The Natures of San Francisco

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.

The West begins where the pavement ends” once defined a counter-geography of open lands in the American west.  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.


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

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