Natures of San Francisco

9.  For while we are long trained to imagine as architectural landscapes as triumphal achievements, after the conceit of elevated prospective views that magnify the city as human achievement of God-like form–


Jacobo de Barbari, Venetie MD (engraved woodcut perspective map of Venice, 1500)

–we risk perpetuating the urban myth of a space isolated from nature that erase the discovery that the living detail of urban habitats as something of the divine.  And in an age where the from of cities stands to change with global warming and sea-level rise, it’s incumbent to engage and re-examine the city as an environment, for in considering how the city functions as a habitat, less as detached from the world, we can help revise the mythology of the city as separated from the country, or from the variety of creatures, plants, and bugs that contribute to its livability.  And in an era when what a Secretary of the Environment should dedicate attention is still unclear, mapping an urban space that doesn’t account for the flows, currents, and fluid sense of urban space rooted in nature is unconscionable.  If pixelation can dissolve the harmony of the Barbari view,


the detail of the dive into the natural environment in the NITC map provides an opportunity to explore what exists outside, within and beside its built environment.  The availability of rich open datasets possessed by a city as San Francisco provide a counterpoint, allowing the foregrounding of deeper measures of urban change:  mapping such data can better help to embody urban space less reliant on the building blocks of squares, freeways, or paved space, but reveal an intersection of geography with native or indigenous habitat once again encouraged to develop.  Data maps can offer the opportunity and challenge to re-read the city and even to examine areas that foster wildness–and a range of indigenous wildlife–across beaches, urban forests, hills, and in its gardens, beyond parks.  A range of new visualizations of urban space reveal the new ways cities intersect with “natural” space.

The Nature in the City folks have shifted attention toward the many open spaces and gardens in the city, suggesting the forms of vitality San Francisco conserves, despite the challenges of many native inhabitants–from spotted owls to shorebirds like once-threatened snowy plover and the loss of redwoods, by focussing on the species in the city and the Western United States’ largest estuary.  Their map reminds us that as well as being a flyover spot for birds and shorebirds, San Francisco’s Bay is not the only  biodiversity hotspot for large numbers of endangered shorebirds; for the city’s open spaces provide crucial habitat that provides a model at a time of species die-offs and habitat loss–making the map a positive counter-model to such deeply disturbing trends.

Indeed, the city whose living currents they map apart from human life tell a far more positive story than the disappearance of regional watershed whose tidal marsh-lands have contracted by some 90% from 1800 to 2009, as the addition of landfill and diking transformed tidal marsh nineteen times the size of the current San Francisco by nine tenths, leaving much of its former vasst extent in the San Francisco Bay rather than the rich ecology of the delta.

The ability to embody a range of open data can foreground and call visual attention to notice the huge diachronic changes in the local environment, or to focus on overlooked living aspects of the current city.

Attempts to embody a range of rich open data can be recast as  a form of resistance and of taking stock of what is often construed a primarily built space.  Indeed, by rehabilitating it as a site of migrations, habitats, and living surface, enlivening a region beyond built constructions., but whose habitats have been nourished by the work of habitat restoration and ecological encouragement undertaken by Americorps and by Nature in the City in San Francisco, starting from an appreciation of migration hot spots around above and in the city, questioning the health of the hoary city/nature divide and inviting us to measure our relation to urban environments by taking a walk in them, or what is left of them, joining Robinson Jeffers on an “unbroken field of poppy and lupin” where horses pasture where “people are a tide/that swells, and in time will ebb, and all/their works dissolve” and we can “indeed decenter our minds from ourselves.”

The layers of the map attend to the overlap between built and ‘natural’ space, and to integrate open datasets of  species can reveal across space.  The third edition of the Nature in the City map foregrounds and helps to discern pathways that move around and in urban space–orienting us to urban ecology in instructive ways around its built space, by focussing on the green space that is maintained in the city in a range of “open spaces” of different scale, from the dunes and shore to urban forests to private gardens not as separate from the city, but as corridors and open spaces to preserve local biodiversity, presenting the living forms of nature coexisting in the city.  The map invites us to explore layers of green space, open space, and built space in San Francisco, a surprising range of local species pop out of within nested habitats, larger than its scale, in ways that use the map’s surface as a form of encouraging attention to the overlooked–and a call to look at–and notice–the overlooked as living parts of a broader ecosystem than most maps attend.

Nautre in the City Centerpiece
Poppy Flower in Pavement.png

10. By tracking ecosystems and corridors within and alongside built space, the map reclaim patterns within San Francisco’s built footprint–from coyote to  hairstreak butterflies or native poppies–and reveal the intersection of built space and broader ecosystems, mapping the city to attend not only to parks and gardens so conspicuously present, but that intersect around and in its built space, as well as the proximity to underground fault-lines that threaten to undermine its built surface.  And the appearance of the third edition of a spectacular species-centered of Nature and the City’s collation of the environment of the city’s urban space coincided in curious ways with the New York Times‘ remapping of the city’s recent expansive growth atop the liquefaction zones of landfill on the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake.

Whereas the graphic visualization of a mashup superimposing recent structures taller than  provide a basis to assay its overbuilt urban space as part of its nature–and to situate its buildings in a far more cautionary tale about the risks of seismic activity from nearby fault lines–and the difficulty of reconciling the current mapping of built urban space to the nature of geological faults and seismic risk, as if the imagination of architects spurred by a booming real estate market got the better of the undue risks of nearby fault lines.


For although we are increasingly surrounded by a habitat designed for cars, data on species, plant life both re-orient us to and augment our sense of place.  It is a reflection of how the rise of open data promises ways of negotiating an urban space less exclusively than the built environment, however, and of placing the city in natural settings outside the traditional urban view.   A range of static and interactive maps have emerged that grab visual attention in new ways for mapping urban space.  The view of space they offer is oriented less to towering monuments and spires of steel and glass that dot urban areas, or indeed to paved space, than patterns of migration of animals, commuters, sea-level, seismic risk or the underground world of potential liquefaction–to lay claim to attention that disrupts our usual focus on records of built property.  The urban view, often elevated, situates the urban plant as a microcosm of human creation in often triumphalist fashion, the rise of open data provides a basis for unpacking the city that stands to destabilize the position of the viewer, and for looking at what is often overlooked.

For whereas most city maps note clear edges, sharp borders, and crisp divisions to ensure their  legibility, open data–on parks, trees, wildlife sightings, human traffic, cars–challenges our ability to process and draw connections between data in extremely useful ways, that may better orient ourselves to the future of built space–a question that is increasingly on the table–and develop a new sort of visual intelligence to gauge the viability of urban space.  And San Francisco’s Bay Area, recently an important site of greening in America, and of the remaking of the urban space, seems ideally suited to calibrate and take stock of how we are surrounded by actual habitat.  For as such groups as Friends of the Urban Forest, the California Academy of Sciences, and SF Parks have worked to expand and defend “green spaces” of the city in a broader way than parks alone, broadening their appreciation of the role of urban trees, sidewalk gardens, and indeed neighborhood planting events, they have promoted a non-urban sense of the nature in the city and indeed of an “urban forest” that has redefined the city as a habitat–and include the city in the natural world.

As most cosmopolites are increasingly confronted and finding ourselves moving between “non”-places–undefined spaces of transit and liminality, which combine environments but themselves lack defined bounds–airports; highways; websites; hotels; or even tour groups–and look for other places in a decline of public space, we may moreover look at the city and its location as a new space,–less hegemonically mapped or understood as one of government and public administration, but as containing its own natural corridors and environments that are outside the spaces of human government.

The result is a dislocating, but liberating, invitation to measure one’s own relation to urban space–rather than partitioning green pace and built space, maps can open avenues for the shifting conceptualization of relations between nature and cities, often unimaginatively and inadequately demarcated from one another, even for a city like San Francisco, whose distinctive grid is all too often separated from green spaces on its boundary, in ways that the cartographic coloration of both static and web-based maps has tended to reproduce.  Despite the tendency in the 1980s to map the “green city” apart form the “built city”–and focussed on its parks, the importance of understanding spatial continuities of habitat foreground a sense of urban accommodation less anthropocentric in nature but enriching in their density of a new range of information.

San Francisco and Surrounding Bay (1980)

11. 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

In 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.

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.

12.  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.

12. 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 overview

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

SF iNaturalist

iNaturalist, 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.

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.


Traced 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–

Manhattan 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.

13. 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.

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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