Green Cities: Nature in the City?

The West begins where the pavement ends” might have once defined a counter-geography of open lands in the western United States.  But as paved space spreads across the nation, the ubiquity of paved ground makes it impossible to see such land cover as antithetical to nature, there is an urgency of mapping the relations between open spaces and paved lands, even 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?

The selective foregrounding of the relations between an increasingly ever-present ground surface impermeability, covering not only the 4.1 million miles of paved highways in the United States, and 8.3 million lane miles, affecting corridors within miles of the roads, but an expansion of impervious surfaces and land cover change that suggest a massive expansion–just under 65,000 square miles of coastal regions between 2996-2010, or an area the size of the state of Florida, including 13% of the Gulf of Mexico and 15% of the southeastern United States, based on the Coastal Change Analysis Program (C-CAP).

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 downtow–


land cover SF.png

forest:high intensity:med intensiy.pngNOAA C-Cap Land Cover Classifications/ESRI


The complex constellation reveals a mosaic of high intensity and medium intensity development, where developed open space and some stretches of bare land and forest contained in pockets of a landscape of development.  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 calls a “habitat for cars,” the illustration of the survival of habitat is ethically important.

The increasingly limitless maps that pan across the city, including an exhaustive array of different sorts of landcover, or allowing one to pan, zoom out, and zoom in across landcover, relaying satellite imagery to local servers, seem in fact startlingly limited to assess the level of land cover change, and not only because of the single and uniform sort of cartographical literacy they encourage:  the illusion of a complete record from map tiles that arrive on our devices suggest a false comprehensiveness that may restrain us from interacting with th every environments that they describe.  Only by combining LiDar, orthoimagery and detailed observation of the ground can we ask how a “habitat for cars” continues to dominate the landscape, constraining other habitats and lived space, and use open data to open up the spaces of the built city, and move beyond the limits of apparently limitless data, to drill beneath its overlays.

Indeed, the point of shaping big data not only in overlays, but in an integrated mosaic that reveals relations that we can explore by making our own ties within the maps, using them as instruments to think about place, as much as tools for navigating the grey uniformity of space, are especially appealing as a way of shifting our relation to place in an age where overdevelopment threatens increasing homogeneity.   Can we make a map that will allow us to be our own Thoreau, to wander on the shores and open spaces of the city, as opposed to follow its roads in enclosed vehicles, and excavate the landscapes where we still live?  For the Nature in the City map of San Francisco is an effort begun by Joel Barstow and now in its third edition, it suggests more than anything that we adopt a position like Thoreau, despite the level of intense local development, by using a deep dive into spatial data,  to direct attention not to its built environment, but spiders, sea birds, migrating whales, blossoming plants, sand dollars and even sea lions along its coasts–investing the map with a new sense of tactile bounty and direct consciousness not only to its present, but to the remaining, past, and future habitats in the built city, finding a resilient nature in its construction.

The two maps that were released of the city in April 2018 react to the increased availability of open data, but offer an invitation to the new ways maps might make cognitive claims in fun ways–as if to escape the hegemony of our our dependence on the tyranny of navigating by hand-held screens.  Claims about “where the pavement ends” today seem foreign to overbuilt landscapes, but call for orienting us to the huge changes in the overbuilt areas of urban space and environments:   indeed, maps of open data struggle to create an ethical relation to place, as the growth of over 43,000 square miles of impervious ground cover that existed in the United States compels a different relation to nature.  And if encomiastic views of cities created a visual relation to bird’s-eye views of place–that most our maps of location and navigation fail to provide–we are using maps to excavate a lost local deep history that the superficial rendering of much open data neglects, recreating a relation to space and anew view of the urban community that recall the tactile nature of bird’s-eye views that invite us to explore their space by the position of hilltop observers who at leisure survey the town to learn about their surroundings.


San Francisco 1862


This post examines–and, yes, celebrates–how two maps of San Francisco incorporate open data to orient viewers to San Francisco as a place through mashed up maps–on the screen, and the superimposition of older photographic images and new maps to collapse time that the screen-experience creates, in the recent image of at-risk buildings in the growing skyscrapers of downtown San Francisco that have come to transcend 650 feet in height, or by rehabilitating the paper map in how Nature in the City used data-rich detail to invite us to explore the vitality of the biotic niches of San Francisco in deeply biophilic ways.  In an age of big data and data flows, both seem to recoup the cognitive benefits of orientation to place that is particularly gripping and meaningful, for how they force us to engage selective content that reflects the frustrating superficial nature of maps that privilege geolocation on the virtual–and increasingly pixellated–space of a grid, and recuperate a new relation to place by offering new abilities to read place.

At the same time as we lose a sense of place in many regions of the west–and not only there–not due to a surplus of data, but due to the difficulty of mapping data onto place in a way that we can process, we need to attend to how we give concrete rendering to an urban ecology not focussed on built space.  Indeed, both he retrospective view of the rebuilding of downtown San Francisco on the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake and the fostering of spaces for habitat alongside the built environment offer new tools of engaging landscape, moving within place, and using cartographical tools to reevaluate our relation to urban space.  By inviting us into the city if one map produced on Earth Day invited us to explore–albeit in a static format–local nature in the urban space, as if to find the remaining encouragement of vibrant natural ecosystems in an unknown landscape, to reveal a hidden habitat lying before us at all time, the other map, produced on the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake, used data to question if towers are compatible with the history of place by invoking a landscape of earthquakes known too well.  The maps use data to incarnate two distinct views of urban memory–one celebrating habitats revealed in the seas, land, and fossil record; one the memory of nature’s destruction at the edge of a continental plate–and two versions of encomiastic views–one praising not the built but unbuilt spaces of the city; the other, inverting an iconographic tradition that celebrated feats of human building. Indeed, if the Nature in the City map inverts an elegant if simple terrain map to show the green spaces–from parks, urban forests, and street trees to shores–in which thirteen species dwell, rather than the street plan and built environment, buildings dominate the view of the city as mapped on the anniversary of the earthquake as a built environment confronted by imminent collapse.

There is almost the sense that the map of open spaces and ecosystems beckon us to look at the urban ground plan we know so well from the point of view of the animals that live there, and inhabit its open corridors, while the datasets that the Times collected is used to orient us to the professional view of the urban engineer through the return of the repressed, in which forces of nature that have so recently shocked us–in hurricanes, tsunami, lava-spewing earthquakes, flash coastal flooding, fires and extreme weather events–are implicitly juxtaposed with the impending disaster of an earthquake on what we had imagined was a stable built environment.  Each map presents a different nature-culture hybrid, but reveals how our notions of nature are not located only where pavement ends, but are now necessarily increasingly hybridized, if coexisting–despite the contrast between the warm palette of the first map and the harsh danger signs of impending disaster of its built environment, which recede in the warm inviting hues of the Nature in the City.  (The map also suggests how seismic activity shaped the environment, but is  far less apocalyptic.)


hidden habitat.pngNature in the City

imageThe New York Times, April 17 (2018)


We are perhaps starting to learn, in an age of increased data availability, how to attend to the importance of graphic tools to record place, and get a better orientation on the dynamics of place.  As we have an overabundance of mapped data and mapped cities now, each one of his holding our own multi-scale urban map in our pockets, the scalable urban streetscapes we are addicted to mapping our locations may only serve to distract us from the deeper relation to the environment–and indeed, the ecosystem–that is not included in so many of the maps we use to gain bearings.  As we use maps that we find only limit our sense of place, and constrain it in ways that increasingly correspond to the limits of the data used to create our maps, the importance of turning to maps to gain orientation to the built environment–in a time when “the west is where the pavement ends” is .drained of any inspirational value–even in a bar in the open spaces of the Black Rock Desert, after a long, sweaty highway drive, when it still seems ironic.  For if most of the west is not only paved, but increasingly standing to lose lose even the memory of open lands, as increasing extra-urban areas are paved and accelerated land cover shifts proceed at a greater rate than ever before.

The growth of open urban data provides a new way to look at the survival of open spaces and the engagement with paved space in American cities.  The range of dynamic maps like that of Nature in the City in the header to this post.  The map that the local non-profit assembled suggests the excitement of the ground cover combination in the city by drawing our eyes to the remaining spaces of habitat within paved land cover.  The question of a need for orienting ourselves to greater landcover change only grows as we see the difficulty of gaining purchase on the built environment and as our confidence in our mapping skills grows.  And as we are increasingly sensitive–and compelled to react to if not search for meaning in data on new environmental disasters and environmental change–the ability to take stock of place and our relation to it is ever more pressing in what might be called the growing ethics of data visualizations and the compelling ways that open data can be rendered to define and refine our spatial relation to place.


1.   My own intensely reactive confrontation with two visualizations of San Francisco that appeared within one week created.  Both created a new assemblage of the city’s surroundings, that seek to orient us as viewers to its nature:  one pointing to the ecosystem of signs of nature–animals, flowers, fossils, birds, and insects–in the city we think of as built by humans, the other one pointing to the complexities of building with abandon on its shaky ground, hidden liquefaction zones, and proximity to fault lines.  If one is mapped against historical habitats still present in the city, the other is mapped against the ruinous earthquake of 1906.  Rather than being only a passive register of data, however, both maps use their data-richness to orient viewers to the city’s space, either by involving viewers in its ecosystem or the image of expanding buildings in a landscape permeated by risk, by inviting us to drill, as it were, underground, into the open data on the urban foundations of the downtown.

Both orient us to a landscape that we are not well served by onscreen maps that locate us primarily within a built environment.  The map by Nature in the City featured in the header to this post aspires to the power of an activist mapping, through a deep familiarity with place, to surprise residents who often use maps and apps to navigate San Francisco to enjoy a new relation to place–in the direct manner of stating that the pavement ends.  Its ethics are to compel us to look outside the over-mapped space of the built city. Indeed, the rich surface–counterintuitively dotted in a pointillist array of light green with larger multicolored puddlings of darker green, suggests the limits of paved surfaces in San Francisco, and creates a wonderfully textured image to investigate the relations between local and dispersed ecosystems.

The map offered viewers an anti-Google Maps perspective, or an Apollonian perspective is untethered both to reveal a sense of contingency of the environment, by placing its viewer in direct contact with the habitats that survived in the city’s open space–and indeed foster the possibilities of considering what a deeper relation to place might be, and the constant practices of attending to the wild–the sounds of frogs, calls of birds, or sights of whales, or flora–that vibrantly exists in the city but often is overlooked, and not only in maps.  The active role of the viewer in this counter-cartography makes it more than an exercise in map reading, but in assembling the interconnected texture of place from data, construct a story about place to make more accessible and evident a hidden nature of place that is often overlooked.

From the green topography now nested in the urban environment, lakes and waterways to the underground hidden streams underneath the city, historical wetlands that defined its ecosystem, to the future shoreline of rising tides according to recent NOAA shoreline projections, the map oriented viewers to an inter-related place beside the city’s built environment.  Drawn wildly out of scale, but foregrounded to suggest their prominence in the focus of the attention of the map, among thirteen plants and animals we encounter species of butterflies (a hairstreak), birds (an avocet), a coyote, water mammals (a whale) and invertebrates (a sand-dollar or even the fossil of a prehistorical radiolarian chert!) as well as chorus frogs, tiger swallow tails, rich flora (the California poppy) appear as pictorial vignettes, in the manner of an illustrated map, but with a naturalistic detail to their appearance.  The images aren’t ornamental accompaniments, but invite viewers to orient themselves to rich ecosystems the built environment obscured, beside native plant nurseries that ensure a protected environment within the paved city.

The pictorial map becomes a site of resistance, inviting the viewer to help cultivate wildness in an urban expanse, or a model of activist mapping of reorienting the viewer to place from the point of view of thirteen native species who occupied its forests, wetlands, creeks and mountains, as if to uncover a landscape that exists under the concrete and beside it, rather than suddenly be overwhelmed, as if in an intimation of mortality, with the fragility of the towers of poured concrete supported by rebarb piles filled into sandy ground.  Rather than an encomiastic view of place, we are invited into the cultivation of its unbuilt spaces–not the bare grass of golf courses, but the scattered forested areas and places where water pools or creeks run emerge from underground, as the city becomes a sort of palimpsest of different historical periods and different species, shaped by its bathymetry, topography, and open space that is often absent from our screens.

Indeed, the detail to the sorts of open space–the detailed record of the relative density of shrub, tree cover, forest, and open grasses–provides a detail rich environment that we can inhabit, perhaps less focussed on street names that street trees, and allowing the man-made structures of the city to recede from our field of vision, in favor of the larger campgrounds, springs, and open spaces of the city, where we can explore the unbuilt environment beside the built with a level of crispness usually reserved for streets and buildings.  Indeed, the data-rich level of detail does not hit me over the head as a viewer, but seems an environment I’d rather inhabit, as tree density seems suddenly a tactile surface whose palpable nature i can explore in the city, rather than, say, population, street-traffic, or , and appears in this moment a sort of ur-data, more important and relevant to the west coast native as the Pacific Chorus Frog that has begun to return as a resident to San Francisco’s Presidio–


image.pngNature in the City map of San Francisco, detail of Presidio


image.png Josiah Wood, Bay Nature


–rather than the built environments we so often navigate n n and regularly navigate as if they wer second nature.  Indeed, the map invites us to resist the nature/culture confusion that Google Maps, Wayz, and our androids perpetuate as if they were second nature.

While the paper map is static, and a sheet at a single scale, save insets on its verso, the density of data invites us to zoom into its engaging landscape from the species whose environment the data renders:  all of a sudden, the city is transformed into an engaging landscape, its contours of habitat traced from above or at street-level.  By inviting us into the city as a lived habitat in different ways, Nature in the City reveals unseen ecosystems in corridors of natural habitat.  If they are often unmapped, despite the recent overload of data alienated from our surroundings, we turn with welcoming eyes to read and reread its surface and reorient us to a space we often think of only as built, from San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean,–in ways that can be easily purchased, that stretches from its major parks to the greener neighborhoods that invite us to peel away, for an instant, the built-up surfaces of the city, to find a living substrate that remains, as we refocus our attention on animals, flora, and shorebirds we might otherwise have ignored.




Ocean to Bay.pngNature in the City Map, Third Edition


The expanse of the detailed naturalism of the map challenges us to process the range of data it provides with such apparent simplicity by inviting our eyes to move across its surface.  As much as orient the viewer as a guide for way-finding, or even natural observation, the Nature in the City map celebrates the ecosystems in the city, soliciting attention to an engaged relation to open space–detecting and even cultivating the green spaces in San Francisco, through the continued habitation of “nature” in a built environment on which we usually focus attention.  In fact, the map suggests in its simple combination of datasets that do not overwhelm but contextualize the city, it is the wilder elements–and the placement of the unseen networks of green corridors that enrich and transform its inhabited space.

Building on a base map that reflects an image of parks and open spaces in the city produced by ParksInfo, against a street grid–


The Problem: SF.pngGreenInfo Network


–the folks at Nature in the City dug far deeper into an engagement with local ecosystems.  As well allowing us to look at the range of parks that dot the city, with five open spaces that are so sharply distinguished from a dense downtown, the new version presents a far broader canvas of interaction along wildlife corridors.  The more sensitive recording of habitat data and species distribution reveals a new presence of life to explore against this rich base-map,  populating the flat green spaces with dynamic local ecosystems by adding datasets of trees, shrubs, and grasses, in a census of open spaces captured by LiDar, and registered in density and height, and then allowing us to examine and explore how they are inhabited by a range of mammals, insects, plants, and invertebrates.  The result is to reconstitute a broader ecosystem to reveal its engaged surface that many maps fail to register.

If the ParksInfo map from GreenInfo might be an anti-GoogleMap, and a counter-dataset of green spaces, the habitation and engagement of these spaces invites us into a dynamic surface whose baseman begins from foregrounding unbuilt ground cover, inviting us into its open spaces by suggesting their contiguity with its paved spaces, and even the ephemerality of the current shoreline that landfill helped construct in an era of sea-level rise.  Rather than describe its parks, after all, the building terrain provides the sort of negative space for an alternate urban encomium of open spaces, and a natural environment that holds multiple species in mapping the shoreline of San Francisco as a site of past, present and future resilience, which cannot be collapsed into any single anthropomorphic narrative–but offers multiple sites of access to nature.

downtown wetNature in the City/Bay Nature

north beach.png

Layers of built and unbuilt exist in most cities, much as in the open, unpaved spaces. But San Francisco seems a likely candidate to recuperate and preserve the memory of once-open lands in ecosystems that continued despite massive land cover change.  Even as  he once flippant adage about pavement ending is emptied of much meaning, the dynamic–if static–third edition of Nature in the City invites you to interrogate the landscape not through houses, buildings or streets, to discover its greener habitats.  The vision of remapping the urban environment, begun as the brainchild of Peter Brastow, as expanded to trace the environments of dunes, coasts, offshore waters, and urban trees, that reflect the work of the non-profit in restoring native plants and grasses, and creating the natural corridors of the city that remain within forty-nine acres of poured concrete, steel, and asphalt.  The hybrid of natural and non-natural is the environment of the city today, where despite the ubiquity of the built environment, we coexist with nature in ways we may have yet to fully experience.

In something like rebuttal to the image of an overpaved West of lost open spaces, the map shows the resilience of green space beside paved matrix to reveal the continuities of habitat of nature in the city beyond the city’s parks, streams, ponds and urban forest and cleaned up shores, inviting us to meander in its green spaces and the margins of overbuilt spaces with its other residents–including coyote, illustrated by artist Jane Kim with a scientific detail that makes their observation a pleasure.

Centerpiece NITCNature in the City map (2018), detail featuring wildlife illustrated by Jane Kim

Wolf Bernal Heights-bannerNature in the City map (2018), detail; coyote illustrated by Jane Kim

As we explore how street-trees, medians, parks, and lakes, we can detect habitats for a range of largely undetected ecosystems–not captured in most maps–visually translating a range of spatial data into actually quite tactile terms to illustrate a range of our place names for green spaces–using larger fonts for open space–that house the complexity of its lived environment, and the elegance of the animals that exist in it:  the map seems an invitation that teaches us how to look–or to detect new forms of life.

The map seemed perfect as a launch for Earth Day, 2018, in short.  It is an invitation to explore local habitat that the group helps preserve and conserve, and seeks to draw broader attention to, suggests a sense of eco-literacy that engaged an urgent exploration of its space.  The urgency of the map of habitat and its “deep” history so closely tied to place could not be more unlike the “thin history” designed for sudden impact in the recent terrifying projection of the built city as subject to seismic dangers, published that very week by the newspaper of record, the New York Times.  For in contrast to the ethics of cartography that the hegemony of Google Maps might elicit, the shocking of the viewer by superimposing a spate of high-rise towers upon an aerial photograph of the ruins of the 1906 earthquake invites us to map future seismic risk on its anniversary, if in opportunistic ways.


imageThe New York Times

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Filed under data visualization, eco literacy, land cover change, landcover change, mapping fault lines, mapping nature, Mapping the Bay Area, San Francisco

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