Natures of San Francisco

The claims of copia and urban abundance that was classically associated with chorographic views of Renaissance cities is almost displaced onto San Francisco’s nourished ecosystem in ways that Nature in the City encourages; the map involves  viewers by inspires endless exploration in ways that attests to its own truly inventive design.  Indeed, the involvement of a distinctly innovative battery of representational tools invite viewers to observe the city as it is rarely seen or perceived.  Indeed, while one usually thinks of coastal California as sites of extreme settlement and habitation–

Although pioneering aerial photographic imagery exists of the prewar space of San Francisco, a fantastic hundred and sixty four aerial photographs pioneered by Harrison Ryker from an airplane that left from the Oakland airfields, which offers a detailed image of the foliage, open space, still sandy regions, and of the city in crisply detailed black-and-white composite photographs–

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Ryker 1938/Donald Rumsey Collection, Cartography Associates

–that invite viewers to examine its detailed imagery through the stereoscopes Ryker would patent upon opening shop as an East Bay map-maker.  The aerial photographic map promised a precision and detail that foretold remote sensing, and anticipated the deal of the Nature in the City map, despite its monochrome:  the view it offers of the lines on playing fields, basketball courts, and paths in the Golden Gate Park promised a visibility that would make it appealing in World War II, in ways that prefigured the pointillistic accuracy of remote aerial sensing.  

The crisp local detail recently that was recently made available in interactive form online by the indefatigable Donald Rumsey lets one  navigate the composite record of now lost shorelines, the fluid ocean coastline, once-sandy Outer Sunset, Golden Gate Park and Duboce Hill–

GG Park to Bay

–of the same expanse of the recent Nature in the City map in a way that anticipates the detail LiDar surveys of the city by the bay.  The non-profit updated the accuracy of local detail of the crisp black and white composites from the interactive map Rumsey Associates crafted, allowing us to examine current habitats, ecosystems, and animal life within the city and the surprising taxa that inhabit its denser blocks, after the addition of highways, a far denser downtown, in ways that allow the areas of tree cover of different heights to pop at the viewer to suggest the lush urban canvas in which they live, and the map to pop in into three or four–if one counts the temporal of the lost coastal shoreline, inviting viewers to witness and negotiate a sort of counterpoint between built space and remaining urban ecosystems, and directing attention to the overlooked.  

The new synthesis of art and cartography accomplished by cartographer Lindsay Irving and artist Jane Kim expand and enrich over 500 datasets to fashion a new symbology of pictorial cartography across time, inviting us to compare shorelines, interrogate built spaces, and consider the city not entirely a human space but one from which we benefits where green cover and contact with a range of animal species persists and survives, using code that tracks the growth of urban habitat to provide the basis for a richly interactive tour of the city’s natural resources–a record interactive not by mouse, but by interpretation, inviting viewers to excavate historical habitats for birds, marine mammals, insects, and butterflies, in not only a “deep history” of place, but a deep ecology of the ecosystem that underlies the city as a palimpsest.

Nature in the City Butterfly Flying free.png

Nature in the City 2018 (detail of downtown)Nature in the City 2018 (detail of downtown)

What would it look like, asked the designers and cartographers at Nature in the City, a local San Francisco-based non-profit, to fashion a dynamic map that reveals the habitats that  flourish–and even be nourished–within an urbanized space.  In so doing, the layers of the map act to orient readers to  a counter-map of the built city, foregrounding the spaces of habitat that the group has encouraged across San Francisco and that actively exists on its streets and in its yards.  

The new model of urban exploration in the map that is used in the header of this post is based less on navigating the urban space we know, than exploding the nature/urban dichotomy, and pointing us to the cites where nature has taken shape in the urban environment.  The result shocks the viewer, actively inviting them to recalibrate their own reaction to urban space far more actively–and in a more engaged fashion–than one experiences when reading urban maps.  And the practice of reading the map is not only engaging, prompting new activities of looking at one’s own neighborhood or cycling and running route,–but also extremely fun.

In an era of climate change and global warming, developing a positive relation to place–and an unpacking of its complex ecosystem of what Charles Darwin called the “endless form” of nature within a city offers what might be a more therapeutic and healthy relation to place than many digital maps and data visualizations afford their readers.  Rather than focusing on the tyranny of a present–or on a diachronic view of past and present–the “endless form” of how nature interacts with and exists in the city is the focus of their map.  

The image that the non-profit created of the spaces of habitat that can be nurtured and encouraged within the city–spaces for animal and plant habitat that are all too often overlooked in or absent from concepts of urban planning.

–and indeed how that space is mapped.

The reorientation to the urban map reminds us of the power of maps to redesign and re-appreciate place in an increasingly urbanized world.  A long tradition of urban maps that celebrates the built environment as evidence of the city’s vital form:  but recent debates about the prospects for urban livability have returned attention to the vital pathways and streams of live that undergird the city’s space; and in the case of San Francisco, perched between bay and ocean, and lying on multiple migratory routes of air and sea, the confluence between urban and natural spaces are perhaps especially salient to be of the moment as we try to remap urban space less in terms of buildings or built structures,–foregrounding empty areas of  light green unfortunately rendered in rather generic flat light green hues in Google Maps that numb our visual curiosity for reading mapped space, or indeed of any of the other map servers we use to navigate the congested streets of urban space.  

Even as we are enjoined to “navigate our world faster and easier with Google Maps,” and trust the promises of such enhanced abilities, we too often tend to forget–or not see–ways that might orient ourselves to our surroundings or indeed what other sites in the world we might do well to pay attention to.  If there is a danger that we are at risk of loosing sight of places of nature in our mental geography of urban space, the data rich nature of the map of wildlife habitat compiled by Nature in the City don’t dominate the viewer with data, as strongly as some maps continued to do–

–but offer an ability o reorient ourselves to the dense population of the urban space.

For Nature and the City suggests something of an urban understory that supports a rich variety of habitats, on which we can re-map our place in the city, less to an abillty to navigate our relations to urban space on its streets, but learn how other taxa live in the city, and use its space, in order to appreciate how we can be the best custodians of their habitat.  Indeed, the remove of any grey space from the map’s surface and open face–

SF bay clear shot Nature in the City.png

San Francisco from Golden Gate Park to the Bay (detail)/Nature in the City

The intention is to invite us into urban space through a new set of coordinates, so to speak, that invite the viewer to orient themselves to urban space by an expanded and enriched sense of its habitation not only as a grid, but as a set of corridors of open space.  San Francisco has few dirt roads, fruit orchards, wooden fences, forest canopy or decomposing broad-trunked trees, or choruses of cicadas crowding overgrown fields.  But an abundance of complex habitats define the city raises questions of the vital relation of open spaces to the ecosystem that also inhabits it–and to the endangered habitat that groups like Nature in the City work to nourish and preserve.

1 Comment

Filed under data visualization, ecology, environmental geography, San Francisco, urban ecology

One response to “Natures of San Francisco

  1. Pingback: The Built World | Musings on Maps

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