The Natures of San Francisco

18.  The opportune nature of such maps lies in how they command a sense of mastery in their focus on place, submerging local particularities beneath the spate of overbuilding that has been often bemoaned.  The overbuilding of the west has found a complement in the creation of San Francisco as a site for urban skyscrapers, increasingly at a remove from the city in which they stand.  For over the past decade or so–and roughly on the heels of the spate of construction across the west–the limits of the low-rise city seem to have been transcended in the explosion of mixed-use towers increasingly typical of global metropoles in the face of the unpredictability of seismic disaster, as a new vision of towers across downtown San Francisco attests.

As much as the elegance of the bird’s eye view that one might take of these new buildings, imagining each named by the corporation that underwrote, sponsored or inhabits them, from Twitter to Transamerica Pyramid to Salesforce Tower, moving from mid-Market to the Embarcadero, the recent article appearing in the New York Times asked us to imagine them in a mash-up against a backdrop of the devastation of the earthquake of 1906–a provocative counter-chorography of the city shaken down by underground geological faults.  Is a solid foundation present to build skyscrapers by the Bay?  Despite the sandy nature of what is a well-known liquefaction zone of minimal stability–and has long encouraged wooden houses or widespread retrofitting to accommodate seismic quakes–promises of engineering abilities have led to a range of plans for drilling to the bedrock through the sands, in search of rents, in ways that have transformed the San Francisco skyline from the East bay to a set of glimmering towers, rising above the Bay–

SF skyline

–that on the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake, compel a sort of double-take against the devastation along Market Street that the offshore tremors wrought, or at least so much was the intent of the recent visualization of the downtown towers the New York Times offered readers to commemorate the memory of the event of urban destruction.

San Francisco in RuinsSan Francisco in Ruins, from the Lawrence Airship, 2000 feet over San Francisco Bay  (1906)

The contrast between the spate of elevated mixed-use towers, promising residences downtown and an influx of cash from nearby Silicon Valley, increasingly proximate to San Francisco by rail and transit hubs, have led to a proliferation of load-bearing strategies to facilitate buildings far above 650 feet–a rarity in the old city–that have transformed its skyline.  The question as to whether they can rely on clusters of deeply sunk load-bearing rebarb has been raised by ocular evidence and reminders of the unstable ground–as the currently-sinking Millenium Tower completed in 2009, supported on friction piles driven deeply into the sands, which settled ten inches as it started to tilt, leaving residents scrambling to resell condominiums in a city of scarce housing, provoking many of its residents to free.  The recent sinking of the Millennium Tower led the Times, fresh off a feature on “The Leaning Tower of San Francisco,” to commemorate the devastation of the 1906 earthquake in a haunted view of the modern towers, placed against the backdrop of a western ghost town, to show the ultimate fear of the return of the repressed, as if it had been intentionally ignored by builders who had duped city planners in a gambit for funds.

19. Few could miss the point of the visualization mashing up extrusions of recently built towers against an early aerial photograph of the ruins of the earthquake of 1906.  In what may have appeared a case of bicoastal envy to some local residents, the newspaper of record indulged in a graphic visualization of the rising stakes of building on unstable ground–the towers were “a gamble,” heedless of the many ghost towns of the west–by asking readers interrogate the shaky rationale for overbuilding in a low-rise city, and over-riding concerns expressed by the San Francisco building inspectors; seeing red extrusions pop up out of the ruins of the devastated landscape shot in black and white, viewers were provoked to reflect about the folly of a rash of overbuilding, as they read a lead that released what it saw as an elephant in the closet, questioning the lack of preparations for the possibility of an earthquake against the ruins of 1906.  The concretization of disaster leaves little to the imagination, save the towers’ collapse, and raises questions about the future of urban planning out west as a game of chance, or a high-stakes risk that one might wage at casinos out West, designed to shock readers as much as recall the scale of the past disaster.

Despite the shock grabbing visual attention by bathing contemporary towers, as if in a Christo project, in deep shades of red, is the past-looking examination of the landscape more superficial than it seems?  The implied projection of acoming urban apocalypse almost aggressively pushes viewers away from the site, in ways strikingly unlike the deep dive into local data map that invites viewers into the urban habitats of a living landscape recently prepared by  Nature in the City illustrate the cultivation of open spaces and habitat.

The map issued on Earth Day in its third edition is not dynamically interactive, but its interface occurs in one’s mind.  If not boasting of its data richness, the map is based on more data than it might betray at first sight:  and it invites viewers to find the remaining green and open spaces–and the habitats that they encourage–deep within the city, its grey matter removed, stripped down to the bare greens of urban wild, and to listen to the ground that dreams of grass, shrub, or trees as dynamic habitats.  Some forty years ago, in an early atmosphere of environmental consciousness tied less to the preservation of wetlands, but the preservation of greenspace, a quite different degree of challenge in securing the tenuous place of nature in the city led to Barstow’s initial map.  Indeed, one would not ever imagine seeing nature “in” the city, by noticing the distinguishing features of a place is increasingly important to preserve, so much as preserving those green areas that existed within urban space.

We are in a time when the antithetical way that the city is viewed as “outside” of nature needs to be reappraised and rethought, and not only in terms of the raptors or peregrines or turkey vultures that roost, or raccoons forage and feed and live off urban habitats.  The city can be re-constructed as an integrated ecosystem for indigenous fauna and flora to mitigate increased urban density.  Even as the location of nature is, especially in the Bay Area, considered to lie “nearby,” but not it, the deep dive into data that even a static visualization allows, offers a chance to re-examine and explore the urban environment on the ground, and indeed view the city as a site for what Thoreau called the “preservation of the wild” that persisted in the city, even in the face of the rapid landcover change in surrounding regions, that seemed to have pushed nature farther away from the city of San Francisco than ever before.

But the sites of habitat survive.  The deeply revisionist mashup allows the pleasure of viewing mammals, crustaceans, and invertebrates around the green spaces and open oceans of San Francisco.   The new map of the city invites us to explore the ecosystem that lies above ground, offering an alternative to the point-based generic landscape of Google Maps that lreminds me of the continued presence of the wild in the built city, and invites me to engage the inter-relations of its ecosystem.  The map immerses the city’s structure in a web of natural habitats that it celebrates, from the lost waterways and fears of a projected return of an earlier coastline after the coastal flooding projected for 2100 according to the National Oceanic and Aeronautic Administration to the resilience of local habitat for whales, mollusks, birds, poppies, and trees; if the shoreline would return to its historical form, indeed, as its lowest-lying areas return to sea, restoring the old curvature of the coast to create a larger habitat for shorebirds.

The resulting map celebrates the persistence of nature in the city, and reminds us of the role it plays there, from a deeply-researched insider’s perspective that few in the city may share; it is an alternative mash-up of data sets and observations, concretized in  elegant images rendering direct naturalistic observations thistles, an avocet, an oyster, poppies, a jack-rabbit, and sand dollar, against a field of the urban tree cover, shrubs, and grasses–as if to confirm that the understory was in fact an overstory, perhaps, to cite Richard Powers, that defines the place we live in, even if we often overlook but that provides a delight to read–and even to shock us by what we find dwelling in a place we thought we knew at first hand, but may have ignored the ecosystem that also inhabits it.

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

The visually engaging nature of the map complements the intentionality of its focus on open spaces, green spaces, shrub, urban forest, and grasses.  If not limited to parks, it offers a celebration of the dynamic ways that each of these open spaces is in a sense interlocked within a broader habitat that helps distinguish the city from many of the overbuilt urban areas in the American West, and in the world.

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

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