The Natures of San Francisco

9.  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.


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.pngNOAA 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 NITCNature 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.

image.pngFremontodentron/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.

image.pngFormer 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?

image.pngCalifornia 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–

image.pngWild 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.


image.pngNature in the City: Spring in San Francisco

10.  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.

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

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