The Natures of San Francisco

Despite the historical risk of earthquakes in the Bay Area, where “nature” is often cast as menacing, the biodiversity foregrounded in Nature in the City turn viewers’ eyes to mapping the habitats that exist in the region and have been protected, both intentionally and by the geographic location, within its open spaces.

The Nature in the City map celebrates a green vision of the city, depicting the green spaces between the ocean and the bay, shifting aspect and perspective on the relation of nature to the city to the place of nature in the city, in a classic “duck-rabbit” shift of perception.  The map is a “counter-map” of the history of city maps, focussing less on its streets, buildings, paved roads, or urban monuments than to notice the presence of nature that its distinctive greening of many of its streets and open spaces bring, that the out-of-scale flora and fauna gliding over the map’s surface serve to invite us to seek out and explore.

ture in city.pngNature in the City (detail of Golden Gate Park and surrounding neighborhood)

If both present images which invite viewers to look at the overlooked, it’s hard not to be struck by the stark differences in the ways each translate accurate data about the heights of buildings or the orthoimagery of niches and corridors of greenspace that distinguish the city in order to orient us to possible urban futures:  indeed, San Francisco, scored one of the greenest cities in the United States, barely behind Portland, is a surprising setting or a site of overbuilding.  The visions each offer are compelling a time when urban land cover change is accelerating in ways challenging to map, and its speed of change seems to dislodge the spate of overbuilding from its actual consequences, and at a rate of change undermine any historical perspective.

26.  Whereas one presents distinctively green aspects of San Francisco, the exclusive focus on the built environment–where the arrival of a spate of growing bright red skyscrapers suggest danger signs in liquefaction zones–and untold seismic risks–contrasts with the detailing of the protected environments of urban areas where habitats flourish.  (It’s hard to assess which of the two city maps is more of the moment, but the combined media couldn’t orient us to more different visions, one filled with a proliferation of danger signs and one filled with sites of hope.)

The images of an advancing overbuilding of urban architecture, prominently displayed but the Times, summoned a scary image of the Salesforce Tower as a Tower of Babel rising over four hundred feet above its neighbors, seems a monument to lucre casting its shadow over buildings once seen as impressively tall, as emblematic of an unsupervised overbuilding of the downtown of the city, where increased building heights are cast as advancing invasive aliens forms, multiplying unchecked in the downtown area in viral fashion around Market Street, as if announcing, but asking the nation to take stock of its changed skyline–

looming towersNew York Times (April 17, 2018)

–in a rampant fashion by towering over nall earby buildings, so that it seems a full inch taller from the East Bay and can be seen from San Jose–

salsesforce centinel.png

–imposed on a potentially shaky, sand-rich surface of former dunes.  Cast as an arrival from Silicon Valley–although no skyscrapers exist in San Jose–Salesforce is the technically the first resident of the Transbay Transit Center that will link San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and emblematic of the arrival of a new scale of money downtown.  The promotion and hype surrounding the tower–view its scale in relation to the nearby Transamerica Pyramid in the publicity drawing above–seems unbound by natural laws of building as the article seeks to call our attention.

This only occurred, however, announced the Times, as a scary “seismic gamble” by city housing authorities, playing fast and loose with building codes to bolster the economy of the downtown, without adequate regard for well-established earthquake dangers.  The possibility of inadequate supervision by city agencies were accentuated by overlaying newly built taller buildings over a historical black-and-white aerial photograph of the post-quake city to foreground the risks of upwards xpansion a century after the city was tragically leveled by the quake, triggering fears at the difficulty of quantifying seismic risks that a range of the new growing towers that dominate the overbuilding of an active real estate market mid-Market area–

earthquake sf.pngNew York Times, April 17 2018

–monetarily mapping crowded towers gainst leveled ruins after the fires were extinguished, lest we forget the lack of stable ground on which recent building occurred.  Rather than foregrounding the vital forms of the city, the attempt to illustrate the danger lurking in underground fault lines suggests the problem of a chiasmus between real estate construction and nature, in which the value of building space seems to have let caution fall to the wayside, and the danger that the irrational exuberance of such continued building projects portend.

In contrast, we are invited to examine the inhabitation of other parts of city, and surrounding waters, in the Nature in the City‘s revised map of urban ecosystems and wildlife habitat.  Indeed, by foregrounding areas of the settlement and flourishing of endangered species, it shifts attention from urban-wildness interface prominent in analysis of the tragic recent North Bay Fires, to explore how San Francisco actually nourishes a non-anthropogenic world.  If the Salesforce Tower already attracted natural strikes of lighting in September 11, 2017–

Salesforce Lightning.pngKarl Mondon/Bay Area News Group

–as well as a literal lightning rod, the Tower dwarfing all other buildings on the skyline was a lightning rod for the dangerous elasticity of buildings codes for the Times, and a call to the dangers of what seemed unregulated expansion in a city prone to seismic risk and underground faults, that an apparently uncontrolled expansion of downtown buildings of ever-greater height, rooted in concrete cores, may be a hubristic gesture of upwards urban expansion without accounting for the precareity of seismic risks.

The Nature in the City map is, of course, itself a bit of a counter-map to urban boosterism.  Those red extrusions marking contemporary buildings popping out of the ruins extend above 600 feet and are often presented as a rejuvenation of downtown.  But it seems to have been also a bit of a broadside latched by the newspaper of record on local urban planners.  The New York Times–rather than the local news–felt a need to remind readers that this “city sits precariously on unstable, earthquake-prone ground,” rather than the bedrock of Manhattan Isle, but has built as if oblivious to engineering risk, and the sudden sinking and leaning of Millenium Tower, or  unveiling the nearby Salesforce Tower over 1,070 feet as with foundations on “soft soil and sand.”

The clever visualization situating many of these new buildings, constructed after decades of urban retrofitting, advanced an alarming image of the misplacement of skyscrapers by the Bay that seems destined to face consequences, as if the arrival of the Big One had been forgotten in the heady push to rejuvenate the downtown–and connect it more directly to Silicon Valley.  While Silicon Valley never promoted the American vernacular of the skyscraper itself, the influx of new money–deals for significant but second string players like Twitter; Salesforce–and of downtown luxury residences register an influx of new money that the Times decided to map as a gamble of construction, locating each not as emblems of wealth, but red flags of danger against the devastation of the last time that the Big One hit compel us to ask when it will arrive.

houses with salesforceNew York Times, April 17 2018

While the visual technology is not that new, the pulsation as one scrolls down the page of what seem unduly oversized “skyscrapers”–buildings of over six hundred feet–suggest that the Planning Commission was afflicted by particularly acute amnesia:  juxtaposition extrusions against the grim b/w image of urban devastation unforgettably maps future fears of a nightmarish situation in low-tech ways, so successfully one doesn’t even need to read the story to assess the toll.   The grim interaction that the images offer plant the need to assess the likelihood of future shocks, conjuring the magic of time travel, but raising questions about the ethics of casting an entire urban skyline as a cheap trick:  if sort of data-rich, the placement above the historical aerial view from a sky ship over the Bay conjures a narrative that lets what data there is do the talking, but offers a removed outsider’s view of San Francisco–yes, it was the site of a big earthquake in 1906, but somehow has built big buildings that it never had before.

In contrast, the gorgeously stunning Nature in the City map is designed to invite viewers to enter the habitats San Francisco still contains.  As much as orient viewers to one vision of the future, moreover, it serves to raise questions of how we can best nourish it, as we try to celebrate Earth Day; it urges readers to make contact with the corridors of greenways that link open spaces of the city.  This “deeper” history of place, while to bed sure rooted in data, fuses art and cartography to allow viewers to appreciate the pretty distinct balance between nature and culture that have allowed the city to be surrounded by clean waters, whose streams and pools that are also populated by avocets, jack-rabbits, butterflies, and poppies, as well as oysters, sand dollars, migrating whales and invertebrates, as well as wolves.  And it notes not the built spaces–or the places defined by buildings–but sees open spaces as preserving linked habitats of plant life, animal life, and a dynamic ecosystem.

The folks at Nature in City worked hard and long to devise a colorful map to celebrate the historical efforts and success of the preservation of wildlife in the city’s open spaces, interlaced like a tapestry over the built areas, whose map of open spaces and three levels of the height of foliage–grass, shrub, and trees over ten feet in height–provided a measurement of habitat its viewers were invited to explore.  All of a sudden, the city was celebrated as a site of vital habitats, whose presence affirmed the ethical power of their preservation–and the continuity of the habitat of far more significant for the moment than the city’s seismic risk.  (For its purposes, seismic risk is in fact pretty much beside the point.)

Naute in City headNature in the City Map (2018)

The “vision” of the city in the map is a far more appealing invitation to explore the amazingly resilient biodiversity affirms San Francisco’s frequently green land cover, based on accurate ortho-imagery, it is rendered as ready to explore in a visually stimulating record that seem to invite one to follow the birds, wolves, and butterflies to investigate how they inhabit the urban space.  The map is a brilliant a counter-cartography of the urban environment, offering viewers contact with sites of nature in the city that are presented to readers as if in a treasure hunt for the local habitats individual animals and plants to whet one’s appetite to navigate its often green streets.  Even if the map lacks a legend, it presents a surface to investigate–and also includes rich textual descriptions and habitat data on its verso–against the image of the city that one has in one’s mind, rather than to provide a way-finding guide to its space:  rather, the sense of the map is almost to translate a record of how the city’s biodiversity sees what we think of as an urban space, and to remove the city from its impermeable land cover.

Rather than dominated by the height of the Salesforce tower topped by a ziggurat casting long shadows across the downtown streets in its imposing bulk, animals that inhabit greener regions of the city suggest an alternative future geography, and capturing the stubborn presence of a receding wildness through the multiple, partial but the integrated ecosystems that it reveals among “urban” blocks, allowing, for a moment, the asphalted pavement and taller buildings to recede in our imaginary, as we focus on the layers of green.  If the selectivity of the map may be dismissed as unwarrantedly optimistic, and ignoring the dangers of pollution, critical habitat, and the expansion of construction in the downtown over the past two decades, the document is not intended as authoritative but to shift attention from the built environment that increasingly surrounds us:  the secret trick of cartographical selectivity allows us, for a moment, to focus on extent of green space and consider where it might be expanded to encourage the variety of native species in the city, which is part of what Earth Day is, after all, all about.

 nature in city slide.png

Whereas the New York Times ominously proclaimed the city’s “Big Seismic Gamble” as an impending danger by superimposing the outlines of building heights as 3-D extrusions atop an original black-and-white photograph of the devastation of 1906, to embody the fears of The Next Big One in urgent fashion for readers, the manner that it made present the fears of an earthquake oddly seemed those of an outsider–more than a resident.  And in scrolling down and looking at the map of a past landscape that might return, after containing my own immediate fears, I thought back to the cocktails I had in a Berkeley back yard in the year when I first arrived in the Bay Area some thirty years ago.  I was clutching a martini, as a fellow east coaster asked with mock incredulity but real ingenuity whether the professor who had hosted us that night, and with whom we had just finished a seminar on Russian history, managed not to be beset by worried about earthquakes as a Bay Area homeowner.  After a pregnant pause, and maybe a sip of something stiff, he smiled and with a shrug responded “yeah, and I also worry about being hit on the head by a piece of falling lumber,” dispensing the entire matter as he lifted a vodka shot–before explaining that it was just not something that you think very much about after having reinforced your home’s foundation.

The presence of a seismic risk is, in a way, just not that present in the Bay Area, perhaps because it hasn’t happened yet, but also because we know that it will.  The regular emergency preparedness kits offered on public radio may be identical to other NPR stations, although we like to think the readiness kits are a nice reminder of the precarious nature of the Bay Area:  but it is a shared responsibility.  In contrast, the striking announcement of the expanse of hubristic overbuilding that led to the construction of more than 150 buildings taller than two hundred and forty feet, clustered largely in its financial zone, seems an announcement of that secret to the world.  True, the skyscrapers shatter the previous ceiling of five hundred feet in the very area where vulnerable earthquakes where chances of liquefaction are great–even if they do enliven the skyline.  Indeed, the spate of over-building in the downtown was boosted by the city’s late mayor, its effects on the urban economy and real estate market–and the social composition of the city–stand to be front and center in the upcoming mayoral election, as the lack of vision of making the downtown hospitable to non-profits, small businesses, and lower income residents has created intense introspection.

But the accelerated valuation of property rates in the downtown area–identified not only with Salesforce Tower and Millennium Tower but the arrival of Twitter in mid-market–responded not only to an overconfidence in structural engineering and retrofitting older structures, but, as Alexis Madrigal has noted, a new identity.  They reveal, in part, a keen sense of competition with Silicon Valley, and of arrival:  the relocation of several of the smaller tech companies of the region in the city where employees of Apple, Microsoft, and PayPal have long lived suggests a sense of comeuppance over time, and seems to be marked in a somewhat extravagant manner.  But the decision to dwarf the nearby towers with their immensity seems a new form of majesty, a brusque insertion of a strong architectural shadow that casts other buildings in their shadows.  The arrival of sixty-one stories of the Salesforce Tower, at a hulking 368 million pounds, seems to consolidate the extensive and extremely generous seems a space-ship that has landed from the Valley in the middle of the once lower-key downtown, a sign of the continued magnanimity of Marc Benioff, whose philanthropic generosity has renamed many hospitals; recalling a Mesopotamian ziggurat in its apex, the arrival of the tower, as a space ship moored in the city’s downtown, consolidates the firm’s relation to the city and the arrival of the first skyscraper of tech, as Madrigal observed, more than the arrival of San Francisco–it indeed eclipses San Francisco’s downtown icons, the TransAmerica and Sutro Tower, Madrigal noted, with its shadow–and offers a new way of seeing the Tech Boom in its waning days.  If we are living the Dark Side of Tech and its vision of prosperity, is the Salesforce building of Marc Benioff a last gasp?

Or will these buildings, looming towers of future destruction, the New York Times fears, menaces of overdevelopment that have entered the urban ecosystem long restrained by liquefaction zones, which have snuck into the city’s building codes in ways that they were never designed to do, and structural engineers have only begun to examine in a Building Heights Project as the so-called Millennium Tower prompted what seem millenarian fear as it suddenly started to list and sink a foot and a half into the sandy ground and to tilt over a foot to the left, prompting many residents to sell their multi-million dollar apartments at a huge loss; the boosters of downtown construction on San Francisco’s planning board allegedly didn’t even discuss seismic risk, let alone model it–like Nimrod’s construction of a tower in the eyes of a God who had forbidden human constructions to rise to such heights–


–the parade of two recent “towers” that joined the Transamerica Pyramid in the city’s skyline, but rising above it by an extra two-hundred feet, and in far less stable manner, in a manner that seemed a foreign species to the local styles of building.

looming towers.png

If San Francisco was not often seen as a site of urban apocalypse–Universal’s Earthquake was set in Los Angeles, back in 1974, then the city of the skyscrapers, and a city whose destruction was repeatedly cinematically restaged, as it was again in 10.0 Earthquake in 2014.  The safety of the smaller houses of San Francisco seemed more of  true sanctuary, and staid residences, chastened by 1906 but, as well as being overwhelmed by superbia, steep shifts in architectural construction and style–and indices of urbanite metropolitan majesty tied to building heights–appear to have collided with the proprietory sense of New Yorkers to skyscrapers as an index of urban majesty.

The backstory of the map is that the growth of skyscrapers’ building heights occurred without, amazingly, the sort of review of tall buildings by SF Building Inspectors are shocking: they seem the result not only of greed, or preening, but an influx of global capital beyond Silicon Valley, and the conquest of the city that has been long in the rear-view mirror, that has left a transmogrified downtown and mid-Market.  The downtown areas presents one aspect of urban overgrowth.  Indeed, even if the East Bay is far more dangerous as a site of active earthquake faults–and a site of widespread retrofitting–that has perhaps even stalled attention tot he expansion of buildings across the Bay.


California in USGS map of Faultlines

But is the picture so grim, or the dangers of the geological so pronounced this “tectonic time-bomb”?   The contrast of switching to the Nature in the City map that was published at the same day as the anniversary of the quake suggests not.  The Bay area as a whole might be imagined in a time of increased over-building, urban expansions and radically accelerated ground-cover change as a nexus of other habitats, and ecosystems, fed as it is by seven rivers, a site of bird and butterfly migration, as well as migrating whales; while less visible in the built-up images of downtown San Francisco, the active ecosystem of the area is foregrounded in the Nature in the City Map not only as a cartography of resistance but an invitation to preserve the delicate ecological balance of the region–and to root our understanding of the region as an intersection of non-human habitats, in order to reorient our relation to its space, as if to compensate for rapidly advancing anthropogenic change, as much as immanent natural disaster–the city as a bucolic site rich with habitats sets disaster far away from the progress made on its hills and waters.  They banish memory of the years of whale-hunting  from its celebration of the vitality of local habitat.


The destruction of San Francisco has been more often imagined by battles over super-heroes, or seen as a site of the arrival of whales.  Is the concentration on over-building an adequate picture to superimpose on the “historical record” of the 1906 earthquake that shaped its configuration?

Nature in the City has long suggested not.  For the presence of nature is so imbricated in the structure of a city that has readily and insistently remained green, and whose areas of intact and broken ecosystems demand to be treasured and examined, as does the deep ecology of the long-term patterns of migration that the city’s biodiversity continues to respect.  This is an expansion of the 2007 version of Nature in the City map, which emphasized the constrained sites of habitat within the reduced if surviving natural areas in a site formerly rich with wetlands, sandy dunes that extended into the current urban footprint, and oak woodland, which Peter Barstow, now coordinator of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, organized to promote nature conservation at an apparent  turning point of urban identity–taking stock of the fragmentation of areas that served frogs, owls, falcons, and butterflies–

ture in citynture in the city large

–the advances of acquiring, analyzing, and remapping data of an actual integration of greenspaces on many of the streets, medians, and neighborhoods of San Francisco was expanded in the new edition, to try to put in evidence the “corridors” and “green connections” that still exist in the city–to foreground better the sense of “urban nature” that might provide a call and a model for living with remaining green spaces if not for treasuring and interacting with remaining green spaces that continued to provide valued habitats for bees, green hairstreak butterflies, and other endangered species in the city, whose corridors and connections might offer a possibility for the continued coexistence of urban spaces and natural ones, akin to the “biophilic” cities that contrast with the radical landcover changes that have been the consequences of extra-urban spread.

image.pngGreen Connections, 115 mile connected natural space in urban network

The new map seems to be a call for citizen science and indeed of citizen mapping of natural observations in the urban area, and starts from an attempt to connect the viewer to the continued presence of nature in the city’s footprint in direct fashion, starting from a survey, based partly on LiDAR imagery and satellite photography but with public records, that cartographer Michael Webster crafted to illustrate the terrain of grass, shrubs, and trees that exist along the city streets, to create a surface where the presence of green can be explored not only in corridors, but in urban spaces, not allowing a grey grid to dominate space–save in Golden Gate Park, the Presidio, and the urban forest of Mt. Sutro–


–call attention the survival of what seems an old-growth forest (circled in red above, around Mt Sutro, preserved because of its steep grade and irregular elevation), where Great Horned Owls nest, the single largest forest that survives in San Francisco, but also the areas of green that line the streets, as well as the green areas of Golden Gate Park that replaced the dunes that once covered the same area and the extensive dunes and sandy stretches once in the nearby Outer Sunset neighborhood.

The composite of LiDAR leaders of habitat of green–darker green suggesting greater density of foliage, with density colored by the proxy of vegetation height, allowed a broader and far more detailed of the connected areas and corridors of nature for map-readers to explore, and use as a form of inspiration to understand urban space, as much as a tool to navigate urban streets, and indeed to offer a map of the city that used accurate quantitative data to present a data-rich image of what a non-human resident might see and understand as the dwelling sites in urban space–and an informed one that would also allow viewers to view projected changes in the urban environment that is bound to be affected by sea-level rise, and whose man-made shoreline now dense with piers and landfill area that is expected by NOAA to be dramatically different by 2100.

image.png Nature in the City Map (detail)

Neighborhoods of the city, as Bernal Heights, could be dramatically revisioned by the map reader, in terms of the degree of green space in each, and in ways that would call attention to the constrained nature of habitat in many places, renaming the open spaces in the city as the most prominent–rather than those that are built–in order to invite a re-reading of the city’s urban space.  (The result would be the exact opposite strategy of the maps that foreground building heights.)

Sections of City--Bernal HeightsNature in the City Map (detail)

The legibility the map seeks to promote is not based on a sense of data literacy, but invites us to read the data it contains, and to illustrate quite impressive datasets as effectively as possible.  The almost tactile nature of the map is not only artistic as an illustration of green space–color tones elegantly muted and soft to the eye, if not inviting–but allow one to see neighborhoods that one knows in terms of the level of habitat that they offer, not necessarily for our enjoyment as city residents, rendered lovingly in the artistic collaboration of the accomplished Jane Kim, but from an ecologically informative and informed point of view; the resulting map allows us to examine and note street trees, for example, as potential sites of habitat, whose growth and preservation would mean not only creating preserves and parks but continue to nourish the understory, directing attention to the need to balance the near-absence of trees in some residential or paved areas of the more urban Mission with the greener areas that lead to parks and centers of recreation in outlying areas, and to call attention to those spaces where more street trees might help to change the urban habitat, but also to absorb pollution of urban streets, reducing its carbon footprint.

Mission.pngNature in the City Map (expanded detail)

The genius of the map to situate–obviously not to scale–the residents of greener areas on the map, giving them greatest prominence in the urban space to underscore the precious status of their presence and their dependence on remaining habitat, not to show them to actual size, but as if to allow us to marvel at their continued presence in the urban habitat, and remember that presence by marveling as if a lepidopterist.

image.pngNature in the City Map (expanded detail), Hairstreak Butterfly by Jane Kim

The dramatic presence of the individual animals in the map–as the suitably colored Hairstreak Butterfly, once far more prevalent in the Western United States, and the coastal dunes of northern California, is not only magnified because of its small size–smaller than an inch–but to invert our attention to urban space, and to see it not only as a built environment but to remind us that it is a built environment which demands our mindfulness of the habitats that coexist within green areas of semi-urbanized space.

Hair streak.png

The animals, plants, and crustaceans selected for representation on the map–such as the elegant hairstreak–have been actively conserved by the return of native grasses and plants on which they depend, many of which originally grew in San Francisco dunes, to create an island of butterfly habitat in the city that allow them to feed in patches on medians or beside buildings of coast buckwheat, seaside daisy, and dune knotweed to encourage their continued presence in the city’s built environment and protect the species’ growth.  The mapping of each habitat–sand dollars on Ocean Beach; jackrabbits in ; Grey and Humpback whales in Marine Sanctuaries; brown pelicans in San Francisco Bay–suggest the vitality and health of the region, and celebrate their integration with the urban fabric and the active protection of endangered species through local activism and city policy.

Rather than illustrating the open spaces alone as balancing or offsetting the grayed-out areas of anthropogenic land cover in a mosaic that allows the habitats to be preserved–

Bay Area nature sites of open space.pngNature in the City

–the active integration of ecosystems acros the city, and illustration of their dispersal, suggest not only the dependence of , but direct attention to the delicate balance of areas of animal habitat within the region, in an almost zen-like fashion, bringing attention to bear in the almost entirely grayed-out area of San Francisco in the above map, a map on the obverse of the path-breaking first map showing Nature in the City, the format familiar from most maps of recreational parks, the new edition encourages  readers to attend to the individual sites of habitat without subsuming ecosystems to the tyranny of cartographical scale, encouraging the forms of local observation needed to make contact with individual species dispersed across specific habitats, and announcing their presence to the reader at varied scales, and a lower scale than that of the map itself, as if to bring the viewer toward each region, regardless of its geographical size, and to suggest the greater naturalistic value of closer observation to a uniform geographic scale.

The plantings have been funded, organized encouraged by members of the Nature in the City Foundation, who designed the map.  And taking this one step further, to reach the readers that the map hopes to address and invite them to explore the very places or oases that the one-page map showcases, explorations of individual regions that the map describes–from the eastern shore of San Francisco and the shorebirds who live there, including the American Avocet, protected near the EcoCenter of Heron’s Head Park, or the areas in the Presidio where Pacific chorus frogs have dwelled near where water pools at the base of Presidio Hill since and still survive, with some human assistance.  (Reservations can be made for the Avocet Amble along the shoreline’s green waterfront, to move from the map to the city with naturalists of the Nature in the City team, to look at the range of shorebirds which the Avocet was chosen to represent on the map.)

avocet expNature in the City Map, detail

The contrast between the hope in the image of the city advanced by the new Nature in the City map, not only of the places of continued vitality in the city but the engagement in the preservation of habitat, and a broader ecosystem, couldn’t contrast more sharply with the image of Towers of Silicon Valley corporations’ wealth, built as new monuments in the city of shaky grounds, contravening a long modest skyline with monumental buildings of an age of oversized capital.

The building of these monuments to engineering aren’t celebrated by the Times, but in their “Seismic Gamble” visualization seem in a downtown that is dangerously close to landfill.  The buildings fan out from Market Street–the seam at which San Francisco’s two grids join at something like a 45º angle, in an attempt to “revitalize” the downtown area as one of prime real estate.  If one invites the viewer to connect themselves in an often undetected ecosystem through its content, the other seems to scare the viewer from an uncontrolled epidemic of overbuilding recognizable from many metropoles and extra-urban areas of the United States–even if the epidemic of over-building in New York itself has slowed.  But the divergence between the maps could not be clearer, as well, with one trying to recover the natural shorelines and ecosystems created in the historical sand-dunes and beach grasses specific to the shoreline, and the other afflicted by an amnesiac’s relation to the shorelines over which the city was built and the greater dangers of liquefaction in sites that extended into the San Francisco Bay. Even if the skyscrapers seem removed from the huge piers that now extend out perpendicularly from the Embarcadero into the Bay, many of them stand in the very area that was once, back in the 1850s, considered offshore–or was shoreline habitat.

Britton & REY San Francisco CAL.pngMap of San Francisco, Britton & Rey, 1:18,100 (1852)/Courtesy David Rumsey Collection

The shifting shoreline of the city, which eerily echoes the new urban environment that is projected to be created by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, was very much in the minds of the builders of the first downtown area of San Francisco in the nineteenth century, back when the piles of those extending piers were driven into the Bay.

Bay of San Francisco 1854

Indeed, the Nature in the City map doesn’t prompt us only to look at the city from the sky, gazing down at the earth, but to start by looking at the ground.


Help promote eco-literacy, urban wildlife stewardship, and habitat restoration in San Francisco and purchase your own copy of the Nature in the City map!  

Leave a comment

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.