The Natures of San Francisco

15.  The demand to translate data into a narrative that allows us to interact with “space”–and specifically the space of San Francisco, lying between Bay and Ocean, either a built city or a habitat sediment-rich from seven rivers–offers a compelling city in which to look for nature. The two maps raise questions of what sorts of narrative that we want to tell about the place of nature in the city, as much as the means of creating narratives about space that seem so muted in most map servers. Both prompt us to raise questions, in the end, about the new sorts of web-based maps we might create, even if they are of relatively static forms, but the intensely visceral impact that both images generate.

The shock of the red extrusions that defined sites of danger in the newly overbuilt San Francisco–which it superimposed, in a mapping mashup, on an early aerial photograph of the devastation after the shock of less than a minute had flattened 400 houses in San Francisco–raised questions of the scale of destruction that a future quake might create.  This quite different “future mapping” of San Francisco–looking to the past, but imagining the disasters of the built environment of the future–used open data to set off immediate alarms and a flight or flight response in whoever saw it.

For by mapping each red extrusion as accidents waiting to happen, the view doesn’t engage place, but the dangers of deregulation that encouraged an apparent real estate grab for luxury housing.  The deep fears of the destruction of the current landscape it provokes question of the suitability of the downtown area to rebuilding–and the degree to which the construction of huge–even if LEED-certified!–buildings over 640 feet in height  in the unstable ground of sand and clay on which much of San Francisco is built–although it remains very much on its precariety of its surface.  Using recent USGS data on the instability of the Bayside downtown area, the map offered a bird’s-eye view of the newly built-up city not to invite one into it, the mash-up of a bird’s eye view of the shoreline and an aerial photography of the “Ruins of San Francisco” engages us through the dangers of its current sudden downtown building boom, show to be unconscionably untethered from the city’s past.  They start from a baseman of liquefaction hazards that reflect the geological nature of San Francisco’s tectonic origins, as much as the connectivity that defines its habitats, to present a different cartographical palette of the city–

san-francisco_orig.pngNew York Times/Sources: California Geological Survey; City and County of San Francisco

–that rather than engaging place that deeply, magnifies triggers of fears of underground tremors that could cascade recently built towers.  While such risks are well-known to residents, the shock of mapping a city by hazards, in which the entire city is shown to face risks of liquefaction save the Presidio, and Ocean Beach, suggest a landscape of danger that developers have repressed.

The image of the city from an external observer to be sure suggests an inversion of the classical chorography that roots the viewer in an imaginary elevated perspective.  It places the viewer outside of the built urban environment, but invest the encomiastic character of most city views to suggest the dangers of building on its paved but sandy grounds.  The image of red extrusions of contemporary skyscrapers superimposed on an aerial view of urban devastation appeals to the earlier historical urban apocalypse, viewing the building of urban towers above the height of any buildings in the city as a disaster we await to experience:  even if it isn’t in the newspapers today, the image has an immediacy that invites the viewer to make a clear connection, but not to explore the surface that seems a site of such danger:   while accurate in its measurement of the height of the downtown towers its opportunistic design provokes a knee jerk reaction–as if news of the impending return of a devastating the seismic disaster that determined the city’s topography and how its land cover changed, unlike other urban skylines, of course the iconic skyline of distinctive densely crowded skyscrapers in New York, founded on solid bedrock.

The portrait of the shakiness of the towers that have been championed as a form of urban revitalization unsurprisingly followed a similar story of the risk of coastal flooding in the Bay Area based on the recalibration of soil subsidence in the Bay Area.  For recent readings of the marshy coastal peninsula from San Mateo to Palo Alto to Santa Clara suggested a terrifying confluence of sinking land and rising seas, accelerating predictions of the dangers of sea-level rise.  The more apocalyptic cityscape that lined up from Market Street in downtown San Francisco foregrounded the buildings situated in areas with “very high” chance of liquefaction.  The visualization superimposing buildings above 240 feet tall pulse like omens of poor urban planning atop the ruins of the 1906 quake when the city was cut low by less than a minute of underground tremors.

Viewers are suspended between staring at the terrifying ruins–in the wake of the fires that consumed the downtown–and asking how towers above 650 feet–and far more–were ever accepted by planning boards or building inspectors, and how safe a new “high-rise” San Francisco was for inhabitants.  Each tower suddenly seems a pin waiting to be knocked down, just waiting for waves of seismic activity ripple down the bowling lane of Market Street to collapse, as the sandy ground begins to shake.

image.pngThe New York Times

The striking nature of the extrusions map–especially in contrast to the open spaces and corridors that were so engagingly revealed by Nature in the City–is how it makes us passive consumers of big data, not finding patters in it that suggest a landscape able to be explored, or engaging the ground-plan, so much as ratcheting up our fear and query the shifting nature of the buildings code.  Rather than offer a counter-cartography of resistance, the “Seismic Gamble” mash-up foregrounds the looming danger of structures designed by computer modeling, and their acceptance through building codes that made exceptions beyond the usual local limits of 500 feet that permitted the such growth.  But the critique of overbuilding and urban supervision is less of an invitation to explore or learn about the city, than drop your jaw.

Was this skyline envy from an east coast metropolis that had not recently innovated its own iconic skyline?  Not, to be sure, openly.  But for all its data richness, the image staged a sense of danger on the unsteady sandy western grounds, far removed from bedrock, by an actually impoverished sense of mapping the complexity of place.  The far smaller city suggests an inverse of the density of skyscrapers of New York, to be sure; far few towers of comparable nature inhabit the long-sandy terrain of San Francisco, and the unsteady ground is not only known by the earthquake of 1906.  But the fire alarms set off by the red extrusions in a landscape of urban devastation seemed not only thin on history, but of limited engagement with the complexity of the city’s relation to shaky ground–and the far greater probability of a future quake on the Hayward Fault, across the bay–and the complexity of place.

The article raised alarms about the spread of hubristic overbuilding in a downtown that is in fact a liquefaction zone raised issues of the ethics and adequate supervision of massive construction projects, but offered a particularly grim image of where nature lay in the city–focussed entirely on a built environment, potentially subject to seismic risk, quakes, and aftershocks, whose grey past of destruction was perhaps too easily blindered from the advocates of a real estate boom downtown.  But the aggressiveness of pushing the viewer away–and indeed of stacking the cards by inviting us to inspect the devastation of the 1906 ruins–seem to prevent much appreciation of place, by rather transforming the built environment from a cause of celebration and local boosterism to the hubris of building another Tower of Babel–a sight long so strong in the mental geography of early moderns that it was included within early world maps, and indeed sold among the woodcut views of cities that were created to orient readers to the inhabited world–and as an image of the degree to which human technology pressed against divine limits–

1370’s manuscript illumination and woodcut from Nuremberg Chronicle (1491)

–as the image of a tower able to reach the heavens, גְדַּל בָּבֶל‎מִ, as the ziggurat of Babylon of 300 feet, gained strong resonance of a violation of the human realm by the built.

The view of towers that transcend the long-enforced building heights limit in San Francisco offers a very concrete map of urban dangers in an age of panic.  For it raises immediately visceral alarms, using open data to dare its viewers to imagine the scope of destruction that portends, and posing questions of the dangers that of seismic risks lying below its surface, deep, deep underground.  The orientation is not only news, but generated a degree of web traffic–even more than photographs of the rebuilding of the city in the aftermath of the Great Fire that it created, when a 7.9 tremor left the whole street “undulating . . .  as if the waves of the ocean were coming toward me, and billowing as they came,’ in the words of one witness, as waves that shook the city for less than a minute pounded its structures–leveling 490 city blocks and leaving 200,000 homeless.

To be sure, the anniversary of the quake was ostensibly time for a reckoning about urban responsibility and building supervision, casting the construction of urban towers–now red danger signs–to suggest the hubris of optimistic over-building of downtown San Francisco.  Had the spate of over-building under the eyes of building supervisors proceeded forgetting the past landscape of disaster, in spite of engineering advances?  Did their construction run against the memory of the disaster, given the city’s proximity to fault-line which even recent engineering advances seem to have ignored? Was the city fundamentally unsafe, rather than a flourishing site of natural engagement?

If the reds of the buildings might be more aptly characterized as the sites of the killing of prey like the offshore whales once slaughtered offshore–


–the buildings map as sites of danger in the same city monitorily, to warn us of the other extreme of human  inattentiveness to the environment that is also part of the “nature” of the city where they were constructed.

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

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