Natures of San Francisco

3. The dangerous vulnerability of cities has paralleled an attempt to try to take better stock of urban space than the map servers we use provide. For as any server only foregrounds a selective level of local detail, replicating a dominant focus on roads, paved spaces, and buildings, to the exclusion of the constricted habitat that remains on the edges of a city’s built space?  

The historical attempt to design a wooden model encompassing a “Huge San Francisco” in detailt, back in the 1930s’ era of public mapping and public art, to preserve a record of the lived city in a set of interlocking 3D pieces that served as a snapshot of the lived city suggests just how much of the city was long green and open to “natural space” in a way that contrasts sharply with the image of the changing built environment of the city to give us pause–

Huge San Francisco/David Ramsey Historical Map Collection
Piece J 4 and Adjoining Pieces, David Rumsey Map Collection

–and to take stock of the natures of San Francisco, and the benefits of different forms of mapping its urban environment in less melancholy ways, and indeed of the importance of taking new stock of a city’s remaining open space–or what that open space is, and how we might best interact with greenspace remaining in the city, and the importance of how we map the urban spaces we live.

While San Francisco was long a center for nature preservation, and indeed the preservation of the country in the city, as the perceptive Bay Area geographer Richard Walker put it so eloquently, the organization of tools to uncover and preserve the current relation between ecological niches, natural environments and the built city becomes the project of the recent Nature in the City map, now in its third edition, offers the symbolic tools built on data to explore the urban environment–absent in most street maps or apps that we use to navigate the city, and to revalue the critical importance of native habitat in the open spaces existing within the city’s built environment, and offers an engaging and timely injunction to attend to and help cultivate its inhabited spaces for the future.

The suggestion of the city’s integration with not only its bay and shoreline, here shown as a thin strip of brown that borders on the Pacific, tied to historic estuaries, rivers, creeks, and current parks, presents an image of the city as an integrated whole, in which the blocks and streets foregrounded in GoogleMaps are far less prominent than the deeper continuities that create unique habitats, which are finally presented to the reader. We don’t see the Great Highway, for example, but the sand dollars and , and in Hunters Point find oysters and shorebirds–and in place of navigating a grid of grey, explore a region of butterflies, poppies, and jackrabbits, as well as a coyote, and even, out in the Pacific, the image–in the selection below just a glimpse–of a whale’s tail. The plentiful creatures within the vivid map, which breaks the barrier between cartography and art, reveals a far more engaging, and ethically challenging, question of what it is to map a city and to attend to the built space of a city as a place.

The map seeks us to experience place in ways by walking about it, in ways that makes a reference to Thoreau seems particularly appropriate, as the non-profit has worked to create a reflection on the ethics of mapping urban space and reading maps.  The more modern problem it addresses–in spite of its static form–raises questions about the ethics of reading maps is particularly needed today. And as such it echoes not the old drawn map, or the web map, but the sorts of deliberate and intensive reading and attention to nature that Thoreau championed–as well as attention to a range of natural forms–is demanded by the third edition of the paper map, whose text, content, and style were deliberated by a team over several years.  The non-human elements most often excluded from the built urban environment as transient and fleeting residents–trees, birds, animals, and insects–consciously gained amazing  visibility by foregrounding habitats and tree cover, uncovering corridors that raise questions about the livability of urban space–even if we rarely attend to them.  

Even if the map is printed surface of two dimensions, it encourages the intensive observation of the world that its degree of local detail arranged on its surface, from its depictions of lost streams and watersheds, arboreal density, hidden lakes, and islands of urban forest. Its significant harvest of point-based data that serve as the base-map for attending to lived space that we too often overlook, and do so at our own risk.

green edges, waters, habitat
Nature in the City map of San Francisco

For rather than compile a survey of the built environment, and orient the river to streets, main highways and the neighborhoods we give to urban space, the static map offers an engaging relation to the habitability of a city so often bemoaned as increasingly unhabitable due to skyrocketing rents, gentrification, and evictions.

Google Map of San Francisco from Great Highway

The quite distinct base-map that folks at Nature in the City organization adopted to invite us to view San Francisco helps to shift that set of associations, and to open up hidden spaces within the city to viewers in ways they might never have had access, putting the place of San Francisco as a part of the thin line of green coast and as a potentially rich set of open spaces, habitat and green.

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Filed under data visualization, environmental geography, map design, nature, San Francisco

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