The Natures of San Francisco

Each tells not only different stories, but offers quite different ways of viewing the city–either as a site of apocalypse, similar to a 1970s movie that occurred in Los Angeles, raising questions of the oversight of seismic risk by local authorities, or examining the shades of green that San Francisco has been able to preserve and remind us that we can seek contact with the habitats.  The surprises of the rich biodiversity in San Francisco are gliding, wonderfully out of scale with one another or with the map itself, as if to pop out at the viewer, in sharp contrast or counterpoint to the hulking skyscrapers, as illustrations of the possibility of contact with endangered species habitats in open spaces is shown not only in nearby Marin, or natural parks and protected lands in the Sierras, but in the city itself–as the lone coyote crouching on hind legs and yelping into the night air beside Bernal Heights.

Wolf Bernal Heights-bannerNature in the City map of San Francisco (detail of coyote illustrated by Jane Kim)

The dynamic sense of witnessing how nature that inhabits the city–and the threat of rising tides–is optimistic if not celebratory, but tells a story of sharing space and accommodation.  If the story that the scarier map conveys is all too simple–earthquakes are dangerous!–it is amazingly effective as a panorama.  The assembly of 3-D extrusions of taller buildings in an expanded liquefaction zone convey a sense of seismic risk in concrete terms that hardly needed to be narrated–even if it is amplified in the story of building codes.  The perspective view frames a story about lines of seismic activity hidden under the ground, but presented risks that the city’s government could be called out about; in contrast, the locally produced map designed after years of research by the non-profit organization Nature in the City celebrated the habitats across the city map of San Francisco’s often hidden but enduring wildlife.

By mapping the inhabitation of open spaces, and a delicate balance that the city uniquely maintains, the viewer is not hit invited to explore the data sets in reassuring ways, and to match against their own experience,–proposing that even in an area of ever-increasing anthropogenic change as a site still worth exploring, and treasuring.  Indeed, in contrast to the alarms set off by the red extrusions that seem to tempt the occurrence of underground tremors, the map invites us to look in detail at the habitats that street trees, back yards, and urban parks provide for endangered species as the hairstreak butterfly–and invite us to reconsider how we inhabit the spaces in which we coexist with them.

imageNature in the City Map of San Francisco (2018) (Detail of Hairstreak butterfly, by Jane Kim)

Try as we might to orient ourselves to downtown San Francisco by srolling down a superimposition of a black and white panorama with the red outlines of  tall buildings created a cautionary image, treating each building as a flag.  The map triggered, in contrast to the comforting map of urban habitat and open space, instinctive fears and a nightmarish vision of destruction, situating the present downtown towers against a historical aerial photograph post-quake ruins.  If the view by data visualizers at the New York Times captured attention in arresting ways, compelling you to read the story that snaked along the page you scrolled down, the revised map that developed over multiple years at the nonprofit Nature in the City tracks hidden habitats of the city, telling a story of the overlap of ecosystems and the built city in ways that showed signs of hope–even if its data was used on detailed surveys of the actual city from naturalists, biologists, and orthoimagery of the actual landscape, in an artistic image that invited urban exploration.  Rather than project the city’s skyscrapers on the ruins of that site, it drew attention to the butterflies, frogs, whales, pelicans and oysters whose habitats intersect like an unknown Venn diagram with the built city overground.

The dramatic superimposed images that invoked the ruins of 1906 for readers of the New York Times, lest they forget the dangers of seismic destruction, raised the danger of any seismic shocks to San Francisco’s new skyline not as an atmospheric view, but rooted in the geology of downtown, picturing the downtown skyscrapers superimposed for greatest dramatic against a not-too-subtle aerial photograph, “‘San Francisco in Ruins,’ of the smoking expanse of a devastated Market Street–an ur-image of urban destruction.  The historical image served the function of marking the anniversary, and asking us, in a sort of site-specific time travel, to ask how far we had come in construction practices and building supervision.  Even though the majority of new downtown buildings–and certainly the Salesforce Tower–are ‘green’ and constructed to LEED certified specifications–the Salesforce tower is rated Platinum and offers its tenants state-of-the-art water recycling (the largest water recycling in a commercial high-rise in the United States), to illustrate its commitment to green office design, and limited greenhouse gas  emissions.

But by juxtaposing the heights of buildings, mapped in extrusions that suggest their imposing three-dimensionality and dramatically call attention to the vulnerability of the recent “Manhattanization” of the downtown.  If San Francisco sought to spur the business zone by fostering new projects of high-rise construction, the fear of importing tall buildings as corporate icons to a region where few extend 600 feet above ground raised the big “What If?” scenario against the nightmarish vision of urban devastation.  While the towers championed their commitment to green values, green building certification, and “positive impact” on communities, the alarming “map” of the dangers of building in the face of seismic risk presented a picture of uncontrolled nature, brilliantly juxtaposing the ruins of the 1906 destruction with the 2018 skyline for immediate effect.  The mash-up invited speculation of how geological conditions were considered in the rooting new skyscrapers in the concrete cores–prompted partly by the recent the sinking of the Millennium Tower, but acting as a public historian, spinning out a potential future scenario of urban catastrophe.

San Francisco in Ruins.pngSan Francisco in Ruins (1906)

While both maps were based on sound data, they offered hugely divergent views of past, present and future, hinging on radically different perspectives–one based on the intensive building of status-conscious towers in a region notoriously well known as resting on sand and mud, and the other rising from the waters, sands, and earth to suggest the range of habitats that the city also comprised–lest we overlook its preservation of quite abundant habitats.  Even while noting impending dangers of sea-level rise that will return much of the are south of Market and piers underwater by 2020–

Flood level rise.pngNature in the City map (2018), detail of Embarcadero and South of Market

–the invitation to attend to open spaces and green habitat contrast to the holographic red silhouettes of actual building heights imposed on the ruins of the 1906 quake to question the wisdom of building codes.  If viewers of one map see the city as a habitat, against their view of urban land cover, viewers who scanned the article commemorating the 1906 quake online questioned the wisdom of building in a liquefaction zone, viewing the city as an outsider more than the insider’s view of the rich ecosystems and remaining within San Francisco  around its open spaces and beside the built environment.

24.  The distinction between the open space and built environment are less pronounced than the different vision of cartography’s ethics–shock and awe versus wait and look.  It’s hard not to be struck both by their difference in tone, and the different sorts of “natures” each describes:  while both point to the contingency and danger of urban expansion without regard for nature, the Nature in the City map seeks to inspire readers to take stock of securing of habitats in the city for plants and animals.  In contrast, the interactive panorama of unsupervised vertical building in downtown San Francisco suggest the precareity of over-building in the face of undeniable seismic risk.

The graphic is far more arresting–and less inviting–but the backdrop of an old black and white panoramic photograph shot from 2000 feet above San Francisco Bay of the ruins of 1906 that led to the destruction of three quarters of the city and the burning of the old downtown, up Market Street, the projection of actual building heights conjure its seismic recurrence–


–by the cute trick of superimposing the spate of new building projects atop it, starting with the Salesforce Tower that looms over the new urban skyline–

houses with salesforce.pngNew York Times (April 17, 2018)

–to invite us to pause before the potential of building in a site of potential urban apocalypse.

There is considerable visual impact of extrusions that seem holographically projecting red outlines of buildings across the liquefaction zone conjured fears of the risk of current precareity that is a classic view of the city as seen from outside; even with no real knowledge of the city, the risk of seismic disaster invite sudden fears that the buildings over two hundred and fifty feet pose for the immediate future, and recall; in a subliminal way, they may well recall a scale of traumatic destruction perhaps comparable to the loss of the Twin Towers in 9/11, but that would be the result of inadequate planning.  If the mash-up pastiche is in one of the more brilliant pastiche graphics of recent years, the image is more removed from the actual city than the excavation of urban environment.

If unforgettable, juxtaposing the past disaster raise pressing questions of the adequacy of present building codes, and the ruins of the new downtown invited, to be sure; but it conveys an almost proprietorial relation to the skyscraper among New Yorkers, in striking contrast to the map designed by Nature in the City which depicts in great visual detail, rich with greens, the fragility not of buildings–or the built environment–but an insider’s affirmation of the need to protect and maintain precarious state of urban wildlife habitat.

Both the panorama of skyscrapers clustered in the city’s downtown as monuments to Mammon in the midst of a liquefaction zone and the map of niches of wildlife are based on sound data, but orient viewers he anthropogenic building heights contrast with the preservation of habitat in ways so sharply contrasting to suggest the difficulty we all face in negotiating urban growth.  While the superimposition of monumental buildings on an aerial photograph of the devastated landscape of 1906 suggest the distance of the SF planning commission from historical memory, the persistence of habitats revealed in the revised Nature in the City map suggest the ways that water, animal species, and plants have their own “memories” of returning to the city that we are so accustomed to see as a built environment.

While both visualizations built on accurate data–either the starkness of building heights within a growing ground at risk for seismic activity, or, in the Nature in the City map, the habitats of species–they partial views they offer combine different mapping strategies. Nature in the City uses a range of accurate data and orthogonal imagery of San Francisco’s open and green space to tell several stories about the restoration of habitat and preservation of ecosystems that is, let’s say, data-rich without being heavily data-centric or overly complex.  The pleasure of the map’s legibility–in contrast to the fearsome image of destruction of a liquefaction zone–is almost a loving guide of how to live and notice space.

ture in city

Poppies San Fran Geln CanyonNature in the City 

Indeed, although the detailed map of urban habitat reflects sound data, the elegance of its illustrations suggests how lightly it wears it quite lightly, when first seeing it, and the use of art and cartography beckon contact with fragile habitat outside the city’s built environment.  In ways that depart from images that celebrate the monuments of urban architecture of place, it asks us to revise our understandings of San Francisco as a city, by directing us gently to expand our attention to the inhabitants of the place it describes, in a creative counter-map of the changing urban environment that offers a model of living in place worthy of and directly descended from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden in its celebration of place as an ecosystem to which humans are ethically compelled to adopt.

25. For by refining viewers’ relation to how a broad sense of place is inhabited, in ways that offer an ethical expansion of the knowledge of San Francisco we may already know, it presents the city at the center of a broader, unique ecosystem nourished by rivers, a rich offshore kelp forest, and plants that grew on now scattered dunes, suggesting the progress of habitat restoration conducted over two decades on the city, and the cleaning of the Bay, and offering a record of the return of habitats known–poppies and elephant seals–and less known–frogs and butterflies–that inhabit the city on the Bay.  Whereas the article in the New York Times foregrounded the dangers of overbuilding in a downtown without bedrock, unlike Manhattan, and their placement in liquefaction zones, the Nature in the City has worked hard to restore habitats once compromised.  In contrast, the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake that demolished most of downtown led to more alarmist record, setting off alarms at high volume in red about the unwarranted eagerness for an architecture of affluence.  Whereas the downtown once contained few large buildings, the mashup questions their place in the area destroyed one hundred and ten years ago, as if to measure just how much it matters how green the construction of the buildings are.

1906 burnprint

Few buildings exceeded six hundred feet in height in San Francisco until the 1970s,when the Transamerica “Pyramid” first arrived as an icon in the skyline, the second alarming growth spurt of sheer steel and glass that seems a next generation of businesses dependent on the online economy, which see themselves as interested in rehabilitating the architectural skyline of a metropoles, has been recorded in quite alarmist tones–to remind us the city’s building code doesn’t cover skyscrapers more stringently than five-story houses; the recent burst of constructing 160 buildings over 240 feet seems a gamble for city authorities, the risk of completing the Salesforce Tower–tallest skyscraper in the West, outweigh the benefits.

Da_gxlJVwAASERA.jpgNew York Times Interactive (detail)

In contrast to these fearsome stark reds, the deep greens in the Nature in the City Map–a far deeper historical record tracing inter-relations among species celebrating the survival of habitat in counterweight to anthropogenic building, due to efforts of habitat restoration.  The new Nature in the City map, elegantly illustrated in its third edition, presents a counter-map to the reflective images we fear of seismic risk.

Seismic risk is, to be sure, the defining features of San Francisco and Bay Area, known by all and seen from afar.  It can be measured in the confluence of the San Andreas and Hayward fault lines, and doesn’t run through the city, but surrounds the peninsula.  While the surface-view of San Francisco that invite speculation about the safety of such rampant building above six hundred feet in the midst of a downtown already susceptible to shaking underscore the dangerous instability of its underground soil.   USGS had already created a similar narrative, foregrounding the riskiness of building on artificial fill or artificial sand and mud–foregrounded in bright red, the dominant color of danger–from the piers that extend at right angles to the San Francisco Bay and along the hinge of San Francisco’s two grids of Market Street.


But there seems a bit of cautionary reprimanding of the San Francisco’s Building Codes and the SF Planning Commission for having allowed the construction of so many buildings with concrete cores in an area whose mud and clay have been long known as particularly hazardous for earthquakes, and whose own “seismic hazard zone” extends around the very area of the most intense construction.  Colored in a darker grey shade of below, and in contrast to the city’s asphalt, the notion of risk is almost implicit in one’s own knowledge of the city–

Seismic hazard zoine.pngSeismic Hazard Zone/San Francisco Open Data

–especially from newsdesks of a city that prides itself on the safety of its density of skyscrapers, as if to naturalize the right to build on bedrock and bemoan the folly of those architects who would attempt to imitate its spiky skyline.

NY Skyscraprs from above.png.jpg

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

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