The Natures of San Francisco

The view of San Francisco assembled over multiple years by the Nature in the City  team maps natural  corridors of habitat use on a survey of all green trees, brush, and grass in the city.  It uses this data invite a new relation to the viewer habituated to street plans as a grid, that attracts viewers’ eyes to its surface in unfamiliar ways to explore the rich palette of its surface to explore the lived environment.  We defamiliarize the city through the space it affords for native species we might not have known–not raccoons, crows, and feral cats, but the intersecting currents of migration that the seven rivers running into the bay nourish, and the kelp forest that attracts whales and marine mammals, to think of the city as an open space, in ways increasingly mandated by the phenomena of global warming and sea-level rise, where the boundaries of urban life cannot be so clearly fixed.  Viewers of the recent map by Nature in the City are invited to investigate a complexly textured relation to water, estuaries, dunes and changing shores by the corridors for habitat they each afford–even in what we habitually map as built environments.

Instead of a focus on the built environment as the city, the recent map invites us to situate the city as a site of ecological change and ecosystems removed from an exclusive focus on the human, but also to call attention to how human decisions can encourage and foster habitats within San Francisco’s urban space in particularly dynamic and beneficial ways.  For starting from a broad sense of urban landcover, developed by both LiDar mapping that is the by-product of the post-9/11 security state, and now used to suggest the security of a green city–

land cover SF

Using such imagery, the inventive folks at Nature in the City have unpacked, over three years and a significant amount of development, what might be best called the “hidden habitat” of the city, putting it in plain view for lucky readers, as a way to reorient their purchase on urban space, in what amounts to a new proposal to see the city as a living habitat as much as a built space.

hidden habitat

For by seeking to embody the fluidity of the city as a pictorial surface of habitation, deeply fluid in nature rather than rooted historically in built structures and street plan, in the myth of a timeless city, data on naturalistic observations can be embodied not as discreet pixels on a screen, but to call attention to the health with which urban space is inhabited.  Richard Power’s The Understory describes a deep shift in attitudes to the local landscape that begins by the re-understanding of trees–and indeed the voices of trees–in the landscape that his characters inhabit, and a cultivation of an ability to listen to trees–the ponderosa pine, the cedar, the redwood and others–that have long inhabited forested spaces, and that remain in some northwestern cities, but whose voices most Americans have failed to discern or be able to hear.  The presence of trees, unsurprisingly, provides a basis for the rich habitats that Nature in the City describes in their map, and the data that underlies the map’s illustrational qualities–which are hardly data-centric.

The reorientation to the landscape that Powers’ characters feel revealed before them as they come into contact with the trees is the primary aim of the map, a reorientation to place that disrupts the city to situate it in a larger ecosystem, with intimations of a deep time that the built city hardly registers in its plan–as if to suggest, in its own way, the evanescence of the built environment that might as well vanish from the map, without disturbing the vitality of place  Indeed, as the built environment falls away from Powers’ characters in a moment of liberation that seems almost ecstatic in its communion with the trees of the Western landscape, either in California or Washington–in Stanford University’s quad, trees at night are “otherworldly life-forms . . . from another galaxy, far, far away:  dove tree, jacaranda, desert spoon, camphor, flame, empress, kurrajong, red mulberry” as if an animated surroundings that can be accessed in a deeply instinctual way–the greyspvce of the built environment momentarily falls away in the map’s proposal of revealing an underlying ecosystem that suggests a more appealing human relation to space.

Much as Larry Orman argues that the impact of a map must occur within the first moment of its apprehension–the primary take-away that pops out to the viewer–the impact of the map is immediately apparent in its distribution of green and lack of grey.  As soon as one looks at it offers a take-away of focussing not only the greyspace of the built environment, but the trees that foster its ecosystem.  Such a power in shifting attention from he built to the natural terrain may be a deeply appealing human relation to space–as Powers suggested and as he found it to be–able to call his characters’ instincts out so that they dedicate their life to trees.  The designers of the Nature in the City map suggest a similar Thoreau-ian dedication to looking at and drawing attention to the overlooked, and developing a specific sense of awe in the map, in a counterpart to a medium that is increasingly treated as mundane.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nature in the City designed a map that adopted the techniques Orman personally pioneered at GreenInfo Network of measuring the development of the Bay Area by projecting infrared slides that were originally taken from aerial reconnaissance planes atop two maps to be referenced against poverty, ethnicity, and other census findings on their residents with magic markers, before GIS existed as a readily available tool.  GreenInfo cartographers worked beyond the low-resolution nature of most computer maps to  worked from hand-drawn GIS projections to reveal at-risk regions in the Bay Area, in danger of development, to show audiences  through offset copies that served a sort of ecological samizdat, affirming the need to preserve a Greenbelt to stave off widespread risks of overdevelopment.

imageRisks of Urban Development around Bay Area in 1990s/Greenbelt Alliance/GreenInfo Network

The crudely colored offset maps distributed to those alarmed at the loss of greenspace notably identified San Francisco as an urban area almost entirely colored  grey–save for its parks; they  identified the city–during the 1990’s–as open for new housing, rather than as filled with greenspace or open space.  Even in the subsequent maps refined in the visual power of their color palettes, the “city” apart from areas of risks to development, if allowing more greenspace in its form, using GIS to illustrate the risks of urban sprawl, rather than the , but with the agenda to bring computerized mapping to a broader audience of “grassroots” interests, in ways that became GreenInfo Network.


The use of orthoimagery to depict the field of tree cover across the city–extending beyond parks to include gardens, street trees, and squares, as well as urban hills, provided a basis to trace the field for a sense of ecstatic wonder at contact with wildlife taxa in the city rendered out of scale as illustrations–expanding the tactile ends of the cartographic message.  Indeed, the placement of images suggests a sense of the discovery of contact with local habitats that the green cover helps sustain.

6.  In contrast to being invited into the warm lived space of the map, the shock value of the rise of skyscrapers in downtown San Francisco is the centerpiece of how the Times website invites viewers to scroll past a prospective view of the destroyed post-earthquake city to find recent high-rises mapped in bright red, above the ruins below.  Although San Francisco was long a low-rise city, the alarms set off by the extrusions provided a point of reflection on the effects of the earthquake, a hundred and ten years after the fact, and the seismological future of San Francisco, or the extent to which it could remain a site for vertical building.  The immediate focus that red-hued extrusions drew to questions of the recent growth of downtown skyscrapers in the delicate grounds of San Francisco’s  liquefaction zone, in contrast, suggests a terrifying image of future catastrophic natural events. Set against the image of 1906 earthquake’s anniversary suggests the danger of the transient nature of built space–and the dangers that human alienation from the environment poses to its residents, as an illogical nature of collective building led to an unprecedented opening of the city’s longstanding tacit building codes. The dangers to which the city has been exposed is suggested by situating the growth of new skyscrapers in relation to the liquefaction areas most likely to fail to support constructions within  areas of landfill, de-centering the city from the human, if for more apocalyptic ends.

liquefactionrisks in red

liq legend

The absolutely terrifying if widely-shared graphic display threatened collapse of downtown skyscrapers and crippling of office buildings as the consequence of wonton construction directly contravening seismic risks:  the buildings that extend beyond six hundred and fifty feet in height pop out for viewers not for the risks they pose to their inhabitants.  The possibility of their debilitation by earthquakes seems to seek put the huge monoliths in their place, and the program for future building, by reminding viewers of the risks of building such skyscrapers at a remove from bedrock, and how nature undergirds the built city.  But by superimposing the extruded images of each tower against the famous aerial photograph of the devastation of the 1906 quake, the visualization foregrounds seismic risk that underscore how cities are no longer able to be mapped as separate from nature–if in a more panicked and alarmist way, questioning the relation of the rush of urban development given San Francisco’s well-known seismic risk, but forcing us to negotiate the concrete data on risk and inviting disaster by departing from a long history of low-rise building that acknowledged natural risks of such hubristic urban development.

For the map of buildings suddenly appears quite scarily to be suddenly out of synch with its site, raising questions about the stability that the sandy ground of mid-Market and downtown by casting them in an bright red, to question how the mixed use skyscrapers recently unveiled as the pride of SF were approved–seeing them as  sites for future danger and paralysis disabled in their electricity after the Big One comes, if they do not collapse.  The journalist’s job is to raise questions of the health of the current state of things, and orient readers to the question of public dangers.


The quite different sort of open data of species and their sightings that the far greener map of Nature and the City suggests the ethical nature of attending not to the division of natural dangers and built environment, but to celebrate the human relation to the natural world, and to learn to embrace natural diversity.  The provocation to consider the transience and dangers of nature Coming on the heals of an inspiring and expanded City Nature Challenge of 2018 which invited amateur naturalists in over seventy cities to share wildlife observations  over two weekends, the charge to “look for nature in their cities” that was first a contest between San Francisco and Los Angeles has provided a global  marking of Spring by two weekends of photographing and classifying species, the inspiring synthesize of historical and current data suggest a deep time of the ecosystems by which San Francisco is and has been shaped.

The maps however challenge our sense of cities as separate spaces–and images of human creation–whose asphalt surfaces of soaring structures demand maps for us to navigate.  But in privileging and prioritizing the navigation of urban space by car, have we collectively come to forget–or indeed erased–other tools of way finding that coexist amidst the structures we have built?   If so, what maps might best work to encourage the replanting and resettling of native species in cities–from rooftop gardening to planting street trees and shore plants, as much as parks, and creating new spaces for urban wildness?  Rather than delimit the sites of “nature” in “the city,” the engaging map orients viewers to how urban space intersects with a broader habitat and lived environment that urban inhabitants want to feel increasingly connected to.  Indeed, perhaps the new sense of the city of San Francisco as having no real bounds–but extending south to San Jose and north almost to Davis or to Sacramento, as a sort of unit linked by asphalt highways, may suggest a new sense of looking for nature in our own semi-urban space.

The ability to gather new data about the city suggests that a bounded image of urban identity is dangerously incomplete.

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

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