seem disembodied, they can gain new power when returning attention of viewers to the density of local habitats across urban space as a constellation which multiple species engage.

Bay Area iNaturalist

Although these points may be somewhat disturbingly disembodied, even in aggregate they suggest the habitat that can be mapped over our urban space, and the benefits of acknowledging its existence and expanse–and the guide it offers for future gardening, insertion of native plants, and open space in the city.  When viewed in combination with recent LiDAR data of the tree canopy  measured by orthoimagery by the SF Parks, adapting the surveillance tools developed in our post-9/11 Age of Surveillance, we might assemble a clearer picture of the corridors of habitat that serve as crucial connectors of regions of San Francisco by creating a template and base layer for discerning the connectivity paths in the cityscape we see as largely paved:   open city data provides the base map, indeed, to reexamine the urban space and the habitats it continues to afford.

Lidar Data SF Trees-Sharp.png.jpg

Through a  range of augmented spatial data sets and detailed on the ground observations of naturalists, savvy in the ways of data, an image of San Francisco emerged removed from a primary emphasis on human habitation.  Rather than orienting one to the built environment as a primary focus of how we inhabit space, in the tradition of maps that celebrate the human construction of built space, to orient viewers to how regional ecosystems shape our experience of an urban place–viewing space not as a paved urban environment, but a site of a surprisingly expanding range of native species exist and migrate.

8. The resulting portrait effectively calls viewers’ attention to what is a “deep map” and a sense of “deep space” demanding sustained attention to detect and investigate that challenge us to reconsider how mapping skills can enhance spatial awareness, at a time when map servers may have dulled our abilities to interact with a broad geospatial environment, by circumscribing the geospatial to a select view of roadways and paths–a limited notion of navigation, quite out of synch with how we actually inhabit space when most attuned to it,  extending the mandate for mapping Nature in the City has pursued beyond pointing people to parks.

Perhaps the routinizing of walking, driving, and commuting that may have shaped our outsourcing of way finding to Google Maps and iMaps, interacting more with our phones or GPS than paper maps, indeed expand the cognitive relation to maps, both beyond our cel phones and through the distributions of data that they help afford.  The map from Nature in the City attends to mutable boundaries and surface of urban space–viewed less as a settled landscape–no buildings, streets, or even roads and highways are noted here, but as an elastic surface, extending across a deep history of time, as the recent static map made to suggest the seismic risks inherent in the San Francisco landscape printed to commemorate the 1906 earthquake offers a similar deep history–with a focus on risk.  While the dangers of overbuilding in liquefaction zones of downtown San Francisco’s Financial District, North Beach, and the Embarcadero, whose deep terrain bear the traces of their sandy shores and in ways that is rarely taken into account in the city’s recent rush to developing its downtown.

Editors who prepaped the recent Nature in the City map ecological resilience in the city to stake out not an image of urban fixity, but the fluidity of its “endless forms”–adopting the evocative phrasing Charles Darwin coined to appreciate the extended temporal space in which the evolution of animal life might be charted.  They used a similar sense of “endless forms” to suggest the dynamism of cartographic form, and to chart the city’s nature outside its paved space, and evoke the multiple layers of habitation that unfold in any place–beyond the parks and other open spaces of the city.  They worked to suggest the new ways that people might orient themselves and to notice the remaining “natural spaces” in the urban grid, suggesting a city connected by bird migration, corridors of habitat, watand open seas.  The existence of rich estuaries, sandy shores, and creeks that run through the current city provide an opportunity for reflecting on its development, both by landfill or overbulding, but help orient us to the human impact on space, and the possibility for shaping natural spaces in a city whose eastern shoreline contains both a lot of landfill, as well as restored habitat for shorebirds, jackrabbits, and sand-dwelling plants, which the Nature in the City map can help orient viewers. who seek to gain a different relation to its urban space beyond the crisp grey and green outlines offered by Google Maps.


Traced Image of City’s Sandy Liquefaction Zone of Particular Seismic Risk

A sense of the fluid space of the city shaped over a long time was understood less in terms of its entry and exist by humans commuters who populate the city’s space–as a wonderful visualization in which Manhattan is shown in black, isolated, pulsing with the daily arrival of workers unable to afford to live near their jobs over the working week–

Manhattan Population Explorer/ created and designed by Justin Fung

–reflected in the diurnal ebbs and flows of turnstile traffic in the city subway that register the intensity of waves of New Yorkers’ weekly commute.

The scope of both maps shift from a celebration of the anthropogenic space that sees the flow of humans in underground commute corridors shape urban space to the dialogue tension between built and natural worlds:  the different datasets that they employed orient viewers to open space.  In his map of New York, Justin Fung used geolocated data of turnstile counts into subway stations over a week to shape a fluid visualization of population flows that suggest the human city, as if the flows of inhabitants replace the buildings in which they work.  Viewed over a daily slider bar that extend across a week, the clearly anthropomorphic image of urban space is a wonderful displacement of the skyscrapers built on bedrock to the people who work in the city

But the quite clever and aesthetically striking GIF may obscure the way that any city is shaped by its natural surroundings and range of ecosystems in which it lies and may be mapped.  The more fluid mappings of San Francisco both over an expanded area of time, without a cyclical component of a GIF-like revelation of cycles, to wrestle with a sense of “deep time” that visualizations can start to map from a range of local data.  The result seems to invite viewers to unpack the ring of pressures, presence, and importance of deep forces that shape urban environments rather than see them as a record of human presence, to see that presence as more contingently engaged with the natures which the built city either elects or elects not to engage.

The  similarly fluid but far less anthropocentric image of urban space of San Francisco in the Nature in the City map suggest a basis to explore space as a butterfly, coyote, or cormorant.  If the pulsating GIF of New York’s commuters is appealing because of its striking similarity to a systolic ventricular contraction and diastolic expansion, the map ties vitality of urban space to the intensity of its commerce during the working week–here quantified and measured for map-readers in the commuters coursing in the city underground–in the Manhattan Population Explorer.  In contrast, the vitality surrounding the built city is tracked less in work-weeks than the long term in the two recent maps of San Francisco–both of which expand the focus of a static map by showing activities around built space.

9.  The fluidity of space is shown in the vitality and seismic safety in the subject of two maps I want to comparing for how they suggest attempts to map urban vitality and change less aligned with its human inhabitants.  But it also reveals the intensity of efforts of natural restoration that have expanded the areas of habitat in a city as unique as San Francisco , where limited urban growth and expansion have transformed most of the outlying regions of the Bay Area, while leaving many of the parks, urban forests, and open spaces and neighborhood parks preserved, and rooftop gardens have encouraged the maintenance of urban greenspace, and allowed for the growth of managed areas for biodiversity, unlike many cities.

The broader purview of the maps of San Francisco–a city far more tied to nature and to the fluidity of natural forms–gesture to geological time and the migration of species across seasons, to suggest the different experience of western coastalism, or coastal environments.  Rather than focus on the terrors of projected sea-level change, the threat of fires along wildland-urban interfaces, or the consequences of drought, both suggest the need to integrate sensitivity to natural change in maps, in ways map of most other cities may not capture so fully.  The alternate images of a city defined by its ecoystems or by deep-lying shifts of tectonic plates and underground low-lying fault lines, often forgotten by planners who redefined their relation to building codes, or the rich ecosystems around which commuters move, present an enriched concept of space and place, less tied to building patterns and urban development, in ways that seem more ethical in their purchase on an inter-connected space.

The result is to extend the pedagogical function of the map as a project of public education, and learning, by shifting the relation at which data lies in the map in relation to the viewer, as much as to place a premium on its legibility:  we are invited to engage the data in a delightfully embodied way, resisting the disembodied data deposited in the overlays of most web-based maps.  The exultant result is quite data-rich, but not at all data-centric:  untethered from the constraints of data, and the pointillist authority of the pixel, we appreciate the detail of the pictorial map evoked in its surface, over which we are invited to pour with keen attention and attentiveness, as much as shocked as we imagine the collapse of the tall buildings–from the Salesforce Tower tot he Transamerica  building–whose electricity would potentially suddenly be disrupted by a quake.

houses with salesforce

And although when the New York Times adopted the new set of USGS data on liquefaction zones that stretch across most of downtown San Francisco to map recent ambitions of building in an area of severe and historical seismic risk, the striking end-product that projected three-dimensional extrusions of each buildings, situating them as lone witnesses standing like holographic sentinels over an aerial photograph of the ruins of the 1906 earthquake, similarly suggests a temporally deep space,  if one focussed on one single incident in somewhat glibly simplified terms, to ask bluntly if the site of the earthquake has somehow forgotten the event that shaped the evolution of its urban space in permitting the violation of local building codes.

There may be a need to excavate this sense of deep space, given the limits of memory in most data-centric maps.  The richness of “deep space” in the “nature” map captures enriched perspective on place it offers viewers–orienting them to the space of its waterways, springs, watersheds, and shoreline, with an eye to how each layer of geomorphology redefined and will continued to redefine its habitats in ways that open some deep continuities over time.  The density of detail that suggests an appreciation of place as an ecosystem, rather than a point, recalls the relation to place cultivated in Rebeca Solnit’s marvelous atlases of urban sites, which as much as presenting way finding guides compile the layered human habitation of place that treat the map as a form of exploration.  As Solnit’s maps exult in the possibilities of cartographical legibility which are increasingly limited in the standardized and somewhat sanitized formats of our own servers and data maps, uniting and adapting maps, overlays, illustration and ortho-imagery of aerial photography in a particularly sensitive synthetic register of place from several perspectives, uniting terrain, watersheds, and bathymetric readings in a broad and deeply textured record of habitats.

The Nature in the City map is a site of reorientation to place, loosening its vital forms from the abstract point-based readings of GPS.   The city is mapped through a sense of perpetual movement of rocks, animals, birds, flowering plants, and insects across space in Nature in the City‘s new map of San Francisco, which ably shifts our attention from the built environment the focus of most city maps to the harder to map edges of the city, both in space and in time–extending to the past and into the future, tracing the shared space of organisms where what we see as a city exists as an ecosystem.  And the edges of San Francisco make it an especially opportune target for mapping–both from it shifting shoreline, to the fossils of deep-sea radiolaria that can be found in its rocky peaks of chert, and the more recently arrived plants or species that have been attracted by human habitats, as seal, to the migration paths of the salmon that have long swum up its streams and whales that have foraged in the kelp forests on its coasts, to the urban forests and hidden streams and waterways in the city that distinguish it from the bedrock schist of  many other metropoles.  The seismic risks we often associate with the place are not so clearly referenced as the deep history of its evolution.

The stimulating counter-cartography is both pictorially abundant and solidly based on current datasets, that allow us to discover unbuilt spaces of the city that are usually ignored in the anthropocentric maps of built spaces that are largely or entirely paved.  Most maps have great difficulty in recording what goes on at the city’s margins, and a-historically represent the city as a timeless complex of buildings, frozen in time, as if to deny their historicity, and glorify the construction of place as a human achievement.  The mapping of San Francisco is often no different in its sense of local encomia that meld the built and unbuilt as in printed Renaissance maps that champion the built environment as the true human achievement of a sanctified space–


Jacobo de’ Barbari, VENETIE MD (1500)

–that both draw wealth from arriving ships as a mercantile center, but was also elegantly isolated from the waters that surround it, even if nourished and fed by the ships at its edges.  Even in most recent OSM maps of cities, the mapping of building heights by extrusions suggest a built panorama that displaces the natural surroundings, or presents the city dotted with bits of light flat green, with only limited attention to the non-built setting.

NYC ext.png

OpenStreetMap, Three-Dimensional Map of New York City (2015)

Both data rich maps of San Francisco use open data to orient viewers outside a hierarchical perspective on place of geographical maps–and explode the illustrative power of local maps by data that places the viewer in close relation to the “nature” of place than the aerial or perspectival view.  If such views place space as subject to human vision, the fiction of visual supremacy and coherence is disrupted in both the Nature in the City  maps and the earthquake vulnerability of the cutting edge visualizations by which the New York Times invited the nation to orient itself to San Francisco’s newly built downtown to commemorate the 1906 eartquake.  If the supremacy of the aerial view is questioned in each, they do so in very different visual strategies of inviting viewers to explore the situating the relation of place to the natural world that such maps invert the celebration of built space.

All maps are selective, but the selection of built environment alone impoverishes our sense of place in ways both maps seem in different ways–and to different ends–to address.  And the maps of the built constructions of the city leave out what are often the most important things that move in its structures, lie on the edges of the urban environment, or create new edges, breaks, and interruptions within the asphalted pavement of streets–the cracks of urban topography, that’s where the light shines in.  The attention tot he far richer intersections between the open spaces that exist on the margins of buildings and in the interstices of the built environment offer a far more ethical and ethically enriched experience. As metropoles shrink, new possibilities of creating green spaces in the city and relating the city to nature are increasingly entertained. Such attempts have brought us to energize us to see the city in new ways than a built environment, moreover, as cities expand to extra-urban areas:  in part, the increased remove of the city from “nature,” and the exclusive focus in maps on the built environment, has led us to become aware of how much is excluded from an image of urban life.

But the dichotomy between “nature” and “city” is perhaps preventing us from attending to how green spaces can be cultivated at the same time as periods of intense urban growth, even when cities face problems of accommodating new residents.  San Francisco has hardly shrunk–in fact, the reverse is true, with rising pressures on many neighborhoods to accommodate residents in an era of ever escalating rents, increasing numbers of evictions, as the scissors of a real estate market create a far more populated place that few can afford.  But the over-building of its downtown was suggested in a striking data-rich pictorial visualization of increase seismic risks that was printed to invited readers on the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake, in a map focussed on dangers of the density of the downtown expansion–and the embedded nature of the city’s fabric in deep geological shifts,

Roughly contemporaneous approaches of rendering such data–both in the recent map of  downtown skyscrapers in The New York Times  that asks if we have forgotten the disaster of 1906 and the more detailed, on the ground maps  cultivation of existing urban habitat in open spaces.  Both engage attention on urban growth, focussing on the man-made coasts of the city to draw attention to the rich habitat it still manages to offer native species–

north beach

Nature in the City (2018)

–or the stretch of towers that have recently redefined its skyline–stretching from the Salesforce Tower to the Transamerica pyramid–whose pronounced peaks and valleys rest on what was long recognized as unstable ground.  The mash-up of a past view of the destroyed landscape flattened by offshore tremors over a hundred years ago against the current crop of skyscrapers pose the related question of how anthropocentric our sense of the possibilities of urban building reflect an almost inexplicable alienation from place, and from the seismic threats that building in a recognized liquefaction zone poses, but sees “nature” as posing a perpetual threat to the city’s built environment, rather than optimistically suggest the benefits of appreciating their complementarity.

Towers: Sales Force to Transamerica

New York Times, April 17 (2018)

Both maps sift through the vast amounts of open data to offer new forms and formats of urban engagement in concretely visual form, challenging us to develop a new sense of the pictorial coherence and navigation of our sense of urban space beyond a perspective plan.  By exploiting the vast image banks and data that are increasingly available to compose a detailed image of place in an era that demands increased environmental awareness.  

If the first warns of the dangers of building towers in a region whose proximity to fault lines cannot be forgotten, the second tilts viewers attention from the human-built to the unbuilt spaces of San Francisco which stand, even in an age of what seems overbuilding, as a biodiversity hotspot, where then restoration as sites of animal and plant habitat coexist in the built city.  Both turn from the questions of urban growth alone, in other words, to focus our attention on the compatibility of urban growth with the place of nature that has often gone unmapped in plans for expanding a built environment.  Nature lies less the specter of fault-lines, however, in the map in the header to this post, than in the islands of open spaces that preserve corridors of wildlife whose restoration offers viable habitat within the city we so often see only as built.  And both try to wrestle with the questions of urban development, in different ways.

As increasing amounts of open data are increasingly available about cities, the need to offer such a deep perspective on the temporal axis seems critically important in cartographic ethics, and the richness of both maps suggests the limits of using a slider bar.  For time is a crucial element omitted from the hope that data will provide a means to measure the impact of the growth of urban buildings but offer  a site for transforming civic space–both by fostering engagement in civic space, and awareness of urban ecosystems–are increasingly explored.  And what better way to do so than through elegantly designed maps?  While we’ve long drawn lines between the city and the outdoors, as cities grow to mega-regions, and loadspace overwhelms open space, the notion of such a division makes less sense.

The West begins where the pavement ends” once defined a counter-geography of open lands in the American west.  But as paved space spreads across the nation, its ubiquity makes it impossible to see paved land cover as being so antithetical to nature.  There seems an urgency to mapping intersections between open and paved spaces, outside of  a clear division between the country and the city, if only to gain some bearings of where we stand:  is the absence of assessing the impact of paving is to some extent hampered by the training of our eyes to look at paved space on maps, which have the dangerous effect of deeply diminishing our sense of eco-literacy or ecological change?

Both forms of mapping foreground an abundance of nature in the city of San Francisco–underground and above ground–in ways that may not be inherently surprising.  But both also shocks the viewer in its outsized proportions, that run against the basic decorum of the static map or maps of inhabited space.  Surely the surprise of a city able to contain and even cultivate the green lands–and even nurturing plants and wildlife–seems sharply removed from the rush of urban environments, the noise of cars, freeways, and rush of urban life.  For in selecting the abundance of habitats possible in an urban space, the “Nature in the City” project invites one’s eyes rest on the map–without feeling overwhelmed by the intensity of the urban environment, from the coast lines of the city, circled by pelicans, whales, salmon, harbor seals, sand dollars, shorebirds as avocets, and, within its terrain, to coyote and butterflies situates the city not only as built space, but as a geographical nexus of lived habitats that intersect–and how one indeed shaped the other–


–as a living locus of migration,–rather than orient viewers to its built space.

Peeling back the composition of this map, the confluence of backing, data sources, and support reveal the congregation of non-profits dedicated to the conservation and protection of open spaces in San Francisco, and an activist environmental tradition dedicated to documenting and preserving local “bioregions” beside its built space:  if Peter Barstow founded the non-profit in 2005, to inspire a conservation movement, the momentum of the Parks Department, Presidio trust, California Academy of Sciences, Exploratorium and San Francisco Foundation have helped promote the project of connecting map readers to the city, as the Nature Conservancy long supported drawing our attention to the relation of nature and the high rises of urban space.

Indeed, considering cities not as sequestered from nature by blankets of urban smog and limits, but sites whose carbon footprints can be reduced starts from actively fostering habitat at time when half the world’s population lives in urban or urbanized environments, which cover only 3% of the world’s surface.  The broader crisis of urban ecology led me to be immediately attracted to the sensitive condensation of wisdom and engagement of the environment in a set of pictorial maps of San Francisco.  The map’s poetics–not limited to point data, despite its relative richness, rests in shifting the readers attention toward its open spaces, appealing to a sensory reading of the environment akin to taking a walk in wilderness–as Henry David Thoreau–and inviting them to notice insects, birdcalls, or windblown trees–the very sensory characteristics often absent from a map of paved space, which privilege routes above wondering, and a rectilinear organization of space, rather than the specificities of a lived place that our maps often ignore or overlook–but include more than a wanderer might ever be expected to notice on foot.

11.  The warm, inviting colors of static maps reflect a deep desire to remap the city in different ways than mapping softwares allow, or the tyranny of the grid, and engage the engaging ways that they use open data to render place in distinctive ways that could be more easily inhabited.  The rich existence of habitats–and the deep view of sites of nature in space, making us look back to the rich ecosystems of what were once tidal wetlands in the very area that is now overpaved.  To be sure, the map doesn’t suggest quite the historical depth of a landscape whose grassy lands were once populated by roaming camels, zebras, and wooly mammoths, but by excavating the rich habitat suggested in the nutrient-rich lands of tidal wetlands, long reconfigured since 1850, it suggests continuities in wild lands, as much as among wildlife.


Selective foregrounding of the relations between ground surface impermeability, which in the country covers not only 4.1 million miles of paved highways–or 8.3 million lane miles–but corridors extending within miles of the roads, but land cover change that suggest a massive urban expansion, affecting 65,000 sq mi of coastal regions between 1996-2010, an area the size of the state of Florida, and 13% of the Gulf of Mexico or 15% of the southeastern United States, per the Coastal Change Analysis Program (C-CAP).  If viewers can explore the levels of ground cover change across the coastal regions–regions where landcover change has produced huge consequences of runoff in data maps, to assess the potential impact of ground cover change on coastal communities, the local attempts to balance such massive land cover change suggest ways of keeping in touch with local habitat.

The question of local landcover that has restricted increasing islands of green is even apparent in the city of San Francisco, surrounded by more vital habitat most other American cities, if not nearly as green as Vancouver BC.    The massive effects of overpaving has created a habitat for cars, and its greyed out urban growth makes the land cover shifts over the century of the city’s once largely sandy terrain even if most of the development is only at low or medium intensity, save the paved downtown–

land cover SF.png
forest:high intensity:med intensiy.png

NOAA C-Cap Land Cover Classifications/ESRI

–but questions the problems of leaving such an off-putting dominance of grey spaces of medium, high, and low intensity development as a complete picture of the urban enivornment.

The mandate for Nature in the City was of course to present a deeply engaging surface of habitat, as much as pure pixelated space, from the casting as the shoreline as active habitat, often overlooked in records of its built space–

north beach

–to the detailed depiction of the city as a palimpsest that overflows with undetected nature, not only poppies and thistles, but underwater crustaceans (oysters–the vestige of a once thriving oyster colony in the bay, shorebirds, and fossils of invertebrates, in ways that invite us not only to remap the urban environment but to try to explore its wealth of biodiversity in easily legible ways, that call attention to the natural corridors of trees, low-lying water and sand that encouraged and afforded local habitats.

Centerpiece NITC

Nature in the City

The complex constellation of wetlands, green space, coastal currents and bathymetric lines reveals a mosaic that is nested in both high intensity and medium intensity development.  In San Francisco, open space and some stretches of bare land and forest contained in pockets of a landscape of development, that have allowed many to preserve not only remnants of five hundred indigenous plant varieties, but helped continue to nourish an ecosystem still particular to it in contrast to other cities.  If paved and cover in cities is estimated at 30-40%–35% on average for California’s capital; 30% in Portland and 24% of New York City– the increasing availability of open data and urban orthoimagery allow us to drill into the local data, and resolve questions of our relation to the built environment.

And even as impervious pavement covers a growing portion of the country, providing what the Center for Watershed Protection coyly called a “habitat for cars,” of streets, parking lots, and highways, the illustration of the survival of habitat in creeks, lakes, and open spaces, is not only ethically important.  The layers of habitat revealed in the Nature in the City –a title that reverses the privileging of paved space in most of our navigational maps–suggests the deep history of natural habitats that are only now being recovered by endangered species, and that long distinguished the unique contact with nature in the city on the Pacific.

Is it possible that the maps of paved space we rely on prevent us from wandering, and actively engaging the world with our minds?    This map allows the abilities of the saturation of sensory stimulation of the solitary walker, who,  removed from conscious acts of spatial measurement, responds to the non-built world as a tranquil space; it invites its user to discover the hidden Isle de St. Pierre that is lying in the city’s paved neighborhoods–not only Golden Gate Park, but the Presidio; Mission Bay; Bernal Heights; Inner Richmond; even Civic Center and the Western Addition–that are so often rendered as grey space on our iPhones as we move in urban space, glued to their screens, or the voices that remind us how to navigate its streets, rather than to the native flora and fauna that whose abundance are so unique to define a place.


Fremontodentron/James Gaither

The paths it suggest aren’t recognizably human–if it does allow one to follow the trails marked in orange on its surface, as if to urge one to explore off the road and on foot the rich habitat that remains.  The reveries of walking are not guided itineraries, but invite us to wander in mapped space to discover how its non-built spaces afford somewhat hidden habitats, if it is not so strikingly evident an intersection between mountains, lakes, streams, and forest.


Former monastery in St. Pierre island, Switzerland where Jean-Jacques Rousseau lived from September to December 1765, when he wrote Reveries of the Solitary Walker

The French Enlightenment philosophe Jean Jacques Rousseau had extolled the enjoyment on walks in enumerating and describing the plants in flower that he saw, and moving from these detailed observations of the natural world around him in St. Pierre to what he called the “complete picture,” the images of thistles, a detailed image of urban ecology, watersheds, the range of rare breeds of magnolia, among the greatest selection of which in America live in San Francisco, California poppies, and coastal scrub and other native plants like huckleberry and California Sage encountered in the city.  But unlike Rousseau’s solitary walker who wanders in nature, the map offers a point far less rooted in the human observer.  Rather, it offers a point of departure for the ecosystem of a mosaic of over five hundred plants in the peninsula, that attract a broad range of insects, birds, and animals, extending back to a prehistoric ancient ecosystem, of significant biodiversity–and here recalls Darwin’s notion of an open and endless cartographic form to do so.

For who are the inhabitants of place anthat actually have long defined it, the maps so gently asks of its readers, humans or the longstanding trees, plants, and complex habitat that we might do well toa ctually attend to, experience, and observe?


California poppy (Eschscholzia california); tidy tips (Layia platyglossa); Gillia tricolor; Phacelia campanularia/Don Mahoney

As we use increasingly limitless maps that pan across the city, saturated with data we can never process, that allow us to pan, zoom in, zoom out, we have internalized a sense of a virtual “zooms cape” as much as a landscape, that links an array of different sorts of land cover in pixellated form.  The grid relaying satellite imagery to local servers offers limited reference points by which to assess the land cover change, as we need to to so most; the uniformity of our cartographical literacy tends to wipe out records that are rich with the past in their illusion of a completeness.  Departing from what we might encounter in a walk, the maps reinforce the possibilities of encountering nature at first hand, offering a sort of promise for detection signs of natural creatures and plants that distinguish the city’s distinctive topography.

The focus on the paved areas of San Francisco are often seen as making the city a biodiversity hotspot–if one separates the ancient biodiversity of its wild past to the paved present, and contrast the contrast between the “nature” of the indigenous landscape of the peninsula against the built out urban grid, where are condemned to live on paved streets.  But the dominance of the grid in the aerial view erases the ecosystems that continue to thrive, or the ability to move from inspiration in the particular to broader reflection on the universal questions of the city’s future as a site for urban organisms.

But rather than indulge in a “before” and “after” sort of fantasy, that seems deeply historical, despite the contrast between the pre-1750 image that reveals a bucolic San Francisco’s open spaces, streams and estuaries, with the overpaved city which defined its bearing on a grid–


Wild Equity Institute/Nancy Morita

—the map invites us in, to the ecological richness of a sense of deep time in the city, across the remolding of the coasts that were defined by landfill, less in terms of a fall from a state of nature–an ahistorical narrative–than an appreciation of the arrival of new plants–who can deny the pleasures of Campbell’s Magnolia, or Saucer Magnolia, the oysters introduced in the bay, or coyote that  followed humans to the city, to enjoy and appreciate the actual palimpsest of the city as it exists, not only with rich manzanita, and even palms and eucalypts, beside more native plants that offer a deep view of the mobility of nature across space, as well as the indigenous habitat, taking the abundance of “endless forms” in San Francisco more seriously scientifically.


Nature in the City: Spring in San Francisco

10.  Despite the power of the “compare and contrast” parallel images–recalling the parallel projection of pairs of slides in so many art history courses given in lecture halls that has created the DNA of many art historical arguments–the broader purchase of the expansive sort of habitat that maps onto the city in ways we rarely chart.   Instead of viewing nature in a monolithic “now you see it, now you don’t!” fashion, the constant motion of the lived city is what the pictorial map tries to bring to the surface from its built environment, offering a rich historical appreciation of place that seems particularly indebted not only to environmental thought but to Solnit’s intentional enrichment of our cartographic imagination, in constantly innovative atlases of urban space orient us to their heterogeneity, shifting compositions, and layered morphologies.

For rather than positing a “dot” that exists in one site or has strict boundaries.  Part of the beauty of the Nature in the City map is the similar sense of engagement it plays with the bounds of San Francisco county–noted on the map–that notes the way we bound space and the constant motion of life that is in it, and that maps have such a hard time calling to the fore.  The comprehensive abilities of map tiles that arrive on our devices in our pockets imply a false comprehensiveness that the Nature in the City map challenges.  If hand-holds may restrain us from interacting with the every environments they describe, and the circumscription of bound “rest areas” and parks, the combination of LiDar readings of street trees provides a detailed record of the landscape we have built, and with which animals interact, as if to restore our agency to an ecosystem by rendering details that foster what one can only call augmented eco literacy.  By integrating different data-based forms of LiDar, orthoimagery and detailed observation of the ground of a region we thought well-mapped, it shifts attention from a “habitat for cars” that continues to dominate so much of our landscape, constraining other habitats and lived space, and use open data toward open spaces within the built city, and drill beneath the overlays of the data-rich maps we are used to consult day to day.

If the mapping of the edges of built space, and the margins of man-made landscapes on which we focus and replicate in most maps, makes it hard to see the complex relations between the broader ecosystem and the built city, or the city’s constructions and its nearby faults, both maps bring us to move, mentally, to map a broader web of inter-connections and associations, one through close attention to the individual poppy, standing erect at the base of the map, as if emblematic of the fragile but persistent place of nature in the city, and the urban ecosystem, or tracing more shocking lines between the sandy soil that has made built structures more vulnerable to seismic shocks and the recent spate of buildings whose cores barely reach bedrock.  Only in making such connections can we really come to think, after all, about the future of built space, and do so in less starkly oppositional terms between the grayness of the built environment and the natural world it tends to exclude.

These maps provide helpful tools for thinking about the future of cities.

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

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