Natures of San Francisco

6. As we increasingly confront pressing questions of livability and the future of the long rhapsodized city of San Francisco, can maps better attune us to the changes of its urban space?  Perhaps the notion of how maps work to “civilize a space” and prepare it for our eyes has changed–or is trying to change.  The notion of cultivating and maintaining the order of a space seems better to respond to the exigencies and unknown future terrain that increasingly defined by global warming, climate change, sea-level rise, and a loss of species.  The sense of what such a civilization would portend–or how the space might be civilized–has been called into question as the role of manmade change in the environment has been questions, and maps struggle to wrestle with and process that change, taking stock of eventual effects of over-building, shifting shorelines, and planetary warming on where we–and not only we–live.

The problem of detaching the urban grid from the environment surrounding is addressed both by the image of San Francisco within migratory routes of birds, ocean mammals, and fish, and a living habitat for animal and plant life, and the increased awareness of dangers of overbuilding in a city framed by notoriously unstable fault lines at the edge of the continent.  Given the complexity of the biosphere in an era when Presidential candidates proclaim their opposition to scientific consensus on climate change or Darwin’s evolutionary theory, the range of open data we have on the local biosphere provides a compelling way to place viewers in a complex ecosystem.  The value of open data to offer a range of yardsticks that can help ascertain the extent to which a bucolic city retains and map its relation to the natural world in the new map issued and designed by Nature in the City, a public interest environmental group whose work raises consciousness about urban greenspace.  While their map is not dependent on data alone, the map’s valuable text reorients us not to its streets, parks, or plazas, or its transit system, but instead to the levels of green cover in each neighborhood and the sort of ecosystems they afford–providing a new way to understand and explore its neighborhoods.

In contrast, San Francisco has been depicted as the center of a different sense of environmental vulnerability, subject to zones of increased seismic risk, based on its situation on a continental shelf:  the different view of a city subject to natural forces and vulnerable to them is increasingly made evident in the recent spate of vertical building.  A recent set of news articles in the New York Times has focussed on the question of how seismic risk was ignored in the expansion of vertical building in the liquefaction zone of downtown San Francisco:  a web-based visualization of downtown compellingly used the new USGS maps of the shaky geological terrain of landfill to invite viewers to judge the questionable basis that sandy grounds to support ambitious skyscrapers.  In a city that long lay close to the ground, unlike other metropoles, the juxtaposition of red extrusions of buildings of the steel-frame buildings that now dominate San Francisco’s skyline are placed against the memory of the 1906 earthquake,as if to show the looming danger of natural risks of their welded joints to inevitable seismic jolts–not to mention the large number of

earthquake sf

–that may well demand them to be inventoried as public risks  by the California State Legislature.   For the recent spate of skyscrapers in the past decade cast a shadow over an iconography of urban hope, journalist Thomas Fuller’s illustrated articles for the New York Times reveals the instability of the city–and the limited safety that that vertical over-building on sand allows to workers in the densely populated downtown.  Using the recent USGS maps of liquefaction areas abasing the buildings of increased height in public records–

liquefactionrisks in red

these maps tempt us to face fears of steel-frame office buildings fracturing, and the possible  paralysis of water-systems and electrical in their upper stories.  The set of powerfully monitory map that suggests an alienation from of builders from the inland Hayward Fault or San Andreas fault lines, and set off alarms to anyone who read the article whose rapid online shares reflect its visceral conjuring of the arrival of the “Big One” far more concretely than earlier maps of the city’s sizable liquefaction zones by the Times, that may traffic in alarmism on the recent anniversary of the earthquake, by inviting viewers to scroll down screens that make them ponder if the supervisors of building codes allowed the construction of real estate that papered over the natural risks of building on sandy ground in an area of high seismic risk.

Seismic Trap?

Where does nature exist, one might ask, in the city?  If nature is often imagined as removed from the city–and perhaps only introduced to it in a form of street art that commemorates the remove, as this recent mural commemorating  the site of the studio of the Japanese-American artist Chiura Obata, who was so enamored of Yosemite Park, and taught in U.C. Berkeley long before he was incarcerated by the War Relocation Authority during World War II, the appearance of a modern mural of the park clashes slightly with its semi-urban setting at 2518 Telegraph Avenue, on an old power station–

Yosemite in Berkeley.png

The sense of disconnect between man-made and natural structures is inverted by the energetic environmentalist activists from “Nature in the City,” a local non-profit long dedicated to preserving the city’s open space–that seeks to direct our attention to the above-ground natural wealth that make the city so livable.  The 2018 map they’ve produced invites attention to the complexity of its ecosystem all too often overlooked in its built space, and a far more detailed local view of the abundance of natural wealth that they same city contains–and indeed, if one scrutinizes the map, abounds.

The map does not examine the recognizable habitats of urban fellow-residents–from pigeons, raccoons, to rodents–or the imagined habitats within urban street murals–

City Birtd in Urban Habitat

–but rather actively invite viewers to attend to the spaces where actual native species from a larger ecosystem, often not associate with the urban environment, inhabit San Francisco, and reveals the vitality of the city as a space, coincident with but outside of the built environment that has dominated most of our most familiar mapping tools.

For over thirty years, Nature in the City has raised consciousness by mapping San Francisco’s open spaces and parks; the recent version more fully foregrounds the nourishing of a range of habitats, from its bayshore to its urban space, in a broader ecosystem.  The result is a counter-cartography to the city as an ecosystem for cars, unpacking non-grey spaces of the map and questioning the clearly segregated divide between greenspace and greyspace on the surface of our maps, which privilege the navigation through paved space.

SF Green Space anti Google

7. The creation of a paper map, indeed, that can be scrutinized in detail and materially held, recuperates an iconography of cartography through a rich availability of open data, in ways that make in data rich, but not data-centric.  The printed map is itself almost an anomaly in the age of Landsat.  “Been years since I looked at a real map,” comments a character in 1992 in Don DeLillo’s epic of post-war America, Underworld (1997), a micro-history of attitudes to place and space after the Cold War has thawed, that looks back at a lost stability of the world bemoaned after the end of balance of power, in a conversation that turns to the interest in obtaining g some old maps to recuperate a sense of local (if not global) stability.  “It’s a sort of Robert Louis Stevenson thing to do,” Nick Shay muses.  “We have maps of highways and motels.  Our maps have rest stops and wheelchair symbols.”  Shay thinks of the map as a way to access a past world, or examine a lost life.  The new iconography used to map the overlap of an ecosystem in urban space requires a new conventions for a new set of data, and the focus on trees, and the magnification of what greenspace does in a city, and how it acts to create corridors for wildlife, suggests a form of cartographic activism to appraise the future location and role of nature in a city.

The paper map functions, unsurprisingly, unlike the web-based image in the Times, as a sort of negative imprint of the paved grid of urban space, revealing the past shorelines of the city, and the future shorelines predicted to result from sea-level rise and global warming, where the present is “endless form” by which the urban space offers and and will offer an active habitat is displayed as the primary surface to explore and navigate, rather than seeing gridded space of downtown as the primary axes that the dangers of looming seismic threats stand to disrupt.

Seismic Trap?

As if in counterpoint to the concentration of online map servers that orient readers to paved urban space, the map tracks the presence of living forms in the city and directs viewers to vital pathways or corridors.  If such habitat areas are difficult to discern for inhabitants, as Thoreau and Emerson would remind us, they are important to attend to, to resist the longstanding dominance of mapping the city as a built space in ways extremely important.  And as we shift attention from mapping a human imprint on the world to taking stock of what environmental demons that imprint indeed includes–global warming, heat islands, and impermeable landcover–and strive to look for other forms to celebrate by looking at the overlooked within the urban grid, profiting from the observations and efforts of naturalists to remake ecosystems in the city’s urban space–and using their work to ask us to re-orient ourselves to the city.

The map assembles not only greenspace, but uses it to situate a cornucopia of individual species in wonderfully tactile ways–

–in order to command a far greater degree of attention than screens or even paper maps command, and indeed to orient ourselves to the dynamic nature of the neighborhoods we work or live.  If the map is “static,” its level of detail suggests a deeper level of interactivity, less of the viewer to the surface of the map, than between indigenous and ndangered species and the city areas where they live.  The level of interactivity it offers illustrates a particularly rich palimpsest in every neighborhood actively encouraged in local neighborhoods, revealing a heightened “local” meanings in its surface.

San Francisco, Greencover in Golden Gate Park, Haight Ashbury, Buena Vista Park


San Francisco, Financial District green cover, with past shoreline marked grey and offshore bathymetry

San Francisco, Greencover in Chinatown, North Beach, and Telegraph Hill, with old shoreline and bay

San Francisco, Trees, Shrubs, and Grass in Outer Sunset

8. The pressing questions both maps pose for the future of the city recede before the different views they present of the place of nature in the city–ad the arguments they make about urban space.  For in questioning the city as a built structure, Nature in the City  focusses readers’ attention on a complex of lived environments apart from built structures, from which residents benefit.  The exclusive focus on paved physical plant of cities in most mapping tools leave us guilty of treating the limited descriptive parameters of map servers as if they constituted urban reality.

And in this sense, the map has arrived at an opportune time to shift attention from the hulking monoliths which San Francisco residents get their minds around, that seem destined to proliferate across a new skyline, in ways Fuller has repeatedly wrestled even as it has emerged in architetural renderings idealized for future buyers–

Future Skyline?.png

–as a real estate fantasy, dangerously out of touch with actual seismic risks.  And by inviting structural engineers to question the ethics of seismic responses in building codes, calling attention to their limited protection codes for urban residents in what is the most densely trafficked regions of the city, and most occupied by workers (if mostly white collar).  The interactive graphic of the appearance of such downtown mixed use buildings offered a chance to reflect on the effects of the 1906 earthquake and ask if such overbuilding inevitably suggested a sort of seismic trap.

The alarms that the built skyscrapers–without those planned–were cast clusters of danger signs in the scary prospective view of the city’s future ed buildings  of aassess the and an increasing debate over the final and future shape of urban space that invited readers to take stock of  an apparent rush to build on shaky grounds.

Seismic Trap?.png

from New York Times Interactive, April 17, 2018

4.  Is it any coincidence that rather than focussing on buildings, the team that assembled the most recent ecological map of San Francisco for Nature in the City map included not only a female cartographer, Lindsay Irving, and a team of naturalists to “experience dynamic nature in San Francisco” through the efforts of its lead writer, Mary Ellen Hannibal, and its designers Leah Elamin and the wonderful natural illustrator Jane Kim–to create a map designed to be deeply appreciative of the possibilities of interaction with its lived environment that focussed on the multiple possibilities of environmental stewardship, rather than the danger of elevations of building heights that the expansion of vertical projects of construction create.  The sense of opportunities of stewardship of ecological conservation and habitat conservation create a web of possible stories of interacting with the complex urban environment for city-dwellers to appreciate stories about nature and tell them to themselves–in sharp contrast with one of impending doom–a collapse of buildings and towers that would literalize a veritable real estate crunch.

The view of built urban spaces opens a perspective on the city that is not shaped by the hegemony of real estate, or the real estate market, and an economy of scarce housing, but a colorful view shaped by a distinct agenda of nourishing urban habitats, outside the built spaces of the city which coexists with it.  This distinct view affirms a concept of the “livability” of urban space, determined by data gathered independently from its booming real estate market or construction, is something of a new sort of urban enterprise zone–tied less to an economy of goods than of space.  The  inspired team of naturalist and innovative visualizers who worked to collect datasets from which they could design a map that engaged audiences in a new sense of urban space extends the historic efforts of its founder Peter Brastow–now Biodiversity Coordinator at SF Parks–to offer different ways of looking at urban space but invite the viewer to develop a different relation to the city that they though they knew.  By mapping the contours of the urban environment by the green habitat that it offers against the spaces that they thought they knew well, and reorient them to the city that does not privilege built spaces.  Did the distinct team they assembled help to create a view of the city less focussed on its upward extension, but on the sense of the city as a shifting set of borderlands to parks, ocean and migratory paths in which the city lies, nested among them.


The counter-cartography of the recent Nature in the City map offers a different lineage of mapping, shifting attention from the built structures to remind us that we risk filtering our actual experience of urban environments; for map servers, as much as lucre, also blind attention to an environment–or to spaces where we don’t drive–desensitizing ourselves to a delicate environmental balance, and masking the fluidity of habitats that cities include–the extent of open spaces in urban spaces that can nourish a broader ecosystem, even in a built space.  So much was revealed by increased attention to the embodiment of urban space in the recent map of San Francisco by the Nature in the City team, winner of a 2017 Livable Cities Livability award, that devoted increasing attention to finding and describing the parameters and metrics for the livability of a future urban space.  The emphasis on the encouragement of local habitats of native regional species in the city–and their dependence on the availability of water sources and green space–suggest a very different emphasis on the future of urban growth.  Rather than map the intersection of the city with data layers of open space or green space–as have many maps, and as is a relatively easy if provocative GIS trick–the intersecting layers of green space and open space are shown to produce a rich range of habitats for species that the urban dweller can actually experience, perceive, seek, and find.

The future of urban space is surely rooted in its ability to be accommodate lived spaces that encourage habitat in the Nature in the City map.  By tracking local species, the distinctive nature of the city as an active ecosystem suggest a degree of civilization that respects the quite distinctive natural character of its terrain.  In ways as magical as movies as The Parrots of Telegraph Hill tracked the survival of a flock of exotic birds recently counted at three hundred, the map invites viewers to attend not to escaped pets or urban residents as raccoons, pigeons, or feral cats,

but the interwined tapestry of  ecosystems that map how San Francisco offers a complex space of “natural” habitats.  The inventive tools used to map its urban ecosystems incorporates a variety of mapping forms to remind us of deep currents in urban space, from the landfill or sandy grounds remaining under the downtown area to the unique habitat sandy beaches, green spaces, streets, urban forests, watersheds, and gardens, and recover a sense of its living corridors beyond what city parks allow.  The result is both a broad historical perspective on its living record, that allows readers to engage its situation in a broader ecosystem and as a habitat, but a new model for looking at cities and their livability.

The unique base-map serves to track living habitats across the city, using overlays to combine a variety of mapping forms usually seen in isolation. By employing LiDAR orthoimagery of trees, shrubs and grasses across the unpaved areas of San Francisco, as a guide to help us follow the habitats that the greening of a city allows, far beyond an exclusive focus on its parks as in earlier editions.  The revisionary nature of a base-map of urban vegetation help expose living habitats in the city by mapping forms, to show how the city as supports a diverse range of habitats we would rarely discover, but in which the living structures of the city might be best located and situated.  Even if we use our old mapping habits to approach the below map of greenspace in San Francisco–and try to locate where we stand, whose houses we’ve visited, or lived in, or where we remember meeting someone or had fun, as if to try to correlate that experience with the density of green cover, in exploring the actual map we try to “map” those greenspaces into the range of habitat that the city also preserves and includes.

LIdar Orthoimagery SF

Nature in the City basemap/LiDAR orthoimagery of San Francisco with added bathymetry

The density of the layers of open data that the map compressed–tracing the density of greenspace by its elevation and distribution, suggest an extremely sensitive register not only to situate but emplot animal and plant habitat in the city by the bay.   The availability of significant open datasets for San Francisco reveal an intersection between avian and mammalian taxa with its watery habitat so delicately to make one almost forget its place at the edge of the continental shelf, but to map its abundance.   The data rich nature of the map that almost is concealed in its pictorial elegance allows the readers to perform the sort of deep dive into localities that are foreign to most paper maps, indeed, and reflect the increasing skills of aggregating and distilling data in appealing visual forms, and indeed unpacking locality as a complexly variegated form.

The hope is to reorient ourselves to the city as a built environment, to think of it as a capacious space that makes room for the creatures that dwell around it–not urban animals, or foragers like raccoons, geese or pigeons, but historical dwellers of the land-sea continuum that San Francisco’s terrain was defined by, despite and notwithstanding the redefinition of the city as a space for building that was amplified by landfill.  The playwright Tony Kushner evoked the city as a bucolic terrain of a promised land during the mid-1980s in Angels in America—the “undulating landscape lying under the threat of seismic risk,” where danger only lay only in unexpected underground faults.  The conceit God abandoned the world left stage after the 1906 earthquake, due to the changes in human settlement of the globe, is almost returned to in the orchestration of a vast range of data on habitats and tree cover by folks at Nature in the City to create a map able that seems take stock of the deep patterns of urban environments still suggest its closest points of contact with the the divine.  Indeed, the deep reading of the terrain that the Nature in the City cartographer offers to situate the intersection of nature with its urban infrastructure provides a new model to examine the presence of nature in the built world.

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.

90% decrease of of Bay Area Tidal Marshland, 1850-2009/California Wetlands

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 counting and tracking what what exists alongside built space, to reclaim the different patterns that move alongside buildings in San Francisco–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 the habitats 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.

Risks of Urban Development around Bay Area in 1990s/Greenbelt Alliance/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.

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Filed under data visualization, environmental geography, map design, nature, San Francisco

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