The Natures of San Francisco

The participatory accumulation of open data provided by websites like  iNaturalist offers a means to shift our relation to space, and explore the city with new eyes.  Indeed, the questions of how to use open space in cities–and to restore local habitat–is both particularly of the moment in San Francisco– which perhaps unsurprisingly won the challenge.  For the data compiled by amateur naturalists allow a different curiosity about the urban environment that helped distinguish this Nature in the City map–the third edition in fifteen years–and offer a far more comprehensive basis to orient ourselves to cities.  Indeed, the point-data of recent observations of taxa iNaturalist helps to compile allows–even on the Google Maps platform it employs–a more detailed and varied topography of nature in the corridors of trees and wetlands of a city in ways we might never navigate.

To be sure, many observations are clustered in its parks, where people travel to photograph and locate nature,  from birders to amateur naturalist.  But the place-marks suggest the broad palette of investigation to map nature in the city in a more dynamic and detailed image of its ecosystem, not only to point people to parks.

SF iNaturalist overviewiNaturalist, San Francisco observations of taxa/City Nature Challenge 2018

SF iNaturalistiNaturalist, San Francisco and Bay, terrain view/City Nature Challenge/2018

–and indeed the broader basis for how nature populates the Bay Area, in ways that offer a wonderful record not only of observed wildlife, but of the eagerness of amateur naturalists to take stock of the many  taxa and flora that inhabit their own space–and raise questions about new senses of continuity and habitation. For even if the markers of naturalistic observations can seem disembodied, they can gain new power when returning attention of viewers to the density of local habitats across urban space as a constellation which multiple species engage.

Bay Area iNaturalist

Although these points may be somewhat disturbingly disembodied, even in aggregate they suggest the habitat that can be mapped over our urban space, and the benefits of acknowledging its existence and expanse–and the guide it offers for future gardening, insertion of native plants, and open space in the city.  When viewed in combination with recent LiDAR data of the tree canopy  measured by orthoimagery by the SF Parks, adapting the surveillance tools developed in our post-9/11 Age of Surveillance, we might assemble a clearer picture of the corridors of habitat that serve as crucial connectors of regions of San Francisco by creating a template and base layer for discerning the connectivity paths in the cityscape we see as largely paved:   open city data provides the base map, indeed, to reexamine the urban space and the habitats it continues to afford.

Lidar Data SF Trees-Sharp.png.jpg

Through a  range of augmented spatial data sets and detailed on the ground observations of naturalists, savvy in the ways of data, an image of San Francisco emerged removed from a primary emphasis on human habitation.  Rather than orienting one to the built environment as a primary focus of how we inhabit space, in the tradition of maps that celebrate the human construction of built space, to orient viewers to how regional ecosystems shape our experience of an urban place–viewing space not as a paved urban environment, but a site of a surprisingly expanding range of native species exist and migrate.

The resulting portrait effectively calls viewers’ attention to what is a “deep map” and a sense of “deep space” demanding sustained attention to detect and investigate that challenge us to reconsider how mapping skills can enhance spatial awareness, at a time when map servers may have dulled our abilities to interact with a broad geospatial environment, by circumscribing the geospatial to a select view of roadways and paths–a limited notion of navigation, quite out of synch with how we actually inhabit space when most attuned to it,  extending the mandate for mapping Nature in the City has pursued beyond pointing people to parks.

7.  Perhaps the routinizing of walking, driving, and commuting that may have shaped our outsourcing of way finding to Google Maps and iMaps, interacting more with our phones or GPS than paper maps, indeed expand the cognitive relation to maps, both beyond our cel phones and through the distributions of data that they help afford.  The map from Nature in the City attends to mutable boundaries and surface of urban space–viewed less as a settled landscape–no buildings, streets, or even roads and highways are noted here, but as an elastic surface, extending across a deep history of time, as the recent static map made to suggest the seismic risks inherent in the San Francisco landscape printed to commemorate the 1906 earthquake offers a similar deep history–with a focus on risk.  While the dangers of overbuilding in liquefaction zones of downtown San Francisco’s Financial District, North Beach, and the Embarcadero, whose deep terrain bear the traces of their sandy shores and in ways that is rarely taken into account in the city’s recent rush to developing its downtown.

Editors who prepaped the recent Nature in the City map ecological resilience in the city to stake out not an image of urban fixity, but the fluidity of its “endless forms”–adopting the evocative phrasing Charles Darwin coined to appreciate the extended temporal space in which the evolution of animal life might be charted.  They used a similar sense of “endless forms” to suggest the dynamism of cartographic form, and to chart the city’s nature outside its paved space, and evoke the multiple layers of habitation that unfold in any place–beyond the parks and other open spaces of the city.  They worked to suggest the new ways that people might orient themselves and to notice the remaining “natural spaces” in the urban grid, suggesting a city connected by bird migration, corridors of habitat, watand open seas.  The existence of rich estuaries, sandy shores, and creeks that run through the current city provide an opportunity for reflecting on its development, both by landfill or overbulding, but help orient us to the human impact on space, and the possibility for shaping natural spaces in a city whose eastern shoreline contains both a lot of landfill, as well as restored habitat for shorebirds, jackrabbits, and sand-dwelling plants, which the Nature in the City map can help orient viewers. who seek to gain a different relation to its urban space beyond the crisp grey and green outlines offered by Google Maps.

image.pngTraced Image of City’s Sandy Liquefaction Zone of Particular Seismic Risk

A sense of the fluid space of the city shaped over a long time was understood less in terms of its entry and exist by humans commuters who populate the city’s space–as a wonderful visualization in which Manhattan is shown in black, isolated, pulsing with the daily arrival of workers unable to afford to live near their jobs over the working week–

19c420e11e374d29a17e05de83112a61_c5f44941bc6f428d9b1733ef3da784b5_1_post.gifManhattan Population Explorer/ created and designed by Justin Fung

–reflected in the diurnal ebbs and flows of turnstile traffic in the city subway that register the intensity of waves of New Yorkers’ weekly commute.

The scope of both maps shift from a celebration of the anthropogenic space that sees the flow of humans in underground commute corridors shape urban space to the dialogue tension between built and natural worlds:  the different datasets that they employed orient viewers to open space.  In his map of New York, Justin Fung used geolocated data of turnstile counts into subway stations over a week to shape a fluid visualization of population flows that suggest the human city, as if the flows of inhabitants replace the buildings in which they work.  Viewed over a daily slider bar that extend across a week, the clearly anthropomorphic image of urban space is a wonderful displacement of the skyscrapers built on bedrock to the people who work in the city

But the quite clever and aesthetically striking GIF may obscure the way that any city is shaped by its natural surroundings and range of ecosystems in which it lies and may be mapped.  The more fluid mappings of San Francisco both over an expanded area of time, without a cyclical component of a GIF-like revelation of cycles, to wrestle with a sense of “deep time” that visualizations can start to map from a range of local data.  The result seems to invite viewers to unpack the ring of pressures, presence, and importance of deep forces that shape urban environments rather than see them as a record of human presence, to see that presence as more contingently engaged with the natures which the built city either elects or elects not to engage.

The  similarly fluid but far less anthropocentric image of urban space of San Francisco in the Nature in the City map suggest a basis to explore space as a butterfly, coyote, or cormorant.  If the pulsating GIF of New York’s commuters is appealing because of its striking similarity to a systolic ventricular contraction and diastolic expansion, the map ties vitality of urban space to the intensity of its commerce during the working week–here quantified and measured for map-readers in the commuters coursing in the city underground–in the Manhattan Population Explorer.  In contrast, the vitality surrounding the built city is tracked less in work-weeks than the long term in the two recent maps of San Francisco–both of which expand the focus of a static map by showing activities around built space.

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

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