The Natures of a City

Although they are the most living areas of cities, often hidden from view on city maps are the ecosystems beyond built landscape or paved roads.  But do we fail to orient ourselves to the extent of urban environments in ways that compromise our demand for livable space?  A 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, but to foreground those areas of green that are unfortunately rendered in generic flat light green hues in Google Maps or other map servers.  To try to call attention to the complexity of the ecosystem of the city, Nature in the City map focussed on San Francisco’s range of a variety of habitats in a counterpoint to the limited concentration of online servers we use to orient ourselves to urban space.  By situating the vital forms of the city outside paved space, directing viewers to vital pathways or corridors–living, plastic structures often most difficult to discern for inhabitants, it offers a counter-geography to casting urban space as an ecosystem for cars.

These spaces of living nature are increasingly important to attend to, 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 in an actual encomiastic view.  What we most often exclude from the built urban environment as transient and fleeting residents–trees, birds, animals, and insectsa–quite consciously gained amazing degrees of visibility through open data of habitats and tree cover, uncovering corridors we rarely observe in urban space.  By focussing on the paved physical plant of cities in most of our online mapping tools, we’re all too guilty of treating the limited descriptive parameters of most on-line map servers as if they constituted reality.  We risk filtering our actual experience of urban environments; they blinder 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, and the increasing attention to finding and describing the parameters and metrics for the livability of a future urban space.

The map has arrived at an opportune time to shift attention from the hulking monoliths destined to crowd the future skyline–


Future Skyline?.png.


–and an increasing debate over the final and future shape of urban space.  Unlike movies as The Parrots of Telegraph Hill, although the flock of exotic birds were recently counted as three hundred strong, the map invites us to attend not to escaped pets, urban attractions as raccoons or pigeons, or feral cats, but the tapestry of the ecosystems that are mapped around 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 to plot living habitats combine a variety of mapping forms usually seen in isolation, to show the city as supporting a diverse range of habitats we would rarely discover, using LiDAR orthoimagery of trees, shrubs and grasses across the unpaved areas of San Francisco, and help us follow the habitats that the greening of a city allows far beyond its parks.  The revisionary base-map it used to plot living habitats combine a variety of mapping forms usually seen in isolation, to show the city as supporting 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


Extensive open data for San Francisco made it an ideal subject as an intersection between  avian, mammalian, and watery habitat at the edge of the continental shelf.  The terrain was evoked in unashamedly bucolic terms by Tony Kushner as that “undulating landscape lying under the threat of seismic risk,” in the 1980s, and as the tolerant city where danger only lay in the unexpected underground faults.  Kushner’s conceit in Angels in America that God abandoned the world left stage after the 1906 earthquake, due to the changes in human settlement of the globe, the orchestration of a vast range of data on habitats and tree cover in the city helps the 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.  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.

In an age where the from of cities stands to change with global warming and sea-level rise, it’s incumbent to explore open data to engage and re-examine the city as an environment, and to consider how the city functions as a habitat, less as detached from the world.  Doing so 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.

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.


1.  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.”


clarkia-th classicHilltop Migration Hotspots in San Francisco


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 vertical 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 while 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.

ff_sovietmaps_1_hero2.jpgSan Francisco and Surrounding Bay (1980)

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

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