The Natures of San Francisco

8.  The fluidity of space is shown in the vitality and seismic safety in the subject of two maps I want to comparing for how they suggest attempts to map urban vitality and change less aligned with its human inhabitants.  But it also reveals the intensity of efforts of natural restoration that have expanded the areas of habitat in a city as unique as San Francisco , where limited urban growth and expansion have transformed most of the outlying regions of the Bay Area, while leaving many of the parks, urban forests, and open spaces and neighborhood parks preserved, and rooftop gardens have encouraged the maintenance of urban greenspace, and allowed for the growth of managed areas for biodiversity, unlike many cities.

The broader purview of the maps of San Francisco–a city far more tied to nature and to the fluidity of natural forms–gesture to geological time and the migration of species across seasons, to suggest the different experience of western coastalism, or coastal environments.  Rather than focus on the terrors of projected sea-level change, the threat of fires along wildland-urban interfaces, or the consequences of drought, both suggest the need to integrate sensitivity to natural change in maps, in ways map of most other cities may not capture so fully.  The alternate images of a city defined by its ecoystems or by deep-lying shifts of tectonic plates and underground low-lying fault lines, often forgotten by planners who redefined their relation to building codes, or the rich ecosystems around which commuters move, present an enriched concept of space and place, less tied to building patterns and urban development, in ways that seem more ethical in their purchase on an inter-connected space.

The result is to extend the pedagogical function of the map as a project of public education, and learning, by shifting the relation at which data lies in the map in relation to the viewer, as much as to place a premium on its legibility:  we are invited to engage the data in a delightfully embodied way, resisting the disembodied data deposited in the overlays of most web-based maps.  The exultant result is quite data-rich, but not at all data-centric:  untethered from the constraints of data, and the pointillist authority of the pixel, we appreciate the detail of the pictorial map evoked in its surface, over which we are invited to pour with keen attention and attentiveness, as much as shocked as we imagine the collapse of the tall buildings–from the Salesforce Tower tot he Transamerica  building–whose electricity would potentially suddenly be disrupted by a quake.

houses with salesforce

And although when the New York Times adopted the new set of USGS data on liquefaction zones that stretch across most of downtown San Francisco to map recent ambitions of building in an area of severe and historical seismic risk, the striking end-product that projected three-dimensional extrusions of each buildings, situating them as lone witnesses standing like holographic sentinels over an aerial photograph of the ruins of the 1906 earthquake, similarly suggests a temporally deep space,  if one focussed on one single incident in somewhat glibly simplified terms, to ask bluntly if the site of the earthquake has somehow forgotten the event that shaped the evolution of its urban space in permitting the violation of local building codes.

There may be a need to excavate this sense of deep space, given the limits of memory in most data-centric maps.  The richness of “deep space” in the “nature” map captures enriched perspective on place it offers viewers–orienting them to the space of its waterways, springs, watersheds, and shoreline, with an eye to how each layer of geomorphology redefined and will continued to redefine its habitats in ways that open some deep continuities over time.  The density of detail that suggests an appreciation of place as an ecosystem, rather than a point, recalls the relation to place cultivated in Rebeca Solnit’s marvelous atlases of urban sites, which as much as presenting way finding guides compile the layered human habitation of place that treat the map as a form of exploration.  As Solnit’s maps exult in the possibilities of cartographical legibility which are increasingly limited in the standardized and somewhat sanitized formats of our own servers and data maps, uniting and adapting maps, overlays, illustration and ortho-imagery of aerial photography in a particularly sensitive synthetic register of place from several perspectives, uniting terrain, watersheds, and bathymetric readings in a broad and deeply textured record of habitats.

The Nature in the City map is a site of reorientation to place, loosening its vital forms from the abstract point-based readings of GPS.   The city is mapped through a sense of perpetual movement of rocks, animals, birds, flowering plants, and insects across space in Nature in the City‘s new map of San Francisco, which ably shifts our attention from the built environment the focus of most city maps to the harder to map edges of the city, both in space and in time–extending to the past and into the future, tracing the shared space of organisms where what we see as a city exists as an ecosystem.  And the edges of San Francisco make it an especially opportune target for mapping–both from it shifting shoreline, to the fossils of deep-sea radiolaria that can be found in its rocky peaks of chert, and the more recently arrived plants or species that have been attracted by human habitats, as seal, to the migration paths of the salmon that have long swum up its streams and whales that have foraged in the kelp forests on its coasts, to the urban forests and hidden streams and waterways in the city that distinguish it from the bedrock schist of  many other metropoles.  The seismic risks we often associate with the place are not so clearly referenced as the deep history of its evolution.

The stimulating counter-cartography is both pictorially abundant and solidly based on current datasets, that allow us to discover unbuilt spaces of the city that are usually ignored in the anthropocentric maps of built spaces that are largely or entirely paved.  Most maps have great difficulty in recording what goes on at the city’s margins, and a-historically represent the city as a timeless complex of buildings, frozen in time, as if to deny their historicity, and glorify the construction of place as a human achievement.  The mapping of San Francisco is often no different in its sense of local encomia that meld the built and unbuilt as in printed Renaissance maps that champion the built environment as the true human achievement of a sanctified space–

Jacopo_de'_Barbari_-_Plan_of_Venice_-_WGA01270Jacobo de’ Barbari, VENETIE MD (1500)

–that both draw wealth from arriving ships as a mercantile center, but was also elegantly isolated from the waters that surround it, even if nourished and fed by the ships at its edges.  Even in most recent OSM maps of cities, the mapping of building heights by extrusions suggest a built panorama that displaces the natural surroundings, or presents the city dotted with bits of light flat green, with only limited attention to the non-built setting.

NYC ext.pngOpenStreetMap, Three-Dimensional Map of New York City (2015)

Both data rich maps of San Francisco use open data to orient viewers outside a hierarchical perspective on place of geographical maps–and explode the illustrative power of local maps by data that places the viewer in close relation to the “nature” of place than the aerial or perspectival view.  If such views place space as subject to human vision, the fiction of visual supremacy and coherence is disrupted in both the Nature in the City  maps and the earthquake vulnerability of the cutting edge visualizations by which the New York Times invited the nation to orient itself to San Francisco’s newly built downtown to commemorate the 1906 eartquake.  If the supremacy of the aerial view is questioned in each, they do so in very different visual strategies of inviting viewers to explore the situating the relation of place to the natural world that such maps invert the celebration of built space.

All maps are selective, but the selection of built environment alone impoverishes our sense of place in ways both maps seem in different ways–and to different ends–to address.  And the maps of the built constructions of the city leave out what are often the most important things that move in its structures, lie on the edges of the urban environment, or create new edges, breaks, and interruptions within the asphalted pavement of streets–the cracks of urban topography, that’s where the light shines in.  The attention tot he far richer intersections between the open spaces that exist on the margins of buildings and in the interstices of the built environment offer a far more ethical and ethically enriched experience. As metropoles shrink, new possibilities of creating green spaces in the city and relating the city to nature are increasingly entertained. Such attempts have brought us to energize us to see the city in new ways than a built environment, moreover, as cities expand to extra-urban areas:  in part, the increased remove of the city from “nature,” and the exclusive focus in maps on the built environment, has led us to become aware of how much is excluded from an image of urban life.

But the dichotomy between “nature” and “city” is perhaps preventing us from attending to how green spaces can be cultivated at the same time as periods of intense urban growth, even when cities face problems of accommodating new residents.  San Francisco has hardly shrunk–in fact, the reverse is true, with rising pressures on many neighborhoods to accommodate residents in an era of ever escalating rents, increasing numbers of evictions, as the scissors of a real estate market create a far more populated place that few can afford.  But the over-building of its downtown was suggested in a striking data-rich pictorial visualization of increase seismic risks that was printed to invited readers on the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake, in a map focussed on dangers of the density of the downtown expansion–and the embedded nature of the city’s fabric in deep geological shifts,

Roughly contemporaneous approaches of rendering such data–both in the recent map of  downtown skyscrapers in The New York Times  that asks if we have forgotten the disaster of 1906 and the more detailed, on the ground maps  cultivation of existing urban habitat in open spaces.  Both engage attention on urban growth, focussing on the man-made coasts of the city to draw attention to the rich habitat it still manages to offer native species–

north beachNature in the City (2018)

–or the stretch of towers that have recently redefined its skyline–stretching from the Salesforce Tower to the Transamerica pyramid–whose pronounced peaks and valleys rest on what was long recognized as unstable ground.  The mash-up of a past view of the destroyed landscape flattened by offshore tremors over a hundred years ago against the current crop of skyscrapers pose the related question of how anthropocentric our sense of the possibilities of urban building reflect an almost inexplicable alienation from place, and from the seismic threats that building in a recognized liquefaction zone poses, but sees “nature” as posing a perpetual threat to the city’s built environment, rather than optimistically suggest the benefits of appreciating their complementarity.

Towers: Sales Force to TransamericaNew York Times, April 17 (2018)

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

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