The Natures of San Francisco

Attempts to embody a range of rich open data can be recast as  a form of resistance and of taking stock of what is often construed a primarily built space.  Indeed, by rehabilitating it as a site of migrations, habitats, and living surface, enlivening a region beyond built constructions., but whose habitats have been nourished by the work of habitat restoration and ecological encouragement undertaken by Americorps and by Nature in the City in San Francisco, starting from an appreciation of migration hot spots around above and in the city, questioning the health of the hoary city/nature divide and inviting us to measure our relation to urban environments by taking a walk in them, or what is left of them, joining Robinson Jeffers on an “unbroken field of poppy and lupin” where horses pasture where “people are a tide/that swells, and in time will ebb, and all/their works dissolve” and we can “indeed decenter our minds from ourselves.”

clarkia-th classicHilltop Migration Hotspots in San Francisco

The layers of the map attend to the overlap between built and ‘natural’ space, and to integrate open datasets of  species can reveal across space.  The third edition of the Nature in the City map foregrounds and helps to discern pathways that move around and in urban space–orienting us to urban ecology in instructive ways around its built space, by focussing on the green space that is maintained in the city in a range of “open spaces” of different scale, from the dunes and shore to urban forests to private gardens not as separate from the city, but as corridors and open spaces to preserve local biodiversity, presenting the living forms of nature coexisting in the city.  The map invites us to explore layers of green space, open space, and built space in San Francisco, a surprising range of local species pop out of within nested habitats, larger than its scale, in ways that use the map’s surface as a form of encouraging attention to the overlooked–and a call to look at–and notice–the overlooked as living parts of a broader ecosystem than most maps attend.

Nautre in the City Centerpiece

Poppy Flower in Pavement.png

By counting and tracking what what exists alongside built space, to reclaim the different patterns that move alongside buildings in San Francisco–from coyote to  hairstreak butterflies or native poppies–and reveal the intersection of built space and broader ecosystems, mapping the city to attend not only to parks and gardens so conspicuously present, but the habitats that intersect around and in its built space, as well as the proximity to underground fault-lines that threaten to undermine its built surface.  And the appearance of the third edition of a spectacular species-centered of Nature and the City’s collation of the environment of the city’s urban space coincided in curious ways with the New York Times‘ remapping of the city’s recent expansive growth atop the liquefaction zones of landfill on the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake.

Whereas the graphic visualization of a mashup superimposing recent structures taller than  provide a basis to assay its overbuilt urban space as part of its nature–and to situate its buildings in a far more cautionary tale about the risks of seismic activity from nearby fault lines–and the difficulty of reconciling the current mapping of built urban space to the nature of geological faults and seismic risk, as if the imagination of architects spurred by a booming real estate market got the better of the undue risks of nearby fault lines.

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For although we are increasingly surrounded by a habitat designed for cars, data on species, plant life both re-orient us to and augment our sense of place.  It is a reflection of how the rise of open data promises ways of negotiating an urban space less exclusively than the built environment, however, and of placing the city in natural settings outside the traditional urban view.   A range of static and interactive maps have emerged that grab visual attention in new ways for mapping urban space.  The view of space they offer is oriented less to towering monuments and spires of steel and glass that dot urban areas, or indeed to paved space, than patterns of migration of animals, commuters, sea-level, seismic risk or the underground world of potential liquefaction–to lay claim to attention that disrupts our usual focus on records of built property.  The urban view, often elevated, situates the urban plant as a microcosm of human creation in often triumphalist fashion, the rise of open data provides a basis for unpacking the city that stands to destabilize the position of the viewer, and for looking at what is often overlooked.

For while most city maps note clear edges, sharp borders, and crisp divisions to ensure their  legibility, open data–on parks, trees, wildlife sightings, human traffic, cars–challenges our ability to process and draw connections between data in extremely useful ways, that may better orient ourselves to the future of built space–a question that is increasingly on the table–and develop a new sort of visual intelligence to gauge the viability of urban space.  And San Francisco’s Bay Area, recently an important site of greening in America, and of the remaking of the urban space, seems ideally suited to calibrate and take stock of how we are surrounded by actual habitat.  For as such groups as Friends of the Urban Forest, the California Academy of Sciences, and SF Parks have worked to expand and defend “green spaces” of the city in a broader way than parks alone, broadening their appreciation of the role of urban trees, sidewalk gardens, and indeed neighborhood planting events, they have promoted a non-urban sense of the nature in the city and indeed of an “urban forest” that has redefined the city as a habitat–and include the city in the natural world.

As most cosmopolites are increasingly confronted and finding ourselves moving between “non”-places–undefined spaces of transit and liminality, which combine environments but themselves lack defined bounds–airports; highways; websites; hotels; or even tour groups–and look for other places in a decline of public space, we may moreover look at the city and its location as a new space,–less hegemonically mapped or understood as one of government and public administration, but as containing its own natural corridors and environments that are outside the spaces of human government.

The result is a dislocating, but liberating, invitation to measure one’s own relation to urban space–rather than partitioning green pace and built space, maps can open avenues for the shifting conceptualization of relations between nature and cities, often unimaginatively and inadequately demarcated from one another, even for a city like San Francisco, whose distinctive grid is all too often separated from green spaces on its boundary, in ways that the cartographic coloration of both static and web-based maps has tended to reproduce.  Despite the tendency in the 1980s to map the “green city” apart form the “built city”–and focussed on its parks, the importance of understanding spatial continuities of habitat foreground a sense of urban accommodation less anthropocentric in nature but enriching in their density of a new range of information.

ff_sovietmaps_1_hero2.jpgSan Francisco and Surrounding Bay (1980)

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

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