The Natures of San Francisco

23.  Is it purely a coincidence that it was on the very same week, incredibly if fortuitously, that the New York Times released the map of the explosion of skyscrapers in downtown San Francisco, on April 17, 2018, ostensibly commemorating the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake.  The visualization asked us to ponder the growth of the urban environment as much as the ground, concretizing a story of seismic risk by querying an apparent collective reluctance to confront the legacy and two major fault-lines that frame the city’s location:  the spectacularly direct visualization of the towers above six hundred and forty feet in its liquefaction zone maps an influx of building capital into the downtown as opening up new areas of risk.

The looming towers in the downtown area seem a statement of hubris that expanded with an influx of building capital–and the promise of a tie to San Jose and Silicon Valley, by using recent the data set USGS released of seismic risks in the downtown liquefaction zone, to tell an even more pronounced story against the memory of 1906.


New York Times (April 17, 2018)

And by placing the striking verticality of buildings on the edge of the shore, and, even more dramatically, against a panorama of the ruins of the 1906 earthquake lying downtown on both sides of Market Street, each skyscraper or building of a certain height becomes a danger sign; we’re  invited to contemplate their future collapse as an urban catastrophe waiting to happen, focussed on metropolitan expansion and not concentrating on inconvenient but stubbornly present underground faults that haunt its built space.

Rather than conjuring a view that orients readers and web-surfers from afar, Nature in the City designed a vibrant and dynamic map which, if not web-based, and printed on paper, invited and indeed compelled me to process the surprising prominence of green n the insider’s view of an explosion of urban wildlife detected after close observation on the ground.  The Nature in the City celebrates the unique nature of the city as a site of habitat, rather than a built space.  In sharp contrast, the orthoimagery (an image of orthorectified data) of local plant density and natural ground cover in San Francisco offered an insider’s view of how a region known for regional biodiversity and proximity to beaches, majestic headlands, oceans, and natural preserves is a site where one can actually map nature in the city, and not only in Golden Gate Park and the Presidio or Alcatraz.

It suggested not only the remaining open spaces of habitat as a two-edged sword, matched by the  resilience of nature even in the face of coming future changes in sea-level, instead of raising alarms of ever-present risk, illustrated in perky colors and illustrating the threatened species that can be seen in the city if you know where to look.  If many of the downtown towers are built according to green specifications–and with professions to urban sustainability that present themselves as models of responsible building–the map of sites of open space and habitat orients us to by mapping the place of “nature” across the city in a directly engaging way by asking its viewers to shift their attitude to its built environment, and to accommodate the potential dominance over forces of nature–including anthropogenic sea-level rise–to the city’s built space.

imageNature in the City (detail near Embarcadero, showing open spaces and sea-level rise)

Indeed, the juxtaposition of the new skyline of San Francisco–pictured as ghostly red extrusions, against a 1906 aerial photograph, the “Ruins of San Francisco,” bluntly hint at the seismic instability of the Salesforce Tower (1070 feet), Transamerica Pyramid (853 feet, tapered at the top), and Millennium Tower (640 feet), portraying them as unthinking sentinels waiting for the Big One to arrive, with the one hundred and sixty buildings that rise above two hundred and forty feet in the downtown area today, showing them all not as emblems of architectural triumph or economic growth, as if to alert us to an impending disaster–despite a professed commitments of any builder or corporation to claims of “environmental sustainability.”

New York Times (April 17, 2018):  Salesforce Tower to the Transamerica Building

The view of San Francisco’s towers concretized the perspective of an outsider–the national newspaper of record–contrasts to the intensity of looking at the current ground of the city.  Indeed, on the ground we see the inter-relations of open and paved spaces of San Francisco’s land cover, rather than scold the city with risk of return of devastation 112 years ago atop which a new spate of skyscrapers has been suddenly built, as if with scant attention to its geology and proximity to neighboring fault-lines that lie deep underground.  The two ways of mapping the city–one from inside, and one broadcast online–offer quite radically different ways of using maps to react to the urban surface–and tell a story about the dangers of expanding built spaces through the increasingly anthropogenic alteration of urban land cover.    Although one is apocalyptic, in ways that seem right for the times, the other celebrates the survival of open space in an overbuilt world.

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

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