The Natures of San Francisco

The publication of these two quite very different–but both provocative–new bird’s eye views offering purchase either of an overbuilt city pose questions of how we can use maps to orient viewers to a period of urban growth and overbuiliding, or to the  survival of open space within it–speak to a new demand for maps in an over-,mapped world.  A question one might ask–or set of questions–might begin from what sort of a picture of the city does one really want to create, and can one “map” the city more conscientiously and ethically without appealing to a cinematic imaginary of disaster, to offer an account of the survival of a geography of coexistence that is often ignored beneath the built landscape?   In contrast, the multiple observations in the map celebrating the same city that Nature in the City has crafted from careful observation and nurturing of landscape and habitat celebrates the active urban ecosystem that it has helped sponsor, rather than the ruins of impending apocalyptic earthquake as the city’s essential nature.

The points of entry to San Francisco offered in the Nature in the City map elicits visual interest not only to indigenous but endangered animals, set out of scale against the open spaces and green spaces of the city, but invites inhabitants to develop a strong tie of empathy to how several species–pelicans, whales, a rearing coyote, a salmon, a rare green butterfly, sand dollars, the American Avocet–inhabit a complexly alive urban space.  In so doing, it teaches us how to map space in increasingly sophisticated and interactive ways, even if it has a static form.  Rather than view the anthropogenic city of poured concrete in only a rigorously anthropocentric way, the invitation to map habitat and help to encourage the creation and fostering of urban habitat seems a uniquely trans-species form of mapping that invites us to explore the possibilities of an urban environment.

As if seeking to champion the active preservation of landscape protection outside of a human perspective, in an image of hope for the species that share an urban geography couldn’t contrast more with the fear of the arrival an urban apocalypse and unpredictable activity underground geological faults.


But the contrast lies deeper:  for the Nature in the City illustrated map invites us to explore a reassuring image not of instinctive fear, but of detailed attention and attentiveness, designed to make viewers active stake-holders in the creation of a new sort of urban environment, rooted not in the appeal to fear for the survival and material destruction, but a trans-species empathy for other residents and the broader appreciation of the vitality of an ecosystem that can be sustained, and that maps can invite us to refine our relation towards, as much as use as a guide for way-finding.

Who’s not to say that in an age of the availability of ever-increasing data, the need for maps that orient us better to the lived world are not incumbent, either through a mash-up reminding us of the need for mapping past seismic disasters on current building projects, or the unseen places where nature inhabits the city, which reminds us how habitat and ecosystems are not only incidental, but exist for our benefit?  Can we even keep our eyes on urban spaces?  Even as the scale of landscape modification proceeded at a rate challenging to map or quantify the loss of landscape to human modification demands tools of visualization able to concretely render the pace of change as we struggle to comprehend its scale and shape and seek to calibrate the scale of potential loss.

The loss due to human development of the landscape once viewed as “natural” and wild was once “off the map,” but it remains hard to know how to resist the encroachment on open spaces and “natural” habitat.  We face problems of maintaining wilderness protections in ways that may indeed demand new maps that orient us to loss or the delicate balance of land protections.  With protected spaces of the West under attack from an anti-parks caucus in the U.S. Congress, the active resistance of a new ethics of mapping lie increasingly on the front lines of cartographical responsibility.  Can one map a more responsible ethical relation to open space, which might encourage residents to adopt a more interested relation to space?

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

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