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 fail to orient ourselves to the extent of urban environments and compromise our demand for livable space by relying on maps’ abbreviated conventions.

For doesn’t any map server foreground 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?  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, with offers new symbolic tools built on data to explore the urban environment.  The distinct base-map that Nature in the City organization has adopted to invite us to view San Francisco in its most recent revisioning of the green spaces that are distinguish the City by the Bay, rather than the rush of commuting and explosion of jobs and rents for which the Bay Area may be increasingly known–

–by using a 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

–by which to situate the existing habitat that Nature in the City has allowed to encourage, and would allow viewers to focus 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–

5852167Ryker 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.pngSan 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.

imageBay 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.

haight.pngSan 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, Distribution of 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?.pngfrom 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 SFNature 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–

Jacopo_de'_Barbari_-_Plan_of_Venice_-_WGA01270Jacobo 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.

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

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