The Natures of San Francisco

21. The expansion of pavement in San Francisco has been historically limited in very fortunate ways–creating or allowing for the survival of considerable open spaces, in part secured by mountainous terrain, and in part by the intense beauty of nearby shores and ocean peaks–and an over-active real estate market bent on boosting confidence in creating luxury housing.  The difficulty of  managing the city’s growth make it opportune that the Nature in the City non-profit has so eloquently mapped the “urban habitat” between open spaces in the city, illustrating the range of habitat located at the intersection of migration zones and corridors.

The map reveals the dynamic nature of the local ecosystem in ways that belie the overpavement of the West–even if the city appears a built-over landscape rather than an area of green.  Indeed, the rich tools of illustration invite us to enter a map that is testament to the memory of its still-living past, bearing traces of a time when sandy landscapes encouraged flora and plants created corridors for migration.  The mapping presents a form of ecological resistance that works to affirm and ensure the survival of biodiversity that the city can still be able to nourish in ways from which the area’s ecosystem benefits and a new way to view the urban area–still represented at a small-scale maps to contrast with the surrounding areas of still-protected lands and greens, but which, as one drills down in the data or zooms into the map’s surface at greatest scale, presents a delicate ecosystem of its own.

Even the small-scale map communicates a sense in which the environment long nourished pelican, salmon, and monarch butterflies and is nourished by them,– inviting us to engage their ecosystems and in doing so to reconsider and redefine our ethical relation to the landscapes where they live.


The map compels us to ask how best to enter San Francisco’s urban landscape, to appreciate the ecosystems it both nestles and conceals.  The very different ways of viewing available open data about the place of nature in the city–and concretely rendering a story to either the redesign of the downtown’s character and a fragile local environment in the face of a quite disorientingly rapid redesign of the western landscape that we often wish we could rewind.

15.  The coincidence this year of the release of the Nature in the City of the map of local habitat on Earth Day and the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake this year raised the question of how to map San Francisco in unexpected ways.  On the one hand, there is an image that is dominated by the ominous narrative of the overpaying of once open-space and the real estate market spun out of control, as unchecked as global warming led to visualizing the dense towers over 850 feet in downtown San Francisco on the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake  against the historical destruction of the city’s liquefaction zone.  On the other, there is an invitation to explore the dynamic habitat not only as a static place, tethered to geological formations, and a destiny of destruction, but as a resilient and persistent space of the wild–that is also a map that helps us enjoy the space we inhabit in ways we didn’t know we could.

earthquake sfThe New York Times

All viewers who scrolled down the page in their browser were compelled to contemplate, for a moment, the the future unfolding of urban devastation–as if it were the bombshell of the day, even if its value as an interactive map that users could navigate was limited, and the mash-up it offered cool as a superimposition that broached a question few had posed in an intensity and urgency that derived not only from its use of reds against a black-and-white background as its color-scheme.

The superimposition the modern towers against the ruins of 1906 as monuments of an ancient world from an unknown if perhaps soon-arriving vantage point in the future, collapsing time to underline the extreme precariousness not only of our climate and environment, but what seems unsupervised urban growth.  Each extrusions marked a skyscraper not as a triumphant building over ruins, but overlooking the future ruins that they risked becoming, as if to invite us to navigate an impending apocalypse, provoked by the the shaky terrain of the downtown.  Indeed, the sandy underground of the liquefaction zone seems poised to swallow and destroy what local boosters have portrayed as a sign of the culmination of urban gentrification or, alternately, as the concrete signs of economic growth.  Can concrete towers be sustained by clayey sand, even if load-bearing concrete pillars extend deep into bedrock deep below?


New York Times (April 17, 2018)

The mashup of photograph and building heights suggests the dangers of  a return of the repressed, resurrecting memories of the city’s earlier devastation as a back drop to remind us of the presence of nature in its its built space.  For encouraged by the spread of a by now global vernacular for urban status, towers, as if inspired by the Trump Tower condition of elevating oneself by one’s income above an urban terrain, and building monuments to the concentrated arrival of urban wealth, the growth of towers, often with money from Silicon Valley, have expanded construction in downtown San Francisco’s sandiest soil in what seems a violation of the common wealth, in deeply a Thoreauian sense, and of the city’s natural wealth:  although the largely sandy terrain of the city framed by hidden fault lines long tempered tendencies for overbuilding, the dangerously unstable soil hazardous that limited building density in the west coast city seem to invite disaster in their hypertrophic gentrification of the downtown, now colonized by such mixed use residential towers.

Might one create a more satisfyingly engaging map of the same city?  The public interest that is preserved by the most recent Nature in the City map exemplify the ways in which the common wealth of a place may be captured and promoted in cartographical form, enlisting its observers and readers in a way that promotes some might call ‘ownership’ of public spaces, but others an ethical investment in place by compelling us to see it quite differently.  The cornucopia of natural wealth of habitat is shown as stubbornly, elegantly, and abundantly flourishing in boundaries of the same urban landscape whose palette of greens recalls a hand-drawn map, whose design almost conceals–as the best maps do–the fact it is in fact exceedingly data-rich.

21.  The stunning graphic success of the  Nature in the City map in registering and capturing the variegated urban space rests in its tactile presentation of living evidence of the ecosystems that San Francisco supports.  Viewers are invited to enter into it and explore–the maps works by inviting readers to travel where they are able to be seen, through a combination of cartography and art, and in so doing illustrates an alternative story of accommodating nature in the city and inviting residents to preserve its presence in our minds and by our action.

The project of Nature in the City is indeed an exemplary one of what has been promoted as projects of “participatory change,” based on deep local knowledge of the setting and environment for local benefit, rather than an outsider’s view of urban growth.

Centerpiece NITC.pngNature in the City map with images of animals and plants by Jane Kim

The corridors of habitat that run through San Francisco’s built environment that Nature in the City foregrounds call viewers’ attention to the  “stepping stone habitats” of modest size linking open spaces and parks in the city create a rich picture of the overground stories in restored public lands, vanished in many other overbuilt cities,  to prevent the inevitable local extinction of animals like the hairstreak butterfly whose populations live in islands of restored plant habitat, serving as sensors monitoring local environmental health and pest control.  By orienting viewers to the habitat of the hairstreak, indeed, the intensive detail of the map of San Francisco designed and produced by third edition of the Nature in the City map invites us to drill down into the habitat in non-built spaces, to develop, as Thoreau urged, a deeply ethical relation to place than mapping the footprint of a built environment could ever allow.

hairstreak habitatHairstreak Butterfly in Nature in the City; hairstreak illustrated by Jane Kim

The role of mapping as an act of civil resistance is provocatively successful, for it affords a broadened way of looking at our “common wealth” and our care for public space.  While we usually map cities’ buildings and take their form as the building blocks for urban elegance and encomia, the new maps of the city–of earthquake dangers and habitat restoration–depart from a worn-thin rhetoric of the boosterim of the built environment. The alternative encomia that they offer wrestle with questions of the status and value of the “urban” as a continued good, one not only driven by market forces.  Indeed, by creating an alternate sort of encomiastic map–not to the buildings, but the green spaces that the built environment allows–we perform a sense of preserving wild of the very sort Thoreau would approve, and that demands we refine the ethics of our relation to the urban space.

22.   In counterpoint, the alarmist tenor of mapping San Francisco skyscrapers is scary, and deeply shocking as a record of built space that seems to have proceeded without heeding nature.  The expanse dedicated to luxury apartments and mixed-use space indeed offers a case in point about the risks they pose for the city, and the somewhat duplicitous promotion of “clean” LEED-certified construction:   billed as “green housing,” towers like the Salesforce Tower (reaching 1.4 million feet above sea-level, boasting “fresh, outside air” and views of the bay–and divided into sections with naturalistic names, “Bay” and “Sky,” as if to remove it from a man-made construction) and the Millennium Tower (an unprecedented fifty-eight stories) both est on load-bearing rebar piles of concrete sunk 300 feet deep underground past the sandy clay soil, hoping to reach into the bedrock below.

They seem removed from the nature of the place as they seem increasingly alienated from the ground above which they soar, and have shown to be eerily disconnected from it.  The claims of access to nature that these buildings allow is indeed window dressing for the environmental dangers that they pose.  In an age of increasing anthropogenic transformations of a global landscape that was long guided by maps that paid limited attention to the ecological or the underground, so focussed are satellite maps, the UTM projection, or global geo-location on discrete points, disembodied from a landscape, we are apt to not see the place as a site of historical transformation that stands to alienate ourselves as inhabitants as much as viewers from the meaning of place, even as we offer window-dressing claims to be LEED-certified and boasting features of water recycling and to be low-impact in nature. Rising like a futuristic monument to built space, an obelisk placed in the center or the fragile earth downtown, the sleek skyscraper seems out of tune with the skyline and even the built environment.

Telling of a story of the risks of such alienation is difficult.  But to do so might bring us around to gain a better understanding of the dynamics of place and landscape modification, as well as the steps we can take to understand reactions and points of resistance to such modification, and through that our relation to nature.  For the scope and scale of land cover transformation threaten to disorient what we thought was a known place–and compel us to try to remap our place to it, and remap the natural habitat that still exists in, as well as the natural dangers that face the city, and raise questions of the possibilities that exist for slowing down if not taking stock of the pace of urban change and expansion of built environments that risk compromising local habitat, if not risk the implosion of urban place–and not only in San Francisco.

portland-mount-hood_h.jpgPortland and Mt. Hood

The challenge of transformation in San Francisco is steep, however, and makes a nice point, as it is also such a vibrant center of local mapping and visualization, and offers a place to illustrate the need of telling a new story about place through maps that focusses less on the encomia of an architectural environment, and reveals fears about the absence of supporting the increasingly tall foundations in sandy urban terrain.

fullsizerenderMillennium Tower’s Shaky Foundations

The environment of San Francisco is usually cast as a site of danger–both because of sea-level rise from the Bay, but the 70% chance that an earthquake of a magnitude 6.7 or greater will occur in the next 30 years from nearby faults.  Quite recently, USGS in 2016 tried to help orient the public to such risks by a detailed liquefaction susceptibility map to organize the levels of risks a full quarter of San Francisco faces from nearby earthquake faults.  The map of block-by-block risk of soil types in an area of increasingly dense residential skyscrapers raises questions of habitability and risk that even new building practices cannot address, and present a storyline we can barely bring ourselves to assemble–and to place the most dangerous areas of the city–especially the popular areas of its piers and downtown–as the most susceptible to tremors in a region of risk, although the notion of mapping “risky neighborhoods” seems to deny the interconnected nature of the urban fabric, and to be a bit of a mental artifact of the dangerous disaggregation of the pointillism of GPS.   (The map released in public newspapers and media had a distinctly different tenor and shock value than the maps that USGS in fact designed.)

920x1240U.S. Geological Survey

The data of “risk” is a difficult one to narrate, in part because we can only imagine its endpoint as one of devastation.    But the datasets compel translation.  And as we try to understand the ‘fate of place’ in a globalized world threatened by environmental and climatic change, mapping place lies increasingly on the front table of our epistemological travails.  To tell a story about place that maps the changing nature of place against other images–images of local habitat or of the dangers of shifting tectonic plates, we use data to try to take stock of what sort of “place” remains, and how best to visualize an engaging story about place that is best able to orient ourselves to the future of the place we inhabit.  The need of maps that better orient us to a local landscape and our place in it–as much as to mobilize us by fear–must lie in making a sense of that loss concrete.

The anniversary of the 1906 earthquake may have seemed to offer one chance to do so.  San Francisco seems concrete land cover in the larger view of the Bay Area above, a deep dive into the local habitats of place suggest the way that place is a complex web of ecosystems, rather than a built space; the built spaces of the city in a site of seismic risk may even be seen as particularly precarious sites, suggested the New York Times, by projecting 3-D extrusions of the new landmarks of the built city against an image of the devastating quake of 1906, in order to make the dangers of living in the liquefaction zone even more clear for the increasing number of towers and skyscrapers–an architectural style American and global, but long foreign to San Francisco’s seismic terrain–create an increased topography of danger that even the best data cannot help us narrate.  And so working with a historical aerial view of the devastation of 1906–


–the mapping of the new sites of skyscrapers in red extrusions, sitting as ghosts of the present on the ghostly landscape of the past, lead readers to imagine the risk of falling buildings on its historically unstable terrain.

houses with salesforceNew York Times (April 17, 2018)

The image created an immediately arresting mapping questions about the future of the city, in the newspaper’s national edition, consolidating questions about a burst of vertical construction that reflected newly stimulated interest in downtown realty and the new combination of mixed use office space with high-end residential housing.  While the map portrays the degree to which the demand for housing and high-end real estate as an alienation from nature–indeed illustrating an amnesiac relation to the nature of the terrain between the fault lines of the continental shelf–

–it effectively laments a remove from nature in the desire for lucre, as if the adoption of a now-global metropolitan architectural vernacular of the skyscraper is poorly transferred to the west coast, even despite recent advances in retrofitting technologies and structural reinforcement have allowed the rebuilding of a new East Bay Bridge and a loosening of building codes.

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

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