Natures of San Francisco

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

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

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


Jacobo de’ Barbari, VENETIE MD (1500)

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

NYC ext.png

OpenStreetMap, Three-Dimensional Map of New York City (2015)

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

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

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

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

north beach

Nature in the City (2018)

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

Towers: Sales Force to Transamerica

New York Times, April 17 (2018)

Both maps sift through the vast amounts of open data to offer new forms and formats of urban engagement in concretely visual form, challenging us to develop a new sense of the pictorial coherence and navigation of our sense of urban space beyond a perspective plan.  By exploiting the vast image banks and data that are increasingly available to compose a detailed image of place in an era that demands increased environmental awareness.  

If the first warns of the dangers of building towers in a region whose proximity to fault lines cannot be forgotten, the second tilts viewers attention from the human-built to the unbuilt spaces of San Francisco which stand, even in an age of what seems overbuilding, as a biodiversity hotspot, where then restoration as sites of animal and plant habitat coexist in the built city.  Both turn from the questions of urban growth alone, in other words, to focus our attention on the compatibility of urban growth with the place of nature that has often gone unmapped in plans for expanding a built environment.  Nature lies less the specter of fault-lines, however, in the map in the header to this post, than in the islands of open spaces that preserve corridors of wildlife whose restoration offers viable habitat within the city we so often see only as built.  And both try to wrestle with the questions of urban development, in different ways.

As increasing amounts of open data are increasingly available about cities, the need to offer such a deep perspective on the temporal axis seems critically important in cartographic ethics, and the richness of both maps suggests the limits of using a slider bar.  For time is a crucial element omitted from the hope that data will provide a means to measure the impact of the growth of urban buildings but offer  a site for transforming civic space–both by fostering engagement in civic space, and awareness of urban ecosystems–are increasingly explored.  And what better way to do so than through elegantly designed maps?  While we’ve long drawn lines between the city and the outdoors, as cities grow to mega-regions, and loadspace overwhelms open space, the notion of such a division makes less sense.

14. “The West begins where the pavement ends” once defined a counter-geography of open lands in the American west and a rallying cry.  But as paved space spreads across the nation, its ubiquity makes it impossible to see paved land cover as being so antithetical to nature.  There seems an urgency to mapping intersections between open and paved spaces, outside of  a clear division between the country and the city, if only to gain some bearings of where we stand:  is the absence of assessing the impact of paving is to some extent hampered by the training of our eyes to look at paved space on maps, which have the dangerous effect of deeply diminishing our sense of eco-literacy or ecological change?

Both forms of mapping foreground an abundance of nature in the city of San Francisco–underground and above ground–in ways that may not be inherently surprising.  But both also shocks the viewer in its outsized proportions, that run against the basic decorum of the static map or maps of inhabited space.  Surely the surprise of a city able to contain and even cultivate the green lands–and even nurturing plants and wildlife–seems sharply removed from the rush of urban environments, the noise of cars, freeways, and rush of urban life.  For in selecting the abundance of habitats possible in an urban space, the “Nature in the City” project invites one’s eyes rest on the map–without feeling overwhelmed by the intensity of the urban environment, from the coast lines of the city, circled by pelicans, whales, salmon, harbor seals, sand dollars, shorebirds as avocets, and, within its terrain, to coyote and butterflies situates the city not only as built space, but as a geographical nexus of lived habitats that intersect–and how one indeed shaped the other–


–as a living locus of migration,–rather than orient viewers to its built space.

Peeling back the composition of this map, the confluence of backing, data sources, and support reveal the congregation of non-profits dedicated to the conservation and protection of open spaces in San Francisco, and an activist environmental tradition dedicated to documenting and preserving local “bioregions” beside its built space:  if Peter Barstow founded the non-profit in 2005, to inspire a conservation movement, the momentum of the Parks Department, Presidio trust, California Academy of Sciences, Exploratorium and San Francisco Foundation have helped promote the project of connecting map readers to the city, as the Nature Conservancy long supported drawing our attention to the relation of nature and the high rises of urban space.

Indeed, considering cities not as sequestered from nature by blankets of urban smog and limits, but sites whose carbon footprints can be reduced starts from actively fostering habitat at time when half the world’s population lives in urban or urbanized environments, which cover only 3% of the world’s surface.  The broader crisis of urban ecology led me to be immediately attracted to the sensitive condensation of wisdom and engagement of the environment in a set of pictorial maps of San Francisco.  The map’s poetics–not limited to point data, despite its relative richness, rests in shifting the readers attention toward its open spaces, appealing to a sensory reading of the environment akin to taking a walk in wilderness–as Henry David Thoreau–and inviting them to notice insects, birdcalls, or windblown trees–the very sensory characteristics often absent from a map of paved space, which privilege routes above wondering, and a rectilinear organization of space, rather than the specificities of a lived place that our maps often ignore or overlook–but include more than a wanderer might ever be expected to notice on foot.

15.  The warm, inviting colors of static maps reflect a deep desire to remap the city in different ways than mapping softwares allow, or the tyranny of the grid, and engage the engaging ways that they use open data to render place in distinctive ways that could be more easily inhabited.  The rich existence of habitats–and the deep view of sites of nature in space, making us look back to the rich ecosystems of what were once tidal wetlands in the very area that is now overpaved.  To be sure, the map doesn’t suggest quite the historical depth of a landscape whose grassy lands were once populated by roaming camels, zebras, and wooly mammoths, but by excavating the rich habitat suggested in the nutrient-rich lands of tidal wetlands, long reconfigured since 1850, it suggests continuities in wild lands, as much as among wildlife.

San Francisco Estuary Institute/2000

Selective foregrounding of the relations between ground surface impermeability, which in the country covers not only 4.1 million miles of paved highways–or 8.3 million lane miles–but corridors extending within miles of the roads, but land cover change that suggest a massive urban expansion, affecting 65,000 sq mi of coastal regions between 1996-2010, an area the size of the state of Florida, and 13% of the Gulf of Mexico or 15% of the southeastern United States, per the Coastal Change Analysis Program (C-CAP).  If viewers can explore the levels of ground cover change across the coastal regions–regions where landcover change has produced huge consequences of runoff in data maps, to assess the potential impact of ground cover change on coastal communities, the local attempts to balance such massive land cover change suggest ways of keeping in touch with local habitat.

The question of local landcover that has restricted increasing islands of green is even apparent in the city of San Francisco, surrounded by more vital habitat most other American cities, if not nearly as green as Vancouver BC.    The massive effects of overpaving has created a habitat for cars, and its greyed out urban growth makes the land cover shifts over the century of the city’s once largely sandy terrain even if most of the development is only at low or medium intensity, save the paved downtown–

land cover SF.png
forest:high intensity:med intensiy.png

NOAA C-Cap Land Cover Classifications/ESRI

–but questions the problems of leaving such an off-putting dominance of grey spaces of medium, high, and low intensity development as a complete picture of the urban enivornment.

The mandate for Nature in the City was of course to present a deeply engaging surface of habitat, as much as pure pixelated space, from the casting as the shoreline as active habitat, often overlooked in records of its built space–

north beach

–to the detailed depiction of the city as a palimpsest that overflows with undetected nature, not only poppies and thistles, but underwater crustaceans (oysters–the vestige of a once thriving oyster colony in the bay, shorebirds, and fossils of invertebrates, in ways that invite us not only to remap the urban environment but to try to explore its wealth of biodiversity in easily legible ways, that call attention to the natural corridors of trees, low-lying water and sand that encouraged and afforded local habitats.

Centerpiece NITC

Nature in the City

The complex constellation of wetlands, green space, coastal currents and bathymetric lines reveals a mosaic that is nested in both high intensity and medium intensity development.  In San Francisco, open space and some stretches of bare land and forest contained in pockets of a landscape of development, that have allowed many to preserve not only remnants of five hundred indigenous plant varieties, but helped continue to nourish an ecosystem still particular to it in contrast to other cities.  If paved and cover in cities is estimated at 30-40%–35% on average for California’s capital; 30% in Portland and 24% of New York City– the increasing availability of open data and urban orthoimagery allow us to drill into the local data, and resolve questions of our relation to the built environment.

And even as impervious pavement covers a growing portion of the country, providing what the Center for Watershed Protection coyly called a “habitat for cars,” of streets, parking lots, and highways, the illustration of the survival of habitat in creeks, lakes, and open spaces, is not only ethically important.  The layers of habitat revealed in the Nature in the City –a title that reverses the privileging of paved space in most of our navigational maps–suggests the deep history of natural habitats that are only now being recovered by endangered species, and that long distinguished the unique contact with nature in the city on the Pacific.

Is it possible that the maps of paved space we rely on prevent us from wandering, and actively engaging the world with our minds?    This map allows the abilities of the saturation of sensory stimulation of the solitary walker, who,  removed from conscious acts of spatial measurement, responds to the non-built world as a tranquil space; it invites its user to discover the hidden Isle de St. Pierre that is lying in the city’s paved neighborhoods–not only Golden Gate Park, but the Presidio; Mission Bay; Bernal Heights; Inner Richmond; even Civic Center and the Western Addition–that are so often rendered as grey space on our iPhones as we move in urban space, glued to their screens, or the voices that remind us how to navigate its streets, rather than to the native flora and fauna that whose abundance are so unique to define a place.


Fremontodentron/James Gaither

The paths it suggest aren’t recognizably human–if it does allow one to follow the trails marked in orange on its surface, as if to urge one to explore off the road and on foot the rich habitat that remains.  The reveries of walking are not guided itineraries, but invite us to wander in mapped space to discover how its non-built spaces afford somewhat hidden habitats, if it is not so strikingly evident an intersection between mountains, lakes, streams, and forest.


Former monastery in St. Pierre island, Switzerland where Jean-Jacques Rousseau lived from September to December 1765, when he wrote Reveries of the Solitary Walker

The French Enlightenment philosophe Jean Jacques Rousseau had extolled the enjoyment on walks in enumerating and describing the plants in flower that he saw, and moving from these detailed observations of the natural world around him in St. Pierre to what he called the “complete picture,” the images of thistles, a detailed image of urban ecology, watersheds, the range of rare breeds of magnolia, among the greatest selection of which in America live in San Francisco, California poppies, and coastal scrub and other native plants like huckleberry and California Sage encountered in the city.  But unlike Rousseau’s solitary walker who wanders in nature, the map offers a point far less rooted in the human observer.  Rather, it offers a point of departure for the ecosystem of a mosaic of over five hundred plants in the peninsula, that attract a broad range of insects, birds, and animals, extending back to a prehistoric ancient ecosystem, of significant biodiversity–and here recalls Darwin’s notion of an open and endless cartographic form to do so.

For who are the inhabitants of place anthat actually have long defined it, the maps so gently asks of its readers, humans or the longstanding trees, plants, and complex habitat that we might do well toa ctually attend to, experience, and observe?


California poppy (Eschscholzia california); tidy tips (Layia platyglossa); Gillia tricolor; Phacelia campanularia/Don Mahoney

As we use increasingly limitless maps that pan across the city, saturated with data we can never process, that allow us to pan, zoom in, zoom out, we have internalized a sense of a virtual “zooms cape” as much as a landscape, that links an array of different sorts of land cover in pixellated form.  The grid relaying satellite imagery to local servers offers limited reference points by which to assess the land cover change, as we need to to so most; the uniformity of our cartographical literacy tends to wipe out records that are rich with the past in their illusion of a completeness.  Departing from what we might encounter in a walk, the maps reinforce the possibilities of encountering nature at first hand, offering a sort of promise for detection signs of natural creatures and plants that distinguish the city’s distinctive topography.

The focus on the paved areas of San Francisco are often seen as making the city a biodiversity hotspot–if one separates the ancient biodiversity of its wild past to the paved present, and contrast the contrast between the “nature” of the indigenous landscape of the peninsula against the built out urban grid, where are condemned to live on paved streets.  But the dominance of the grid in the aerial view erases the ecosystems that continue to thrive, or the ability to move from inspiration in the particular to broader reflection on the universal questions of the city’s future as a site for urban organisms.

But rather than indulge in a “before” and “after” sort of fantasy, that seems deeply historical, despite the contrast between the pre-1750 image that reveals a bucolic San Francisco’s open spaces, streams and estuaries, with the overpaved city which defined its bearing on a grid–


Wild Equity Institute/Nancy Morita

—the map invites us in, to the ecological richness of a sense of deep time in the city, across the remolding of the coasts that were defined by landfill, less in terms of a fall from a state of nature–an ahistorical narrative–than an appreciation of the arrival of new plants–who can deny the pleasures of Campbell’s Magnolia, or Saucer Magnolia, the oysters introduced in the bay, or coyote that  followed humans to the city, to enjoy and appreciate the actual palimpsest of the city as it exists, not only with rich manzanita, and even palms and eucalypts, beside more native plants that offer a deep view of the mobility of nature across space, as well as the indigenous habitat, taking the abundance of “endless forms” in San Francisco more seriously scientifically.


Nature in the City: Spring in San Francisco

16.  Despite the power of the “compare and contrast” parallel images–recalling the parallel projection of pairs of slides in so many art history courses given in lecture halls that has created the DNA of many art historical arguments–the broader purchase of the expansive sort of habitat that maps onto the city in ways we rarely chart.   Instead of viewing nature in a monolithic “now you see it, now you don’t!” fashion, the constant motion of the lived city is what the pictorial map tries to bring to the surface from its built environment, offering a rich historical appreciation of place that seems particularly indebted not only to environmental thought but to Solnit’s intentional enrichment of our cartographic imagination, in constantly innovative atlases of urban space orient us to their heterogeneity, shifting compositions, and layered morphologies.

For rather than positing a “dot” that exists in one site or has strict boundaries.  Part of the beauty of the Nature in the City map is the similar sense of engagement it plays with the bounds of San Francisco county–noted on the map–that notes the way we bound space and the constant motion of life that is in it, and that maps have such a hard time calling to the fore.  The comprehensive abilities of map tiles that arrive on our devices in our pockets imply a false comprehensiveness that the Nature in the City map challenges.  If hand-holds may restrain us from interacting with the every environments they describe, and the circumscription of bound “rest areas” and parks, the combination of LiDar readings of street trees provides a detailed record of the landscape we have built, and with which animals interact, as if to restore our agency to an ecosystem by rendering details that foster what one can only call augmented eco literacy.  By integrating different data-based forms of LiDar, orthoimagery and detailed observation of the ground of a region we thought well-mapped, it shifts attention from a “habitat for cars” that continues to dominate so much of our landscape, constraining other habitats and lived space, and use open data toward open spaces within the built city, and drill beneath the overlays of the data-rich maps we are used to consult day to day.

If the mapping of the edges of built space, and the margins of man-made landscapes on which we focus and replicate in most maps, makes it hard to see the complex relations between the broader ecosystem and the built city, or the city’s constructions and its nearby faults, both maps bring us to move, mentally, to map a broader web of inter-connections and associations, one through close attention to the individual poppy, standing erect at the base of the map, as if emblematic of the fragile but persistent place of nature in the city, and the urban ecosystem, or tracing more shocking lines between the sandy soil that has made built structures more vulnerable to seismic shocks and the recent spate of buildings whose cores barely reach bedrock.  Only in making such connections can we really come to think, after all, about the future of built space, and do so in less starkly oppositional terms between the grayness of the built environment and the natural world it tends to exclude.

These maps provide helpful tools for thinking about the future of cities.

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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