Natures of San Francisco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Fostering of a new relation to urban habitat has left the Bay Area and city far less insularly defined in relation to nature than most other places in the United States: Rebecca Solnit rightly observed the old geographers were wrong only in one–if one significant–way in describing California as an island, which extends to San Francisco. In California, one finds, still, significant surviving greenspace, cultivable land, and open space, that while under threat, in proportion to much of the eastern seaboard extends to San Francisco and much of northern California, and significant parts of the southern coast. If the state is known for giant redwood forests and sequoia groves, strikingly significant habitats enter San Francisco’s own natural ecology in its urbanized space.

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

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

Nature in the City/2018

Although ecosystems are the most living areas of cities, they remain hidden from view on city maps of the built landscape or paved roads that define the mobilty of “urban” life.  

But we often fail to orient ourselves to the extent of urban environments in most maps–especially as we privilege the images of the city seen from the air, as if on landing and take-off, rather than on the ground. The changing vulnerability of cites to climate change and extreme weather has directed increased attention to the vulnerability and instability of urban space, in ways we are still taking stock through maps, the question of what maps best orient us to the future of the city have provoked increased attention from maps of sea-level change, to maps of vulnerability to earthquakes and seismic risks. No city has been more subject to such demands for recalibrating its lived space, perhaps, than San Francisco, the city that is most conspicuously built on several fault lines–so much that the expansive recent downtown rebuilding is cast as a “seismic trap” or a disasters waiting to happen–showing the spate of high-rise construction–

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

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

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

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

William Wordsworth worried about psychically degrading nature on man of the “outrageous stimulation” city-dwellers sought–as if urban life provoked a change in the nervous constitution. A better example of the stimulation of the urban imaginary cannot be found than in the transformation of the skyline by vertical building,–even if the creation of urban canyons wasn’t what Wordsworth meant–the fear that a quest for excesses of sensory stimulation would fail to meet an “inborn inextinguishable thirst/Of rural scenes,” the question of how to compensate the losses that Wordsworth saw as the primary casualties of the build environment has found a new source of nourishment.

For the marriage of art and cartography to which Nature in the City aspires in its recent map of San Francisco seeks to register the unique combination of natures that we often can lose sight of in San Francisco, or may be in danger of missing. This includes lush parks contain live oaks, man-made lakes, sprawling botanical gardens, and mountainous natural preserves, which the fold-out map seeks to integrate in its mosaic of green. In ways that still pop out at the viewer, even in a static form, the ambitious 2-D project pushes against our addiction to phones and handheld navigation, to orient us to a space filled in of a green urban environment. The image that the fold-out map involves the viewer seeks to put you in a new space of the city, by cutting-edge LiDAR technologies. For if it mediates modern technologies measuring tree density and canopy height, it captures a space that recasts the paved landscapes as something more like a living habitat–rather than the potted plants that Gass described most city-dwellers as spectators, or urban zoos where we watch great cats from behind bars that confirm their remove from a living habitat.

Indeed, by putting nature into a place that you can be a part of, the animals or wildlife that dot the map suggest a direct access to a space that you can be a part of, and an existing set of habitats that you can understand, as a sort of effort of public science that draws awareness to the past shorelines of the city–as the 1854 map that registered the triumph of building out landfill areas for streets, earlier in this post, but by involving viewers in the importance of preserving greenspace, and inhabiting it as well. If the map invites us to explore the city as an environment that is not built, but that holds habitat, it seeks to engage us to encourage the habitat growth that sustains what animal life remains, and its obverse helps us understand the critical ways in which city-dwellers can best engage in doing so, as well as better know their world.

Nature in the City/2018

For by asking observers to place themselves in relation to nature in the city, more than observe the residents of greenspces, we are asked to help build them and to enjoy them–to notice them in ways that makes this a truly participatory map, able to generate a rich interface of its own and instill a sense of participation in a range of urban habitat, and possibilities of future habitat protection, nourishment, and growth.

Even by placing this image of nature within the urban setting, against an image of the historical shoreline of a city whose modernization accommodated piers along its bay-facing waterfront, dramatically extended by landfill, it invites viewer to immerse themselves in the city as a non-built space, either by peeling back the earlier contours of its coast, as if to bring the nature of the city back into balance with its built space, or by focussing on the green spaces that exist, and the habitat corridors that Nature in the City helps reinforce. The map raises questions about the ethics of mapping place, and ethical roles a map–even a textured paper map!–can still have by replicating an immersive experience of its own, in your hands, that you can use to engage the actual city and urban life around.

Nature in the City/2018

Or could it be that the paper map provides the best alternative for examining the role of parks, green spaces and open spaces in the city, and allowing visitors and local residents to reorient themselves to space on the ground, incorporating but displacing the omnipresence of screens as orientational tools?

The best compliment to the map that one might make is that it invites us to experience that space differently, and engage with its space. Since engaging in such a tactile way means walking, and getting off your phone while walking, a reference to Thoreau seems particularly apt and indeed needed as much as appropriate, for he is as much as Wordsworth a poetic muse of the project. For the non-profit has worked to create a reflection on the ethics of mapping urban space and reading maps built into navigating and living in urban space in new ways.  And 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 a long gestation period lasting multiple years–in which the text, as much as the map, which I have been perhaps wrong and remiss not to engage more fully, is as important as its imagery, but whose imagery compels one to engagement in an even deeper, more sensory way.  

For the anti-web or -handheld map is a new sort of handheld, one that invites observers to attend to the rich range of non-human elements most often excluded from how we map the built urban environment–trees, birds, animals, and insects. It grants visibility to what we wrongly see as fleeting residents of incidental presence, granting them greater visibility by foregrounding habitats and tree cover, and uncovering corridors that raise questions about the livability of urban space. As much as getting us to look at the overlooked, it asks we attend to the inhabitants who are in fact the longer term residents of the region, even if we now rarely attend to their presence in our obsession with built space.  

For the richly pictorial map that inspires a tactile intensity encourages the intensive observation of the world in its saturation with local detail, looking further into neighborhoods like the Castro and Noe Valley, not as residences for real estate, as seen on Zillow, or the crime maps of urban life that we see at times in a pockmarked view of the Financial District, Chinatown or the Outer Sunset, but as an accumulation of the rewards of stead attention to the lived inhabitants that we too often forget in driving through urban space, mediating a truly scientific picture of who else lives in our urban space, and showing why we want to keep them there.

And if few are reluctant to go car-free, and navigate space with a similar level of intent, the map encourages a different way of experiencing urban nature–indeed, it frames one, putting it into a space you can look at so that you can go back, recursively, and return to the original actual site with a renewed sense of purpose and engagement. It asks you to develop a way of engaging with the inhabited nature of the city, or the nature inhabiting the city, in ways that you want to find, or teaches you some of the ways that you might develop skills worth appreciating to do so. In this sense, it is a reparation for environmental dysphoria, and a break form handhelds, even from iNaturalist surveys of nature in urban life.

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

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