The Natures of San Francisco

23.  The problems of showing place–and of representing place–are all the more complicated in recent years, with place increasingly subject to global, land cover, and climactic or environmental change.   The uneasiness of our relation to place was captured when the New York Times sought to interrogate the logic of vertical rebuilding in San Francisco against the ruins of the 1906 earthquake, because it created a heightened dream-like relation to place; the interactive map starkly imagined the location of increased building heights of new skyscrapers against the ruins that stretched along Market Street for its readers, as if to map the present risk against the past disaster, and to anticipate the scale of disaster of a future urban apocalypse to come.  In contrast, the newly detailed Nature in the City map uses strategies of mapping open data in what has become a center for map making to take stock of the future space of the city, suggests a point of orientation on the remaining place of green habitat in the city, rather than orient viewers to its built space, and to focus on its rich animal and plant habitat, rather than built environment.

Perhaps the sense of an encomiastic view of urban space seems so antiquated in an era of increased risk to built environment and nature that the disrupted landscape seemed a proper way to imagine the ultimate scenario of disaster.   The profound changes in the city’s urban landscape, population, and rental market have been tracked through open data in the economic remaking of the city by notices of eviction, gentrification and erasure of urban identity, revealed in shifts in ethnic composition, demographics, as well as urban homelessness of many city residents, are as difficult to embody in their human consequences as more “scientific” data as projections of sea-level rise.   (Have all only served to increase the acute instability of our sense of urban coherence and urban identity?)

The choice to focus on the remaining open spaces revealed in Nature in the City’s smattering of greens mediate datasets compiled over ten years to selectively map an urban habitat in order to raise clear questions about its space, and foster if not encourage our preservation of an ethical relation to it.  The detailed Nature in the City map invites viewers to take stock of open spaces it celebrates in relation to the built space, which it downplays in favor of rich animal and plant habitats.  But as data alone fail to tell a story, or to create a visualization that involves viewers, the datasets that both maps use are concretized in pictorial images–extrusions or animals and plants–that create a clearly compelling relation to place, telling stories responding to ever-present fears or offering reassuring reminders of a broader ecosystem we also inhabit, but often overlook for its buildings and paved spaces, but offer nearby sites of urban escape.  Indeed, the manner in which it does so only increases the stakes that viewers will gain of the place that the map illustrates.

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Nature in the City map (2018), featuring hand-drawn wildlife illustrated by Jane Kim

22.  Both visualizations concretize the availability of data sets for viewers in unique visual palettes and ways–either by focussing on the recent construction of buildings that have proceeded from the 1970s, extrusions set against a landscape of devastation, or presenting a fertile landscape of an often hidden ecosystem that the team of mapmakers have carefully worked on over multiple years to invite the viewer to explore the changing natural morphology of open spaces–not only the parks, each labelled in detail, but grass, shrubs, tree cover, and city trees–in ways that tell a very different story map about the inhabitation of space, looking not at built environments but the environments that San Franciscans have also–in part through the Nature in the City group–worked to preserve.  It encourages human stewardship of natural environments in the city in a wonderful illustration of fostering public knowledge and involvement in urban space.

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

The range of mapping tools and visual technologies to capture the city at what seems a moment of change arrest our attention, in hopes to help orient us to different aspects of the city both as a built environment and as one accommodating open “green space.”  The alternative views of the city are not only a question of viewing the glass as half-empty or half-full, but as suggesting the basis of mapping an ethics of place.  The question of ethics is not about data at all.  Both views use recent data–the Nature in the City map of 2018 shown in the header to this post reflects over a decade of design strategizing and local investigation and research–the views could not be more different in orienting us to a stories of a quickly shifting ground-plan.  The playing to the fearful eventuality of a disruptive nature that we have ceased to listen to, trusting clusters of deeply-sunk cores of rebar to penetrate the bedrock beneath, as in the Millennium Tower, to bear the load, seems unethical in its desire to tap into the fears conjured by anyone who looks at a  ruined landscape.

But the Nature in the City map prompts us to navigate space by using a diverse range of datasets of ground cover and habitat that celebrate the achievement of accommodating urban wildlife and growing habitat.  Rather than suggest the arrival of the big one, in the ultimate insider’s view, it asks us to navigate the areas of open space where nature exists and cane observed.  The maps of the local habitat in greener areas of San Francisco invites us to see the city as greener than we might imagine at a time when land cover is increasingly man-made.  In a deeply Thoreauian sense, there is an unruliness with which it invites us to savor the details of place, disrupt the built structure of the city and attend to the parks, pathways, and urban forests or lakes, transcending the built environment with its simple focus on sites of habitat, not roads, intersections, freeways, or monuments, and encompassing a multi-faceted nature from sand-dollars to insects (if lepidoptera) and invite us to exit the structures where we dwell to find where they live.

But it is perhaps most inspired by Thoreau in how it invites us to take a stake of ownership of lands we don’t in fact inhabit, and develop our relation to them.  In order to white-out human presence and constructions, a rich light green and warm deep blue tones alone invited me into the space of the city in a new way, as soon as I saw it, focussing not on built but open spaces, even as sea-levels rise, and invite us on a deep dive into the city’s lived environment and tempting me to seek out hairstreak butterflies.  The preservation of such open spaces reveals the city’s deep reserve of green–an instructional understory–to orient ourselves to its true wealth.

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

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