The Natures of San Francisco

16.  The image of the “nature” of the city as one of instability quickly went viral, given the quite different purchase it offered on the city’s built seating.  The quite terrifying stories that the map triggered in viewers’ minds transformed the dataset of building heights into an uncanny narrative of urban disaster if not apocalypse that pushes the viewer away from the urban space; rather than describe the benefits of increased engineering designs, the sinking of the Millennium Tower offered a wake-up call for the heightened risk of liquefaction in the unsteady soils of San Francisco, unlike the biophilic concentration on the non-human residents of its urban ecology.

houses with salesforceDa_gxlJVwAASERA

New York Times (April 17, 2018)

Yet is the grey perspective that it offered an adequate accounting of the complexity of the city’s rich ecology?

SF Green Space anti Google.pngGreenInfo Network

We are in a sense presented with two different perspectives on the city, and two distinct narratives about its space:  one orienting us to habitats and ecosystems, in ways that invite us to ask how complicit our dominant mapping styles in an ecological estrangement from place, and one suggesting that the memory of urban disasters had slipped from our primary attention to create a triumphant vision of real estate and luxury housing.

In an era when we’ve seen an upsurge of counter-cartographies that escape from the bland tools and mapping styles that privilege legibility over detail, and navigation over place, in ways that imply and interchangeability of landscape and call attention to the streets that run beside isolated islands of light green–but leave much of the city an off-putting grey, that rather than engage the viewer, leaves them jumping between isolated parks.

San Francisco streests and partks:monuments

But we all need  reminding of the other living inhabitants of our space, and which so enrich it and can better help us to explore its contours.  Only by orienting ourselves both to their presence can we appreciate the interdependence of spaces that we inhabit, and not naturalize built structures as the landscapes in which we live  Although the grey land cover of even so green a city as San Francisco dominates most maps of place, place-names and toponymy removed from its green parks, and the presence of bushes, grasses, and brush along its streets reduced, to orient us only to the man-made surfaces where we drive, in ways that daily distance us from its landscape.

Can one create a more ethical relation to place in maps?, ask the editors of the Nature in the City maps over the twenty years they have produced new city maps, and the three years they worked on enriching data sources for the most recent iteration of a city map that calls our attention to the city’s biodiversity which allowed it to “win” the recent Nature City map challenge..   In a style removed from Google maps, Nature in the City has privileged not inhabited greyspace of blocks, streets, and buildings, like our favored way-finding device, revealing the habitats the city contains and attending to its other inhabitants.

The appearance of the Nature in the City map on Earth Day 2018 offered an exultant counter-geography to the shifts of western landscape–and to the dependence of map-users on blanched out tools of spatial orientation and way-finding–renders the ecosystems absent in most of our mapping tools.  To be sure, other maps of the protected spaces of western parks at ParkInfo would provide an alternative view of protected spaces and national forests–

parkinfo.png ParkInfo by GreenInfo Network/data from GreenInfo Network, Mapbox, OpenStreetMap

–the broad stretches of continuous green space may be far more susceptible to fragmentation than the network of parks that exists in California indicates; the area around San Francisco, however, far from being as grayed-out as in the small-scale view, is ringed by critical wildlife refuges and national seashores that create a context able to encourage the city’s smaller ecosystem to be a hub of species’ transit routes.

Wildlife Refuges SF.pngParkInfo by GreenInfo Network

The grimmer view suggests a contraction or reduction of open spaces in the West, driven by a demand for extra-urban real estate and extra-urban expansion, that has led to a rapid disappearance of open space at the rate of over a football field every 2.5 minutes over the period 2000-2010.  The intense contraction of open space is evident in the paving along a spidery network of roadworks compromised any urban-wildness periphery in much of the west, altered the changing landscapes at an unheard of rate around cities as Seattle, Spokane, Billings, Boise, Salt Lake City, Fresno, Phoenix, and San Francisco in decisive ways, which one can view with a shifter across time–and is especially aggressive around San Francisco.

open land lost in WestDisappearing West/Center for American Progress

If maps are often seen as “rationalizations” of space that describe locations as able to be measured, objectively viewed, and indeed investing locations with objectivity, such data visualizations as the above–produced by the Center for American Progress–compel us to come to terms with the rationalization of estrangement ecosystem or local habitat that the increasing “interchangeability” of place  suggests in the leveling of a landscape of built space, occurring. There is something particularly gripping about the narrative of landscape transformation in the Bay Area, right beside Silicon Valley, that reveals the limits of the sort of map servers we use, and have increased authority in our abilities to orient ourselves to space.

When he came to the Bay Area, if he may have kenned it before, American novelist Richard Powers has noted, as “we are migrating farther and farther into digital, virtual place” and have only begun to discover that “the stories we tell about ourselves are becoming increasingly place-independent” both among ourselves and in the texts we read. Arriving in the Bay Area seems to have led Powers to write about trees and deforestation–compelling themes, to be sure– while working in the Bay Area at Stanford University. Entranced by the majesty of the forest, and the habitat of trees in the Santa Cruz mountains, Powers abandoned his teaching position at Stanford University, as he tells it, compelled by the siren song of contact with nearby old woods, and the map of human settlement of the landscape that they revealed and told.  Who are the true longstanding inhabitants of this place on the coast, Powers asked himself, if not the longstanding sentinels of trees?

Powers quit his teaching gig soon after exploring the Santa Cruz mountains, where he seemed to travel to move from Silicon Valley, as he remembered.  He took time to walk in and explore the nearby redwood forests clearcut to build San Francisco in the peninsula, to discover that what he took as regrown forests concealed several older sentinels of amazingly wide-girthed trunks of those redwoods had somehow survived.  Shocked and saddened at the sudden realization of time, Powers looked at them as bearing witness to an earlier, lost time and habitat.  A single tree Powers encountered on one walk revealed the past habitat–a single tree that had, for whatever reason, escaped the logging and clear-cutting, prompted him to imagine “forests that would not return for centuries”:  “it was the width of a house, the length of a football field, and as old as Jesus or Caesar,” Powers tried to recapture his sudden epiphany of local ecology, set him recalibrating his relation to redwood forest in the Santa Cruz mountains, and, seeking a better metaphor that captured its monumentality,  “Compared to the trees that had so impressed me, it was like Jupiter is to the Earth.”  If Michael Pollan described the feeling of discovering something so self-evident while on acid that the trees were indeed his parents, a similar sort of revelation of underlying ecosystems was something Powers found the setting alone opened his mind.

The dislocation and radical removal from a local ecology is what Powers captured led him to quit his day job, and dedicate himself to The Overstory, a story or interlocked stories about the survival American trees, and the lack of knowledge about self that can proceed from a deep estrangement from place, and the possibility to recuperate a sense of the “local habitation” of place that the Nature in the City map asks us to attempt.  The scale of ecological alienation from a deep history of environmental change may be facilitated by cartographical constructions, which have in a sense laid epistemological seeds for a deep denial of global warming and climate change, as our attention is increasingly consumed by virtual spaces which remove us from natural settings or ecologies.   There is an echo of this remove from place, setting, and landscape, in maps that raises the question as to whether the ‘false transcendence’ of the map browser enables us to stand at a remove from setting and indeed place.

Powers was concerned to address the diminished power of place in fiction, and the estrangement we increasingly sense fom our local habitat and lived environments, there is no more fitting or powerful vehicle to orient ourselves better to place–and the deep history of an ecology of place–than maps.  Powers has turned to writing about trees based on acute realization that our devices to preserve a record of place often only accentuate our nature of being “phenomenally bad at experiencing, estimating, and conceiving of time,” given the extent to which our neurological structures “are [only] shaped to pay attention to rapid movements against stable backgrounds, [leaving us] almost blind to the slower, broader background drift.”  The very tools we create to “defeat time” and make it subject to our apprehension, from film to photography to, even worse, peripherals, tend to “collapse” our attention into a present, removed from habitats, plants or trees, and to substitute our anthropocentric experience of time for theirs–erasing the experience of other forms of life.  And it is in this extent that the “long view” of the Times visualization is amazingly short-sighted, if  provocative, and the “deeper” view provided by the new iteration of the Nature in the City map invites us to hope for the survival of habitats, rather than the built world.

If writing The Overstory–a massive work of documentation and of noticing–has led Powers to change his own life, and to move into the old growth region of the Smokey Mountains, a remaining refuge of biodiversity, one of the two maps this post considers invites us to involve ourselves in a dynamic of deep noticing, while the other incarnates an age of increasing anxiety, projecting that anxiety in the very residential towers we live.  Although maps are often described as rationalizations of space, two recent maps of San Francisco problematize this relation to urban space seem important to examine in some detail and depth.  Even if flat and static, both provoke an interaction between past and present–a historical depth–that most data maps and visualizations flatten, and seek to offer thought experiments about the dangers of estrangement from place by which urban building proceeds.  In an era when we are orient ourselves to street plans of city maps increasingly from the surfaces of our i-screens, and other devices or peripherals, the tangible sense of a relation to place in both maps–either through the extrusions of the Times visualization of  over-building or of the cultivation of open spaces in the city, and to grasp qualitative effects on the urban environment of San Francisco.

The alternative bird’s-eye views that this post is concerned raise questions of the remove at which we feel from place that most maps create:  both work so effectively by shocking us as viewers, whether by reminding us of the past seismic conditions of San Francisco that seem forgotten in the towers that have grown up with a rapidity and density during the last decade–which remind us that the loss of open spaces has proceeded a bit more slowly in San Francisco itself until recently, given the seismic risk of the underground  fault lines–or the precariousness of open spaces in the city, despite the precious existence of what is the largest urban regional park around the city, which creates an incomparable 120,000 acres of open space rich with habitat across sixty-five parks.  But the image that we so often navigate of the city’s flattened grey-space–the possible green spaces that coexist with its grey space, and a more deeply textured image of place than the grey-green landcover palette affords viewers.

Flat paved SF.pngGoogle Maps

–removes it from any sense of presence–save the sponsored destinations that pop-up on our screens.  The very absence of open spaces that these on-hand cartographies offer compel a better sense of the tactile nature of place, orienting the map user to the relations to space and place in ways by encouraging us to evaluate and explore the dynamic ecologies and nature of place that are so often off the map, noting neighborhoods, to be sure, but allowing the degrees of green space in the city–using three shades of green to note grasses, bushes, and trees, as the primary registers of our attention, in ways that jar the expectations we might have for maps as search engines of built destinations.

MissionNature in the City (2018), detail of grass, bushes, and trees in the Mission 

12.  The cultivation of open spaces is revealed in the map designed by  Nature in the City  to illustrate the spaces of habitats, parks, and green space in the city less as a way finding tool than an invitation to explore the inter-dependence in the city in ways that often fall under the radar even of residents  Their map reveals a deep resilience of open spaces even in an urban community.  One sees, wildly out of scale, the lone coyote in Bernal, whales off the Pacific coast, or the shorebirds in the San Francisco Bay, and is reminded of the benefits of the open space in clean coastal waters and parks that makes the city’s urban geography stand out from a rapidly intensifying pace of overbuilding of open western spaces that has inaugurated the new century.

Indeed, unlike earlier versions of the maps they have continued to produce of San Francisco that focussed only on the precious green islands of parklands as natural preserves against the pressures that its urban environment exercise on biodiveristy–


–the off-putting nature of the grey spaces of the city map were puzzling to present as grey, even amidst the “green connections” of the urban environment, as if by alternative analogy to municipal transport lines–


The distribution of rooftop gardens, street trees, and yards was allowed through the availability of  orthoimagery to create an insider’s view of the city’s corridors of natural habitat –familiar to other species, as much as to most citydwellers.  The layers of data allowed a basis to orient ourselves to how species inhabit a range street trees, back yards, and lawns.  Indeed, shortly after the completion of the previous Nature in the City map examined the city’s environmental heritage, nature in the City started to rethink how questions of resilience and habitat made most sense to examine in corridors, rather than only in preserves of parks and open space, and indeed how the place of plants and trees in remaining urban open spaces might be better served by such a picture.

The result takes our eyes off its built environment, and raises questions about the critical role of the survival of other species–plants, invertebrates, butterflies, and other fauna–that continue to distinguish San Francisco as a place and populate its greener areas.  “Under the pavement the/ soil is dreaming of grass,” Wendell Berry wrote in 2007, at the height of this ongoing overbuilding, as “the soil under the grass/ is dreaming of a young forest,” and maps such as that of Nature in the City ask us to try to imagine the past ecosystems of the land less inhabited by buildings or men.   Although the rapid incursions of over-development across the west increasingly infringes on once-isolated ecosystems and once-protected habitat in national forests, disrupting habitats in ways that demand better mapping in order to grasp fully what sorts of losses seem to be at stake with the expansion of anthropogenic change that demands to be explored–less as a celebration of a building markets, than for the growing estrangement of populations to the land.

Only by trying to orient ourselves to this loss of space over a huge scale, indeed, are we able to grasp the alteration of the landscape of open space–and peel back the layers of grey that dominate the city in Google maps.

San Francisco streests and partks:monuments.png

17. As open space as been encouraged by fears high-rise construction, until  recently, hilly terrain and fears of active fault lines have limited construction and kept building-heights low.  But new engineering practices and an explosive real estate market have removed restraints on the scale of overbuilding in the gentrified city that provide a bit of a big city corollary to the fast-disappearing open spaces of the West.  Can one make a map that will still affirm a relation to place, in the face of this contraction of the spaces that are still open for exploration, and invite us to explore them?   In contrast to the unprecedented contraction of open space that “The Disappearing West” portrays, the local folks at Nature in the City invite us to drill down into the open spaces and observations of the habitat of wildlife.  The celebratory map aimed to invite its readers to explore the ecosystem that persists in the open spaces of San Francisco–rather than its built space–to invite readers to explore them at first hand, as much as only rely on the map to orient them to the city’s built space.

The contrast between how the recent Nature in the City map invites us into the city and the recent image of the seismic risks of recent towers constructed in downtown San Francisco of greater height than any other part of the city’s skyline suggest two quite different views of mapping the integration of built cities with local environments, and responses to the desire to remap our relations to urban space.  Rather than call attention to built spaces alone, both maps invite us to consider San Francisco’s relation to its setting–to the geology on which it is built or the ecosystem of its once-forested lands–that suggest the haunting of the present amnesiac landscape by its pasts, and ask us to restore them into our sense of place.  Both are not only views of the glass being half-empty or half-full, but seem cautionary maps about the increasing dangers of estrangement from urban environments.

But if the Times is suggesting the haunted nature of the landscape by the triggers that stand to upset the towers that have redefined the skyline–as if to call our attention to the hidden mechanics of the dangers lurking underground–they hardly occasion much close-up scrutiny of the city, truth be told–reducing the complexity of urban planning decisions to a “seismic gamble” that was never so clearly framed as it was on the hundred and twelfth anniversary of the earthquake.

earthquake sfNew York Times (April 17, 2018)

The numbers in the “Seismic Gamble” image just don’t tote up:  the notion of overbuilding wasn’t really a critique of the space, but an alarm that the recent expansion of the built environment occasioned.

The production of such attention-grabbing maps is not only opportune–both due to the overbuilding of extra-urban areas and a burst of downtown towers that have provoked some fear on their own–but suggest the new range of visual strategies to visualize and orient us to urban space.  On the one hand, the haunting image of the towers as red silhouetted extrusions against the black and white landscape of post-earthquake ruins seems to implant a memory in our minds, while the outsized animals that are shown against narrow corridors of green suggest a sense of hope by remembering the city as a deeply interconnected space, removed from an adversarial struggle between man and nature.  Indeed, if San Francisco has long been haunted by the specter of the 1906 earthquake, and its limited low-rise customs of construction have allowed, to some extent, more pockets and corridors of open space to remain in its urban space.  Building heights were long contained by seismic risks.  The map the New York Times ran nationally to mark the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake seemed a wake-up call about the forgetfulness of the geological conditions,  similarly to how Nature in the City invited viewers to remember the ecosystem that has nourished San Francisco as a space.

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

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