Natures of San Francisco

17.  The living landscape is there to be cultivated, and there to seek out to discover, the revised map from Nature in the City elegantly, pleasurably, and calmly but firmly reminds us.  Indeed, the point of shaping big data not only in overlays, but in an integrated mosaic that reveals relations that we can explore by making our own ties within the maps, using them as instruments to think about place, as much as tools for navigating the grey uniformity of space, are especially appealing as a way of shifting our relation to place in an age where overdevelopment threatens increasing homogeneity.   Can we make a map that will allow us to be our own Thoreau, to wander on the shores and open spaces of the city, as opposed to follow its roads in enclosed vehicles, and excavate the landscapes where we still live?

For the Nature in the City map of San Francisco is an effort begun by Joel Barstow fifteen years ago.  The recent edition moves beyond parks–Barstow’s original focus–to encourage its readers adopt a position like Thoreau, notwithstanding the level of intense urban development, by a deep dive into spatial data on the place of plant-cover, spiders, sea birds, migrating whales, and sand dollars and even sea lions along its coasts, rather than its buildings.  The result is to investing this edition of the map with a new sense of tactile bounty whose copiousness direct consciousness to its present, past, and future habitats, finding a resilient nature to present a new future view of the built city not as overwhelmed by overbuilding.

As if in a striking counter-example of our need to map urban environments in San Francisco, the visualization appearing almost in the same week in April 2018 in the en in The New York Times gained wide attention for the shock of foregrounding downtown steel and glass towers that rose to heights above those that the city to mark the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake in the national news:  while building heights had remained low, relative to the United States, in the hundred and fifteen years since the three minutes when the earthquake of 1906 leveled almost 500 city blocks, and left over 200,000 homeless, asked the Times, indicating evidence of the dangers of overbuilding in the overabundant skyscrapers that sprouted on unsolid ground.  The clever mapping of towers against the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake’s devastation and its ruins invite viewers to weigh there risks of unregulated construction as a “Big Gamble” of limited prudence as the “big one” is set to arrive.  The ‘gray space’ of built space becomes a site for increased anxiety, and deepest fears of the Big One that seems to lie on the horizon.


The New York Times

The “map” of building heights responded to some extent to the remapping of the instability of a large liquefaction zone along the piers and shores that were largely built on landfill, and rested on sandy terrain, and the remove of many of the skyscrapers from the bedrock foundation that enables and secures the skyscrapers of a city such as New York.  The illustration of multi-block areas along Market Street–the city’s “hinge” and artery of its downtown–revealed the high risk of stability in the same region, in ways expected to have  set of a danger alerts to the builders who would have planned and Building Codes Supervisors who would have overseen and approved the construction of such new behemoths as the Salesforce Tower in the heart of the sandy financial area–placing the tallest building that is able to be seen from San Jose on the urban skyline at one of the largest and shakiest of the city’s liquefaction zone.


Liquefaction Hazard Maps/USGS

Indeed, the city marks the urban space around Market Street in ways that can be seen all the way from San Jose, like a monument to the impact of Silicon Valley on the city it has reshaped, and now dominates its skyline like no other building–replacing the Transamerica Pyramid or Coit Tower, just below Market Street where  the two grids of the downtown financial area meet, as if built over two years to dwarf all other so-called skyscrapers in its vicinity.

Salesforce spike.png

The two city maps issued in April 2018 exploit the increased availability of open data to orient viewers to new pictures of the city, but for different claims on urban space–or the place of nature in the city.  Both escape the hegemony of our our dependence on the tyranny of navigating by hand-held screens.  Claims about “where the pavement ends” today seem foreign to overbuilt landscapes, but call for orienting us to the huge changes in the overbuilt areas of urban space and environments:   indeed, maps of open data struggle to create an ethical relation to place, as the growth of over 43,000 square miles of impervious ground cover that existed in the United States compels a different relation to nature.  And if encomiastic views of cities created a visual relation to bird’s-eye views of place–that most our maps of location and navigation fail to provide–we are using maps to excavate a lost local deep history that the superficial rendering of much open data neglects, recreating a relation to space and anew view of the urban community that recall the tactile nature of bird’s-eye views that invite us to explore their space by the position of hilltop observers who at leisure survey the town to learn about their surroundings.

San Francisco 1862

This post examines–and, yes, celebrates–how two maps of San Francisco incorporate open data to orient viewers to San Francisco as a place through mashed up maps–on the screen, and the superimposition of older photographic images and new maps to collapse time that the screen-experience creates, in the recent image of at-risk buildings in the growing skyscrapers of downtown San Francisco that have come to transcend 650 feet in height, or by rehabilitating the paper map in how Nature in the City used data-rich detail to invite us to explore the vitality of the biotic niches of San Francisco in deeply biophilic ways.  In an age of big data and data flows, both seem to recoup the cognitive benefits of orientation to place that is particularly gripping and meaningful, for how they force us to engage selective content that reflects the frustrating superficial nature of maps that privilege geolocation on the virtual–and increasingly pixellated–space of a grid, and recuperate a new relation to place by offering new abilities to read place.

For at the same time as we lose a sense of place in many regions of the west–and not only there–not due to a surplus of data, but due to the difficulty of mapping data onto place in a way that we can process, we need to attend to how we give concrete rendering to an urban ecology not focussed on built space.  Indeed, both he retrospective view of the rebuilding of downtown San Francisco on the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake and the fostering of spaces for habitat alongside the built environment offer new tools of engaging landscape, moving within place, and using cartographical tools to reevaluate our relation to urban space.

By inviting us into the city if one map produced on Earth Day invited us to explore–albeit in a static format–local nature in the urban space, as if to find the remaining encouragement of vibrant natural ecosystems in an unknown landscape, to reveal a hidden habitat lying before us at all time, the other map, produced on the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake, used data to question if towers are compatible with the history of place by invoking a landscape of earthquakes known too well.  The maps use data to incarnate two distinct views of urban memory–one celebrating habitats revealed in the seas, land, and fossil record; one the memory of nature’s destruction at the edge of a continental plate–and two versions of encomiastic views–one praising not the built but unbuilt spaces of the city; the other, inverting an iconographic tradition that celebrated feats of human building. Indeed, if the Nature in the City map inverts an elegant if simple terrain map to show the green spaces–from parks, urban forests, and street trees to shores–in which thirteen species dwell, rather than the street plan and built environment, buildings dominate the view of the city as mapped on the anniversary of the earthquake as a built environment confronted by imminent collapse.

There is almost the sense that the map of open spaces and ecosystems beckon us to look at the urban ground plan we know so well from the point of view of the animals that live there, and inhabit its open corridors, while the datasets that the Times collected is used to orient us to the professional view of the urban engineer through the return of the repressed, in which forces of nature that have so recently shocked us–in hurricanes, tsunami, lava-spewing earthquakes, flash coastal flooding, fires and extreme weather events–are implicitly juxtaposed with the impending disaster of an earthquake on what we had imagined was a stable built environment.  Each map presents a different nature-culture hybrid, but reveals how our notions of nature are not located only where pavement ends, but are now necessarily increasingly hybridized, if coexisting–despite the contrast between the warm palette of the first map and the harsh danger signs of impending disaster of its built environment, which recede in the warm inviting hues of the Nature in the City.  (The map of urban ecosystems also reveals how seismic activity shaped the environment, but is  far less apocalyptic, and allows the view of the 1906 earthquake to recede beneath the city’s current greens and rich turquoise sea–rendering its bathymetry with a warmth poorly reproduced below.)

hidden habitat.png

Nature in the City


The New York Times, April 17 (2018)

12. We are perhaps starting to learn, in an age of increased data availability, how to attend to the importance of graphic tools to record place, and get a better orientation on the dynamics of place.  As we have an overabundance of mapped data and mapped cities now, each one of his holding our own multi-scale urban map in our pockets, the scalable urban streetscapes we are addicted to mapping our locations may only serve to distract us from the deeper relation to the environment–and indeed, the ecosystem–that is not included in so many of the maps we use to gain bearings.

As we use maps that we find only limit our sense of place, and constrain it in ways that increasingly correspond to the limits of the data used to create our maps, the importance of turning to maps to gain orientation to the built environment–in a time when “the west is where the pavement ends” is .drained of any inspirational value–even in a bar in the open spaces of the Black Rock Desert, after a long, sweaty highway drive, when it still seems ironic.  For if most of the west is not only paved, but increasingly standing to lose lose even the memory of open lands, as increasing extra-urban areas are paved and accelerated land cover shifts proceed at a greater rate than ever before.

The growth of open urban data provides a new way to look at the survival of open spaces and the engagement with paved space in American cities.  The range of dynamic maps like that of Nature in the City in the header to this post.  The map that the local non-profit assembled suggests the excitement of the ground cover combination in the city by drawing our eyes to the remaining spaces of habitat within paved land cover.  The question of a need for orienting ourselves to greater landcover change only grows as we see the difficulty of gaining purchase on the built environment and as our confidence in our mapping skills grows.  And as we are increasingly sensitive–and compelled to react to if not search for meaning in data on new environmental disasters and environmental change–the ability to take stock of place and our relation to it is ever more pressing in what might be called the growing ethics of data visualizations and the compelling ways that open data can be rendered to define and refine our spatial relation to place.

18 The two visualizations of San Francisco that appeared within one week created.  Both created a new assemblage of the city’s surroundings, that seek to orient us as viewers to its nature:  one pointing to the ecosystem of signs of nature–animals, flowers, fossils, birds, and insects–in the city we think of as built by humans, the other one pointing to the complexities of building with abandon on its shaky ground, hidden liquefaction zones, and proximity to fault lines.

If one is mapped against historical habitats still present in the city, the other is mapped against the ruinous earthquake of 1906.  Rather than being only a passive register of data, however, both maps use their data-richness to orient viewers to the city’s space, either by involving viewers in its ecosystem or the image of expanding buildings in a landscape permeated by risk, by inviting us to drill, as it were, underground, into the open data on the urban foundations of the downtown.

Both orient us to a landscape that we are not well served by onscreen maps that locate us primarily within a built environment.  The map by Nature in the City featured in the header to this post aspires to the power of an activist mapping, through a deep familiarity with place, to surprise residents who often use maps and apps to navigate San Francisco to enjoy a new relation to place–in the direct manner of stating that the pavement ends.  Its ethics are to compel us to look outside the over-mapped space of the built city. Indeed, the rich surface–counterintuitively dotted in a pointillist array of light green with larger multicolored puddlings of darker green, suggests the limits of paved surfaces in San Francisco, and creates a wonderfully textured image to investigate the relations between local and dispersed ecosystems.

The rich local detail of the pictorial map offers an anti-Google Maps perspective that its viewers can engage.  Unlike the Apollonian perspective is untethered to the local place, it reveals the contingency of the environment, placing its viewer in contact with habitats that survived in the city’s open space–and indeed foster the possibilities of considering what a deeper relation to place might be, and the constant practices of attending to the wild–the sounds of frogs, calls of birds, or sights of whales, or flora–that vibrantly exists in the city but often is overlooked, and not only in maps.  If the whale’s presence of the coast of Ocean Beach recalls the past proximity to maritime networks of the city and its proximity to west coast whaling industries, whose presence is often still sadly seen in beached up sperm whales, gray whales, or blue whales, seventy- or eighty-foot long mammals who beach after collisions with ships or wash ashore due to apparent malnourishment–


California Academy of Sciences

–the presence of whales in marine sanctuaries parallels the cultivation of new spaces for flora, jackrabbits, coyote, and rare light green hairstreak butterflies.

The viewer is effectively invited to explore a counter-cartography less for bearings on man-made structures, than in an alternate exercise of new skills of map reading, of assembling the interconnected texture of place from data, to construct a story making a hidden nature of place more accessible and evident that often goes overlooked.

From the green topography now nested in the urban environment, lakes and waterways to the underground hidden streams underneath the city, historical wetlands that defined its ecosystem, to the future shoreline of rising tides according to recent NOAA shoreline projections, the map oriented viewers to an inter-related place beside the city’s built environment.  Drawn wildly out of scale, but foregrounded to suggest their prominence in the focus of the attention of the map, among thirteen plants and animals we encounter species of butterflies (a hairstreak), birds (an avocet), a coyote, water mammals (a whale) and invertebrates (a sand-dollar or even the fossil of a prehistorical radiolarian chert!) as well as chorus frogs, tiger swallow tails, rich flora (the California poppy) appear as pictorial vignettes, in the manner of an illustrated map, but with a naturalistic detail to their appearance.  The images aren’t ornamental accompaniments, but invite viewers to orient themselves to rich ecosystems the built environment obscured, beside native plant nurseries that ensure a protected environment within the paved city.

19.  The pictorial map becomes a site of resistance, inviting the viewer to help cultivate wildness in an urban expanse, or a model of activist mapping of reorienting the viewer to place from the point of view of thirteen native species who occupied its forests, wetlands, creeks and mountains, as if to uncover a landscape that exists under the concrete and beside it, rather than suddenly be overwhelmed, as if in an intimation of mortality, with the fragility of the towers of poured concrete supported by rebarb piles filled into sandy ground.  Rather than an encomiastic view of place, we are invited into the cultivation of its unbuilt spaces–not the bare grass of golf courses, but the scattered forested areas and places where water pools or creeks run emerge from underground, as the city becomes a sort of palimpsest of different historical periods and different species, shaped by its bathymetry, topography, and open space that is often absent from our screens.

Indeed, the detail to the sorts of open space–the detailed record of the relative density of shrub, tree cover, forest, and open grasses–provides a detail rich environment that we can inhabit, perhaps less focussed on street names that street trees, and allowing the man-made structures of the city to recede from our field of vision, in favor of the larger campgrounds, springs, and open spaces of the city, where we can explore the unbuilt environment beside the built with a level of crispness usually reserved for streets and buildings.  Indeed, the data-rich level of detail does not hit me over the head as a viewer, but seems an environment I’d rather inhabit, as tree density seems suddenly a tactile surface whose palpable nature i can explore in the city, rather than, say, population, street-traffic, or , and appears in this moment a sort of ur-data, more important and relevant to the west coast native as the Pacific Chorus Frog that has begun to return as a resident to San Francisco’s Presidio–

Nature in the City map of San Francisco, detail of Presidio/Jane Kim, artist

–rather than the built environments we so often navigate n n and regularly navigate as if they wer second nature.  Indeed, the map invites us to resist the nature/culture confusion that Google Maps, Wayz, and our androids perpetuate as if they were second nature.

While the paper map is static, and a sheet at a single scale, save insets on its verso, the density of data invites us to zoom into its engaging landscape from the species whose environment the data renders:  all of a sudden, the city is transformed into an engaging landscape, its contours of habitat traced from above or at street-level.  By inviting us into the city as a lived habitat in different ways, Nature in the City reveals unseen ecosystems in corridors of natural habitat.  If they are often unmapped, despite the recent overload of data alienated from our surroundings, we turn with welcoming eyes to read and reread its surface and reorient us to a space we often think of only as built, from San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean,–in ways that can be easily purchased, that stretches from its major parks to the greener neighborhoods that invite us to peel away, for an instant, the built-up surfaces of the city, to find a living substrate that remains, as we refocus our attention on animals, flora, and shorebirds we might otherwise have ignored and continue to ignore.


The expanse of the detailed naturalism of the map challenges us to process the range of data it provides with such apparent simplicity by inviting our eyes to move across its surface.  As much as orient the viewer as a guide for way-finding, or even natural observation, the Nature in the City map celebrates the ecosystems in the city, soliciting attention to an engaged relation to open space–detecting and even cultivating the green spaces in San Francisco, through the continued habitation of “nature” in a built environment on which we usually focus attention.  In fact, the map suggests in its simple combination of datasets that do not overwhelm but contextualize the city, it is the wilder elements–and the placement of the unseen networks of green corridors that enrich and transform its inhabited space.

Building on a base map that reflects an image of parks and open spaces in the city produced by ParksInfo, against a street grid–

–biologists at Nature in the City dug far deeper into an engagement with local ecosystems., pushing beyond the ambiguity of the grey space that remain outside parks as open space.  As well allowing us to look at the range of parks that dot the city, with five open spaces that are so sharply distinguished from a dense downtown, the new version presents a far broader canvas of interaction along wildlife corridors.  The more sensitive recording of habitat data and species distribution reveals a new presence of life to explore against this rich base-map,  populating the flat green spaces with dynamic local ecosystems by adding datasets of trees, shrubs, and grasses, in a census of open spaces captured by Lidar, capturing density and height, and then allowing us to examine and explore how they are inhabited by a range of mammals, insects, plants, and invertebrates.  The result is to reconstitute a broader ecosystem to reveal its engaged surface that many maps fail to register, and that transcend what a walker might ever notice.

19. If the ParksInfo map from GreenInfo might be an anti-GoogleMap, and a counter-dataset of green spaces, the habitation and engagement of these spaces invites us into a dynamic surface whose baseman begins from foregrounding unbuilt ground cover, inviting us into its open spaces by suggesting their contiguity with its paved spaces, and even the ephemerality of the current shoreline that landfill helped construct in an era of sea-level rise.  Rather than describe its parks, after all, the building terrain provides the sort of negative space for an alternate urban encomium of open spaces, and a natural environment that holds multiple species in mapping the shoreline of San Francisco as a site of past, present and future resilience, which cannot be collapsed into any single anthropomorphic narrative–but offers multiple sites of access to nature, and suggest how species don’t see those off-putting grey spaces as entirely grey–and perhaps suggesting that the built areas constitute the white space of the city that we can design to afford more green space, and as we imagine the projected changes in sea-level rise is expected to bring by the current century’s end.

downtown wet
Nature in the City/Bay Nature

north beach.png

20.  Layers of built and unbuilt exist in most cities, much as in the open, unpaved spaces. But San Francisco seems a likely candidate to recuperate and preserve the memory of once-open lands in ecosystems that continued despite massive land cover change.  Even as  he once flippant adage about pavement ending is emptied of much meaning, the dynamic–if static–third edition of Nature in the City invites you to interrogate the landscape not through houses, buildings or streets, to discover its greener habitats and examine its wetter spaces.

 The vision of remapping the urban environment, begun as the brainchild of Peter Brastow, as expanded to trace the environments of dunes, coasts, offshore waters, and urban trees, that reflect the work of the non-profit in restoring native plants and grasses, and creating the natural corridors of the city that remain within forty-nine acres of poured concrete, steel, and asphalt.  The hybrid of natural and non-natural is the environment of the city today, where despite the ubiquity of the built environment, we coexist with nature in ways we may have yet to fully experience.  The shift in the scope of this edition of the map no doubt responds to the greater consciousness of the new terrain that the loss of wetlands in the region has experienced, and the value of surviving wetlands in creating and preserving the biogeography of shorebirds and shellfish that remain in the San Francisco Bay, and the broader wetlands–traced in grey–that once encouraged its distinctive habitat.

In something like rebuttal to the image of an overpaved West of lost open spaces, the map shows the resilience of green space beside paved matrix to reveal the continuities of habitat of nature in the city beyond the city’s parks, streams, ponds and urban forest and cleaned up shores, inviting us to meander in its green spaces and the margins of overbuilt spaces with its other residents–including coyote, illustrated by artist Jane Kim with a scientific detail that makes their observation a pleasure of exactitude that we would rarely be every to encounter as a living surface, suggesting the special value of their survival within an urban context where they so often go overlooked.  The ethical argument of the map almost reminds us of its ability to change our relation to maps, thanks to the persistence of its cartographer, Lindsay Irving.

Centerpiece NITC
Nature in the City map (2018), detail featuring wildlife illustrated by Jane Kim

Wolf Bernal Heights-banner
Nature in the City map (2018), detail; coyote illustrated by Jane Kim

As we explore how street-trees, medians, parks, and lakes, we can detect habitats for a range of largely undetected ecosystems–not captured in most maps–visually translating a range of spatial data into actually quite tactile terms to illustrate a range of our place names for green spaces–using larger fonts for open space–that house the complexity of its lived environment, and the elegance of the animals that exist in it:  the map seems an invitation that teaches us how to look–or to detect new forms of life.

The map seemed perfect as a launch for Earth Day, 2018, in short.  It is an invitation to explore local habitat that the group helps preserve and conserve, and seeks to draw broader attention to, suggests a sense of eco-literacy that engaged an urgent exploration of its space.  The urgency of the map of habitat and its “deep” history so closely tied to place could not be more unlike the “thin history” designed for sudden impact in the recent terrifying projection of the built city as subject to seismic dangers, published that very week by the newspaper of record, the New York Times.  For in contrast to the ethics of cartography that the hegemony of Google Maps might elicit, the shocking of the viewer by superimposing a spate of high-rise towers upon an aerial photograph of the ruins of the 1906 earthquake invites us to map future seismic risk on its anniversary, if in opportunistic ways.

21.  The demand to translate data into a narrative that allows us to interact with “space”–and specifically the space of San Francisco, lying between Bay and Ocean, either a built city or a habitat sediment-rich from seven rivers–offers a compelling city in which to look for nature. The two maps raise questions of what sorts of narrative that we want to tell about the place of nature in the city, as much as the means of creating narratives about space that seem so muted in most map servers. Both prompt us to raise questions, in the end, about the new sorts of web-based maps we might create, even if they are of relatively static forms, but the intensely visceral impact that both images generate.

The shock of the red extrusions that defined sites of danger in the newly overbuilt San Francisco–which it superimposed, in a mapping mashup, on an early aerial photograph of the devastation after the shock of less than a minute had flattened 400 houses in San Francisco–raised questions of the scale of destruction that a future quake might create.  This quite different “future mapping” of San Francisco–looking to the past, but imagining the disasters of the built environment of the future–used open data to set off immediate alarms and a flight or flight response in whoever saw it.

For by mapping each red extrusion as accidents waiting to happen, the view doesn’t engage place, but the dangers of deregulation that encouraged an apparent real estate grab for luxury housing.  The deep fears of the destruction of the current landscape it provokes question of the suitability of the downtown area to rebuilding–and the degree to which the construction of huge–even if LEED-certified!–buildings over 640 feet in height  in the unstable ground of sand and clay on which much of San Francisco is built–although it remains very much on its precariety of its surface.  Using recent USGS data on the instability of the Bayside downtown area, the map offered a bird’s-eye view of the newly built-up city not to invite one into it, the mash-up of a bird’s eye view of the shoreline and an aerial photography of the “Ruins of San Francisco” engages us through the dangers of its current sudden downtown building boom, show to be unconscionably untethered from the city’s past.  They start from a baseman of liquefaction hazards that reflect the geological nature of San Francisco’s tectonic origins, as much as the connectivity that defines its habitats, to present a different cartographical palette of the city–


New York Times/Sources: California Geological Survey; City and County of San Francisco

–that rather than engaging place that deeply, magnifies triggers of fears of underground tremors that could cascade recently built towers.  While such risks are well-known to residents, the shock of mapping a city by hazards, in which the entire city is shown to face risks of liquefaction save the Presidio, and Ocean Beach, suggest a landscape of danger that developers have repressed.

The image of the city from an external observer to be sure suggests an inversion of the classical chorography that roots the viewer in an imaginary elevated perspective.  It places the viewer outside of the built urban environment, but invest the encomiastic character of most city views to suggest the dangers of building on its paved but sandy grounds.  The image of red extrusions of contemporary skyscrapers superimposed on an aerial view of urban devastation appeals to the earlier historical urban apocalypse, viewing the building of urban towers above the height of any buildings in the city as a disaster we await to experience:  even if it isn’t in the newspapers today, the image has an immediacy that invites the viewer to make a clear connection, but not to explore the surface that seems a site of such danger:   while accurate in its measurement of the height of the downtown towers its opportunistic design provokes a knee jerk reaction–as if news of the impending return of a devastating the seismic disaster that determined the city’s topography and how its land cover changed, unlike other urban skylines, of course the iconic skyline of distinctive densely crowded skyscrapers in New York, founded on solid bedrock.

The portrait of the shakiness of the towers that have been championed as a form of urban revitalization unsurprisingly followed a similar story of the risk of coastal flooding in the Bay Area based on the recalibration of soil subsidence in the Bay Area.  For recent readings of the marshy coastal peninsula from San Mateo to Palo Alto to Santa Clara suggested a terrifying confluence of sinking land and rising seas, accelerating predictions of the dangers of sea-level rise.  The more apocalyptic cityscape that lined up from Market Street in downtown San Francisco foregrounded the buildings situated in areas with “very high” chance of liquefaction.  The visualization superimposing buildings above 240 feet tall pulse like omens of poor urban planning atop the ruins of the 1906 quake when the city was cut low by less than a minute of underground tremors.

Viewers are suspended between staring at the terrifying ruins–in the wake of the fires that consumed the downtown–and asking how towers above 650 feet–and far more–were ever accepted by planning boards or building inspectors, and how safe a new “high-rise” San Francisco was for inhabitants.  Each tower suddenly seems a pin waiting to be knocked down, just waiting for waves of seismic activity ripple down the bowling lane of Market Street to collapse, as the sandy ground begins to shake.


The New York Times

The striking nature of the extrusions map–especially in contrast to the open spaces and corridors that were so engagingly revealed by Nature in the City–is how it makes us passive consumers of big data, not finding patters in it that suggest a landscape able to be explored, or engaging the ground-plan, so much as ratcheting up our fear and query the shifting nature of the buildings code.  Rather than offer a counter-cartography of resistance, the “Seismic Gamble” mash-up foregrounds the looming danger of structures designed by computer modeling, and their acceptance through building codes that made exceptions beyond the usual local limits of 500 feet that permitted the such growth.  But the critique of overbuilding and urban supervision is less of an invitation to explore or learn about the city, than drop your jaw.

Was this skyline envy from an east coast metropolis that had not recently innovated its own iconic skyline?  Not, to be sure, openly.  But for all its data richness, the image staged a sense of danger on the unsteady sandy western grounds, far removed from bedrock, by an actually impoverished sense of mapping the complexity of place.  The far smaller city suggests an inverse of the density of skyscrapers of New York, to be sure; far few towers of comparable nature inhabit the long-sandy terrain of San Francisco, and the unsteady ground is not only known by the earthquake of 1906.  But the fire alarms set off by the red extrusions in a landscape of urban devastation seemed not only thin on history, but of limited engagement with the complexity of the city’s relation to shaky ground–and the far greater probability of a future quake on the Hayward Fault, across the bay–and the complexity of place.

The article raised alarms about the spread of hubristic overbuilding in a downtown that is in fact a liquefaction zone raised issues of the ethics and adequate supervision of massive construction projects, but offered a particularly grim image of where nature lay in the city–focussed entirely on a built environment, potentially subject to seismic risk, quakes, and aftershocks, whose grey past of destruction was perhaps too easily blindered from the advocates of a real estate boom downtown.  But the aggressiveness of pushing the viewer away–and indeed of stacking the cards by inviting us to inspect the devastation of the 1906 ruins–seem to prevent much appreciation of place, by rather transforming the built environment from a cause of celebration and local boosterism to the hubris of building another Tower of Babel–a sight long so strong in the mental geography of early moderns that it was included within early world maps, and indeed sold among the woodcut views of cities that were created to orient readers to the inhabited world–and as an image of the degree to which human technology pressed against divine limits–

–as the image of a tower able to reach the heavens, גְדַּל בָּבֶל‎מִ, as the ziggurat of Babylon of 300 feet, in this 1370’s image of the Tower of Babel, gained strong resonance of a violation of the human realm by the built.

The view of towers that transcend the long-enforced building heights limit in San Francisco offers a very concrete map of urban dangers in an age of panic.  For it raises immediately visceral alarms, using open data to dare its viewers to imagine the scope of destruction that portends, and posing questions of the dangers that of seismic risks lying below its surface, deep, deep underground.  The orientation is not only news, but generated a degree of web traffic–even more than photographs of the rebuilding of the city in the aftermath of the Great Fire that it created, when a 7.9 tremor left the whole street “undulating . . .  as if the waves of the ocean were coming toward me, and billowing as they came,’ in the words of one witness, as waves that shook the city for less than a minute pounded its structures–leveling 490 city blocks and leaving 200,000 homeless.

To be sure, the anniversary of the quake was ostensibly time for a reckoning about urban responsibility and building supervision, casting the construction of urban towers–now red danger signs–to suggest the hubris of optimistic over-building of downtown San Francisco.  Had the spate of over-building under the eyes of building supervisors proceeded forgetting the past landscape of disaster, in spite of engineering advances?  Did their construction run against the memory of the disaster, given the city’s proximity to fault-line which even recent engineering advances seem to have ignored? Was the city fundamentally unsafe, rather than a flourishing site of natural engagement?

If the reds of the buildings might be more aptly characterized as the sites of the killing of prey like the offshore whales once slaughtered offshore–


–the buildings map as sites of danger in the same city monitorily, to warn us of the other extreme of human  inattentiveness to the environment that is also part of the “nature” of the city where they were constructed.

21.  The image of the “nature” of the city as one of instability quickly went viral, given the quite different purchase it offered on the city’s built seating.  The quite terrifying stories that the map triggered in viewers’ minds transformed the dataset of building heights into an uncanny narrative of urban disaster if not apocalypse that pushes the viewer away from the urban space; rather than describe the benefits of increased engineering designs, the sinking of the Millennium Tower offered a wake-up call for the heightened risk of liquefaction in the unsteady soils of San Francisco, unlike the biophilic concentration on the non-human residents of its urban ecology.

houses with salesforce
New York Times (April 17, 2018)

Yet is the grey perspective that it offered an adequate accounting of the complexity of the city’s rich ecology?

SF Green Space anti Google.png

GreenInfo Network

We are in a sense presented with two different perspectives on the city, and two distinct narratives about its space:  one orienting us to habitats and ecosystems, in ways that invite us to ask how complicit our dominant mapping styles in an ecological estrangement from place, and one suggesting that the memory of urban disasters had slipped from our primary attention to create a triumphant vision of real estate and luxury housing.

In an era when we’ve seen an upsurge of counter-cartographies that escape from the bland tools and mapping styles that privilege legibility over detail, and navigation over place, in ways that imply and interchangeability of landscape and call attention to the streets that run beside isolated islands of light green–but leave much of the city an off-putting grey, that rather than engage the viewer, leaves them jumping between isolated parks.

San Francisco streests and partks:monuments

But we all need  reminding of the other living inhabitants of our space, and which so enrich it and can better help us to explore its contours.  Only by orienting ourselves both to their presence can we appreciate the interdependence of spaces that we inhabit, and not naturalize built structures as the landscapes in which we live  Although the grey land cover of even so green a city as San Francisco dominates most maps of place, place-names and toponymy removed from its green parks, and the presence of bushes, grasses, and brush along its streets reduced, to orient us only to the man-made surfaces where we drive, in ways that daily distance us from its landscape.

Can one create a more ethical relation to place in maps?, ask the editors of the Nature in the City maps over the twenty years they have produced new city maps, and the three years they worked on enriching data sources for the most recent iteration of a city map that calls our attention to the city’s biodiversity which allowed it to “win” the recent Nature City map challenge..   In a style removed from Google maps, Nature in the City has privileged not inhabited greyspace of blocks, streets, and buildings, like our favored way-finding device, revealing the habitats the city contains and attending to its other inhabitants.

The appearance of the Nature in the City map on Earth Day 2018 offered an exultant counter-geography to the shifts of western landscape–and to the dependence of map-users on blanched out tools of spatial orientation and way-finding–renders the ecosystems absent in most of our mapping tools.  To be sure, other maps of the protected spaces of western parks at ParkInfo would provide an alternative view of protected spaces and national forests–

–the broad stretches of continuous green space may be far more susceptible to fragmentation than the network of parks that exists in California indicates; the area around San Francisco, however, far from being as grayed-out as in the small-scale view, is ringed by critical wildlife refuges and national seashores that create a context able to encourage the city’s smaller ecosystem to be a hub of species’ transit routes.

Wildlife Refuges SF.png

ParkInfo by GreenInfo Network

The grimmer view suggests a contraction or reduction of open spaces in the West, driven by a demand for extra-urban real estate and extra-urban expansion, that has led to a rapid disappearance of open space at the rate of over a football field every 2.5 minutes over the period 2000-2010.  The intense contraction of open space is evident in the paving along a spidery network of roadworks compromised any urban-wildness periphery in much of the west, altered the changing landscapes at an unheard of rate around cities as Seattle, Spokane, Billings, Boise, Salt Lake City, Fresno, Phoenix, and San Francisco in decisive ways, which one can view with a shifter across time–and is especially aggressive around San Francisco.

open land lost in West

Disappearing West/Center for American Progress

If maps are often seen as “rationalizations” of space that describe locations as able to be measured, objectively viewed, and indeed investing locations with objectivity, such data visualizations as the above–produced by the Center for American Progress–compel us to come to terms with the rationalization of estrangement ecosystem or local habitat that the increasing “interchangeability” of place  suggests in the leveling of a landscape of built space, occurring. There is something particularly gripping about the narrative of landscape transformation in the Bay Area, right beside Silicon Valley, that reveals the limits of the sort of map servers we use, and have increased authority in our abilities to orient ourselves to space.

When he came to the Bay Area, if he may have kenned it before, American novelist Richard Powers has noted, as “we are migrating farther and farther into digital, virtual place” and have only begun to discover that “the stories we tell about ourselves are becoming increasingly place-independent” both among ourselves and in the texts we read. Arriving in the Bay Area seems to have led Powers to write about trees and deforestation–compelling themes, to be sure– while working in the Bay Area at Stanford University. Entranced by the majesty of the forest, and the habitat of trees in the Santa Cruz mountains, Powers abandoned his teaching position at Stanford University, as he tells it, compelled by the siren song of contact with nearby old woods, and the map of human settlement of the landscape that they revealed and told.  Who are the true longstanding inhabitants of this place on the coast, Powers asked himself, if not the longstanding sentinels of trees?

Richard Powers quit his teaching gig soon after exploring the Santa Cruz mountains, where he seemed to travel to move from Silicon Valley, as he remembered.  He took time to walk in and explore the nearby redwood forests clearcut to build San Francisco in the peninsula, to discover that what he took as regrown forests concealed several older sentinels of amazingly wide-girthed trunks of those redwoods had somehow survived.  Shocked and saddened at the sudden realization of time, Powers looked at them as bearing witness to an earlier, lost time and habitat.  A single tree Powers encountered on one walk revealed the past habitat–a single tree that had, for whatever reason, escaped the logging and clear-cutting, prompted him to imagine “forests that would not return for centuries”:  “it was the width of a house, the length of a football field, and as old as Jesus or Caesar,” Powers tried to recapture his sudden epiphany of local ecology, set him recalibrating his relation to redwood forest in the Santa Cruz mountains, and, seeking a better metaphor that captured its monumentality,  “Compared to the trees that had so impressed me, it was like Jupiter is to the Earth.”  If Michael Pollan described the feeling of discovering something so self-evident while on acid that the trees were indeed his parents, a similar sort of revelation of underlying ecosystems was something Powers found the setting alone opened his mind.

The dislocation and radical removal from a local ecology is what Powers captured led him to quit his day job, and dedicate himself to The Overstory, a story or interlocked stories about the survival American trees, and the lack of knowledge about self that can proceed from a deep estrangement from place, and the possibility to recuperate a sense of the “local habitation” of place that the Nature in the City map asks us to attempt.  The scale of ecological alienation from a deep history of environmental change may be facilitated by cartographical constructions, which have in a sense laid epistemological seeds for a deep denial of global warming and climate change, as our attention is increasingly consumed by virtual spaces which remove us from natural settings or ecologies.   There is an echo of this remove from place, setting, and landscape, in maps that raises the question as to whether the ‘false transcendence’ of the map browser enables us to stand at a remove from setting and indeed place.

Powers was concerned to address the diminished power of place in fiction, and the estrangement we increasingly sense fom our local habitat and lived environments, there is no more fitting or powerful vehicle to orient ourselves better to place–and the deep history of an ecology of place–than maps.  Powers has turned to writing about trees based on acute realization that our devices to preserve a record of place often only accentuate our nature of being “phenomenally bad at experiencing, estimating, and conceiving of time,” given the extent to which our neurological structures “are [only] shaped to pay attention to rapid movements against stable backgrounds, [leaving us] almost blind to the slower, broader background drift.”  The very tools we create to “defeat time” and make it subject to our apprehension, from film to photography to, even worse, peripherals, tend to “collapse” our attention into a present, removed from habitats, plants or trees, and to substitute our anthropocentric experience of time for theirs–erasing the experience of other forms of life.  And it is in this extent that the “long view” of the Times visualization is amazingly short-sighted, if  provocative, and the “deeper” view provided by the new iteration of the Nature in the City map invites us to hope for the survival of habitats, rather than the built world.

If writing The Overstory–a massive work of documentation and of noticing–has led Powers to change his own life, and to move into the old growth region of the Smokey Mountains, a remaining refuge of biodiversity, one of the two maps this post considers invites us to involve ourselves in a dynamic of deep noticing, while the other incarnates an age of increasing anxiety, projecting that anxiety in the very residential towers we live.  Although maps are often described as rationalizations of space, two recent maps of San Francisco problematize this relation to urban space seem important to examine in some detail and depth.  Even if flat and static, both provoke an interaction between past and present–a historical depth–that most data maps and visualizations flatten, and seek to offer thought experiments about the dangers of estrangement from place by which urban building proceeds.  In an era when we are orient ourselves to street plans of city maps increasingly from the surfaces of our i-screens, and other devices or peripherals, the tangible sense of a relation to place in both maps–either through the extrusions of the Times visualization of  over-building or of the cultivation of open spaces in the city, and to grasp qualitative effects on the urban environment of San Francisco.

The alternative bird’s-eye views that this post is concerned raise questions of the remove at which we feel from place that most maps create:  both work so effectively by shocking us as viewers, whether by reminding us of the past seismic conditions of San Francisco that seem forgotten in the towers that have grown up with a rapidity and density during the last decade–which remind us that the loss of open spaces has proceeded a bit more slowly in San Francisco itself until recently, given the seismic risk of the underground  fault lines–or the precariousness of open spaces in the city, despite the precious existence of what is the largest urban regional park around the city, which creates an incomparable 120,000 acres of open space rich with habitat across sixty-five parks.  But the image that we so often navigate of the city’s flattened grey-space–the possible green spaces that coexist with its grey space, and a more deeply textured image of place than the grey-green landcover palette affords viewers.

Flat paved SF.png
Google Maps

–removes it from any sense of presence–save the sponsored destinations that pop-up on our screens.  The very absence of open spaces that these on-hand cartographies offer compel a better sense of the tactile nature of place, orienting the map user to the relations to space and place in ways by encouraging us to evaluate and explore the dynamic ecologies and nature of place that are so often off the map, noting neighborhoods, to be sure, but allowing the degrees of green space in the city–using three shades of green to note grasses, bushes, and trees, as the primary registers of our attention, in ways that jar the expectations we might have for maps as search engines of built destinations.

22.  The cultivation of open spaces is revealed in the map designed by  Nature in the City  to illustrate the spaces of habitats, parks, and green space in the city less as a way finding tool than an invitation to explore the inter-dependence in the city in ways that often fall under the radar even of residents  Their map reveals a deep resilience of open spaces even in an urban community.  One sees, wildly out of scale, the lone coyote in Bernal, whales off the Pacific coast, or the shorebirds in the San Francisco Bay, and is reminded of the benefits of the open space in clean coastal waters and parks that makes the city’s urban geography stand out from a rapidly intensifying pace of overbuilding of open western spaces that has inaugurated the new century.

Indeed, unlike earlier versions of the maps they have continued to produce of San Francisco that focussed only on the precious green islands of parklands as natural preserves against the pressures that its urban environment exercise on biodiveristy–


–the off-putting nature of the grey spaces of the city map were puzzling to present as grey, even amidst the “green connections” of the urban environment, as if by alternative analogy to municipal transport lines–


The distribution of rooftop gardens, street trees, and yards was allowed through the availability of  orthoimagery to create an insider’s view of the city’s corridors of natural habitat –familiar to other species, as much as to most citydwellers.  The layers of data allowed a basis to orient ourselves to how species inhabit a range street trees, back yards, and lawns.  Indeed, shortly after the completion of the previous Nature in the City map examined the city’s environmental heritage, nature in the City started to rethink how questions of resilience and habitat made most sense to examine in corridors, rather than only in preserves of parks and open space, and indeed how the place of plants and trees in remaining urban open spaces might be better served by such a picture.

The result takes our eyes off its built environment, and raises questions about the critical role of the survival of other species–plants, invertebrates, butterflies, and other fauna–that continue to distinguish San Francisco as a place and populate its greener areas.  “Under the pavement the/ soil is dreaming of grass,” Wendell Berry wrote in 2007, at the height of this ongoing overbuilding, as “the soil under the grass/ is dreaming of a young forest,” and maps such as that of Nature in the City ask us to try to imagine the past ecosystems of the land less inhabited by buildings or men.   Although the rapid incursions of over-development across the west increasingly infringes on once-isolated ecosystems and once-protected habitat in national forests, disrupting habitats in ways that demand better mapping in order to grasp fully what sorts of losses seem to be at stake with the expansion of anthropogenic change that demands to be explored–less as a celebration of a building markets, than for the growing estrangement of populations to the land.

Only by trying to orient ourselves to this loss of space over a huge scale, indeed, are we able to grasp the alteration of the landscape of open space–and peel back the layers of grey that dominate the city in Google maps.

San Francisco streests and partks:monuments.png

19. As open space as been encouraged by fears high-rise construction, until  recently, hilly terrain and fears of active fault lines have limited construction and kept building-heights low.  But new engineering practices and an explosive real estate market have removed restraints on the scale of overbuilding in the gentrified city that provide a bit of a big city corollary to the fast-disappearing open spaces of the West.  Can one make a map that will still affirm a relation to place, in the face of this contraction of the spaces that are still open for exploration, and invite us to explore them?   In contrast to the unprecedented contraction of open space that “The Disappearing West” portrays, the local folks at Nature in the City invite us to drill down into the open spaces and observations of the habitat of wildlife.  The celebratory map aimed to invite its readers to explore the ecosystem that persists in the open spaces of San Francisco–rather than its built space–to invite readers to explore them at first hand, as much as only rely on the map to orient them to the city’s built space.

The contrast between how the recent Nature in the City map invites us into the city and the recent image of the seismic risks of recent towers constructed in downtown San Francisco of greater height than any other part of the city’s skyline suggest two quite different views of mapping the integration of built cities with local environments, and responses to the desire to remap our relations to urban space.  Rather than call attention to built spaces alone, both maps invite us to consider San Francisco’s relation to its setting–to the geology on which it is built or the ecosystem of its once-forested lands–that suggest the haunting of the present amnesiac landscape by its pasts, and ask us to restore them into our sense of place.  Both are not only views of the glass being half-empty or half-full, but seem cautionary maps about the increasing dangers of estrangement from urban environments.

But if the Times is suggesting the haunted nature of the landscape by the triggers that stand to upset the towers that have redefined the skyline–as if to call our attention to the hidden mechanics of the dangers lurking underground–they hardly occasion much close-up scrutiny of the city, truth be told–reducing the complexity of urban planning decisions to a “seismic gamble” that was never so clearly framed as it was on the hundred and twelfth anniversary of the earthquake.

earthquake sf
New York Times (April 17, 2018)

23. The numbers in the “Seismic Gamble” image just don’t tote up:  the notion of overbuilding wasn’t really a critique of the space, but an alarm that the recent expansion of the built environment occasioned.

The production of such attention-grabbing maps is not only opportune–both due to the overbuilding of extra-urban areas and a burst of downtown towers that have provoked some fear on their own–but suggest the new range of visual strategies to visualize and orient us to urban space.  On the one hand, the haunting image of the towers as red silhouetted extrusions against the black and white landscape of post-earthquake ruins seems to implant a memory in our minds, while the outsized animals that are shown against narrow corridors of green suggest a sense of hope by remembering the city as a deeply interconnected space, removed from an adversarial struggle between man and nature.  Indeed, if San Francisco has long been haunted by the specter of the 1906 earthquake, and its limited low-rise customs of construction have allowed, to some extent, more pockets and corridors of open space to remain in its urban space.  Building heights were long contained by seismic risks.  The map the New York Times ran nationally to mark the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake seemed a wake-up call about the forgetfulness of the geological conditions,  similarly to how Nature in the City invited viewers to remember the ecosystem that has nourished San Francisco as a space.

24.  The opportune nature of such maps lies in how they command a sense of mastery in their focus on place, submerging local particularities beneath the spate of overbuilding that has been often bemoaned.  The overbuilding of the west has found a complement in the creation of San Francisco as a site for urban skyscrapers, increasingly at a remove from the city in which they stand.  For over the past decade or so–and roughly on the heels of the spate of construction across the west–the limits of the low-rise city seem to have been transcended in the explosion of mixed-use towers increasingly typical of global metropoles in the face of the unpredictability of seismic disaster, as a new vision of towers across downtown San Francisco attests.

As much as the elegance of the bird’s eye view that one might take of these new buildings, imagining each named by the corporation that underwrote, sponsored or inhabits them, from Twitter to Transamerica Pyramid to Salesforce Tower, moving from mid-Market to the Embarcadero, the recent article appearing in the New York Times asked us to imagine them in a mash-up against a backdrop of the devastation of the earthquake of 1906–a provocative counter-chorography of the city shaken down by underground geological faults.  Is a solid foundation present to build skyscrapers by the Bay?  Despite the sandy nature of what is a well-known liquefaction zone of minimal stability–and has long encouraged wooden houses or widespread retrofitting to accommodate seismic quakes–promises of engineering abilities have led to a range of plans for drilling to the bedrock through the sands, in search of rents, in ways that have transformed the San Francisco skyline from the East bay to a set of glimmering towers, rising above the Bay–

SF skyline

–that on the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake, compel a sort of double-take against the devastation along Market Street that the offshore tremors wrought, or at least so much was the intent of the recent visualization of the downtown towers the New York Times offered readers to commemorate the memory of the event of urban destruction.

San Francisco in Ruins
San Francisco in Ruins, from the Lawrence Airship, 2000 feet over San Francisco Bay  (1906)

The contrast between the spate of elevated mixed-use towers, promising residences downtown and an influx of cash from nearby Silicon Valley, increasingly proximate to San Francisco by rail and transit hubs, have led to a proliferation of load-bearing strategies to facilitate buildings far above 650 feet–a rarity in the old city–that have transformed its skyline.  The question as to whether they can rely on clusters of deeply sunk load-bearing rebarb has been raised by ocular evidence and reminders of the unstable ground–as the currently-sinking Millenium Tower completed in 2009, supported on friction piles driven deeply into the sands, which settled ten inches as it started to tilt, leaving residents scrambling to resell condominiums in a city of scarce housing, provoking many of its residents to free.  The recent sinking of the Millennium Tower led the Times, fresh off a feature on “The Leaning Tower of San Francisco,” to commemorate the devastation of the 1906 earthquake in a haunted view of the modern towers, placed against the backdrop of a western ghost town, to show the ultimate fear of the return of the repressed, as if it had been intentionally ignored by builders who had duped city planners in a gambit for funds.

20. Few could miss the point of the visualization mashing up extrusions of recently built towers against an early aerial photograph of the ruins of the earthquake of 1906.  In what may have appeared a case of bicoastal envy to some local residents, the newspaper of record indulged in a graphic visualization of the rising stakes of building on unstable ground–the towers were “a gamble,” heedless of the many ghost towns of the west–by asking readers interrogate the shaky rationale for overbuilding in a low-rise city, and over-riding concerns expressed by the San Francisco building inspectors; seeing red extrusions pop up out of the ruins of the devastated landscape shot in black and white, viewers were provoked to reflect about the folly of a rash of overbuilding, as they read a lead that released what it saw as an elephant in the closet, questioning the lack of preparations for the possibility of an earthquake against the ruins of 1906.  The concretization of disaster leaves little to the imagination, save the towers’ collapse, and raises questions about the future of urban planning out west as a game of chance, or a high-stakes risk that one might wage at casinos out West, designed to shock readers as much as recall the scale of the past disaster.

Despite the shock grabbing visual attention by bathing contemporary towers, as if in a Christo project, in deep shades of red, is the past-looking examination of the landscape more superficial than it seems?  The implied projection of acoming urban apocalypse almost aggressively pushes viewers away from the site, in ways strikingly unlike the deep dive into local data map that invites viewers into the urban habitats of a living landscape recently prepared by  Nature in the City illustrate the cultivation of open spaces and habitat.

The map issued on Earth Day in its third edition is not dynamically interactive, but its interface occurs in one’s mind.  If not boasting of its data richness, the map is based on more data than it might betray at first sight:  and it invites viewers to find the remaining green and open spaces–and the habitats that they encourage–deep within the city, its grey matter removed, stripped down to the bare greens of urban wild, and to listen to the ground that dreams of grass, shrub, or trees as dynamic habitats.  Some forty years ago, in an early atmosphere of environmental consciousness tied less to the preservation of wetlands, but the preservation of greenspace, a quite different degree of challenge in securing the tenuous place of nature in the city led to Barstow’s initial map.  Indeed, one would not ever imagine seeing nature “in” the city, by noticing the distinguishing features of a place is increasingly important to preserve, so much as preserving those green areas that existed within urban space.

We are in a time when the antithetical way that the city is viewed as “outside” of nature needs to be reappraised and rethought, and not only in terms of the raptors or peregrines or turkey vultures that roost, or raccoons forage and feed and live off urban habitats.  The city can be re-constructed as an integrated ecosystem for indigenous fauna and flora to mitigate increased urban density.  Even as the location of nature is, especially in the Bay Area, considered to lie “nearby,” but not it, the deep dive into data that even a static visualization allows, offers a chance to re-examine and explore the urban environment on the ground, and indeed view the city as a site for what Thoreau called the “preservation of the wild” that persisted in the city, even in the face of the rapid landcover change in surrounding regions, that seemed to have pushed nature farther away from the city of San Francisco than ever before.

But the sites of habitat survive.  The deeply revisionist mashup allows the pleasure of viewing mammals, crustaceans, and invertebrates around the green spaces and open oceans of San Francisco.   The new map of the city invites us to explore the ecosystem that lies above ground, offering an alternative to the point-based generic landscape of Google Maps that lreminds me of the continued presence of the wild in the built city, and invites me to engage the inter-relations of its ecosystem.  The map immerses the city’s structure in a web of natural habitats that it celebrates, from the lost waterways and fears of a projected return of an earlier coastline after the coastal flooding projected for 2100 according to the National Oceanic and Aeronautic Administration to the resilience of local habitat for whales, mollusks, birds, poppies, and trees; if the shoreline would return to its historical form, indeed, as its lowest-lying areas return to sea, restoring the old curvature of the coast to create a larger habitat for shorebirds.

The resulting map celebrates the persistence of nature in the city, and reminds us of the role it plays there, from a deeply-researched insider’s perspective that few in the city may share; it is an alternative mash-up of data sets and observations, concretized in  elegant images rendering direct naturalistic observations thistles, an avocet, an oyster, poppies, a jack-rabbit, and sand dollar, against a field of the urban tree cover, shrubs, and grasses–as if to confirm that the understory was in fact an overstory, perhaps, to cite Richard Powers, that defines the place we live in, even if we often overlook but that provides a delight to read–and even to shock us by what we find dwelling in a place we thought we knew at first hand, but may have ignored the ecosystem that also inhabits it.

Centerpiece NITC

Nature in the City map (2018), featuring wildlife illustrated by Jane Kim

The visually engaging nature of the map complements the intentionality of its focus on open spaces, green spaces, shrub, urban forest, and grasses.  If not limited to parks, it offers a celebration of the dynamic ways that each of these open spaces is in a sense interlocked within a broader habitat that helps distinguish the city from many of the overbuilt urban areas in the American West, and in the world.

21.  As much as that celebratory map urges us to investigate the urban space in new ways, the readiness to see nature as a sight of danger–even in a time when we are imperiled by global warming, climate change, food shortages, drought and the threat of war–is striking.  Rather than a range of soft greens, the start black and white background of a past disaster–suddenly presented as news–and the new imaging technologies tell as story about urban architecture.   The contrast of the  preservation and cultivation of local habitats with the image of seismic dangers remind us of the natural risks San Francisco faces–a front-cover story  the New York Times ran April 17, 2018 couldn’t be greater.

The two recent maps alternately combine different media to orient us by data about building or about habitat to orient us to the dependence of an urban region on nature; but if one alarmingly foreground the risks of a spate of downtown skyscrapers vulnerable to earthquake tremors, the other openly invites viewers to celebrate its landscape, and attend to the remaining open spaces that nourish a threatened, if expanding, urban habitat.  The denatured view of a building built by money, and threatened by nature, in the Times rather suggests a nightmare of the forces of nature and cyclical history that seems to chastise local residents, and suggest the continuity of seismic threats–casting the city as a sight of poor regulation and oversight.

Towers: Sales Force to Transamerica

New York Times (April 17, 2018)

The almost apocalyptic view of the proliferation of skyscrapers, set against the ruins of 1906, was elegantly crafted by the New York Times as a monitory image for readers on the anniversary of the 1906 devastating earthquake that destroyed much of the city.  By superimposing the size of the towers built downtown, built using new load-bearing technologies, against an aerial view of the 1906 earthquake left the city in ruins, the times alerted viewers to the danger of impending disaster in a city of a substantial liquefaction zone, as if to remind us of the huge lack of stability that the Bay Area faces, at a time when instability haunts our world as never before.

Liq Legend SF

The maps were developed for land-use in urban areas, offering planners to assess the degree of local earthquake risk.  They were seized upon by the Times, to question the interests at stake in the spate of urban rebuilding that seems to have proceeded against their actual recommendations, as if to call out City Planning Commissioners, even if many of the buildings–as the Salesforce Tower–were built according to LEED specifications and pronounce themselves as “green.”  But as much as they present themselves as a “green” architecture of urban growth, are we so depowered to respond to the growth of building in the city as the post-modern bird’s eye view that tells a story of the hubris of building towers in danger of collapse?

25. The publication of these two quite very different–but both provocative–new bird’s eye views offering purchase either of an overbuilt city pose questions of how we can use maps to orient viewers to a period of urban growth and overbuiliding, or to the  survival of open space within it–speak to a new demand for maps in an over-,mapped world.  A question one might ask–or set of questions–might begin from what sort of a picture of the city does one really want to create, and can one “map” the city more conscientiously and ethically without appealing to a cinematic imaginary of disaster, to offer an account of the survival of a geography of coexistence that is often ignored beneath the built landscape?   In contrast, the multiple observations in the map celebrating the same city that Nature in the City has crafted from careful observation and nurturing of landscape and habitat celebrates the active urban ecosystem that it has helped sponsor, rather than the ruins of impending apocalyptic earthquake as the city’s essential nature.

The points of entry to San Francisco offered in the Nature in the City map elicits visual interest not only to indigenous but endangered animals, set out of scale against the open spaces and green spaces of the city, but invites inhabitants to develop a strong tie of empathy to how several species–pelicans, whales, a rearing coyote, a salmon, a rare green butterfly, sand dollars, the American Avocet–inhabit a complexly alive urban space.  In so doing, it teaches us how to map space in increasingly sophisticated and interactive ways, even if it has a static form.  Rather than view the anthropogenic city of poured concrete in only a rigorously anthropocentric way, the invitation to map habitat and help to encourage the creation and fostering of urban habitat seems a uniquely trans-species form of mapping that invites us to explore the possibilities of an urban environment.

As if seeking to champion the active preservation of landscape protection outside of a human perspective, in an image of hope for the species that share an urban geography couldn’t contrast more with the fear of the arrival an urban apocalypse and unpredictable activity underground geological faults.


But the contrast lies deeper:  for the Nature in the City illustrated map invites us to explore a reassuring image not of instinctive fear, but of detailed attention and attentiveness, designed to make viewers active stake-holders in the creation of a new sort of urban environment, rooted not in the appeal to fear for the survival and material destruction, but a trans-species empathy for other residents and the broader appreciation of the vitality of an ecosystem that can be sustained, and that maps can invite us to refine our relation towards, as much as use as a guide for way-finding.

Who’s not to say that in an age of the availability of ever-increasing data, the need for maps that orient us better to the lived world are not incumbent, either through a mash-up reminding us of the need for mapping past seismic disasters on current building projects, or the unseen places where nature inhabits the city, which reminds us how habitat and ecosystems are not only incidental, but exist for our benefit?  Can we even keep our eyes on urban spaces?  Even as the scale of landscape modification proceeded at a rate challenging to map or quantify the loss of landscape to human modification demands tools of visualization able to concretely render the pace of change as we struggle to comprehend its scale and shape and seek to calibrate the scale of potential loss.

The loss due to human development of the landscape once viewed as “natural” and wild was once “off the map,” but it remains hard to know how to resist the encroachment on open spaces and “natural” habitat.  We face problems of maintaining wilderness protections in ways that may indeed demand new maps that orient us to loss or the delicate balance of land protections.  With protected spaces of the West under attack from an anti-parks caucus in the U.S. Congress, the active resistance of a new ethics of mapping lie increasingly on the front lines of cartographical responsibility.  Can one map a more responsible ethical relation to open space, which might encourage residents to adopt a more interested relation to space?

26. The expansion of pavement in San Francisco has been historically limited in very fortunate ways–creating or allowing for the survival of considerable open spaces, in part secured by mountainous terrain, and in part by the intense beauty of nearby shores and ocean peaks–and an over-active real estate market bent on boosting confidence in creating luxury housing.  The difficulty of  managing the city’s growth make it opportune that the Nature in the City non-profit has so eloquently mapped the “urban habitat” between open spaces in the city, illustrating the range of habitat located at the intersection of migration zones and corridors.

The map reveals the dynamic nature of the local ecosystem in ways that belie the overpavement of the West–even if the city appears a built-over landscape rather than an area of green.  Indeed, the rich tools of illustration invite us to enter a map that is testament to the memory of its still-living past, bearing traces of a time when sandy landscapes encouraged flora and plants created corridors for migration.  The mapping presents a form of ecological resistance that works to affirm and ensure the survival of biodiversity that the city can still be able to nourish in ways from which the area’s ecosystem benefits and a new way to view the urban area–still represented at a small-scale maps to contrast with the surrounding areas of still-protected lands and greens, but which, as one drills down in the data or zooms into the map’s surface at greatest scale, presents a delicate ecosystem of its own.

Even the small-scale map communicates a sense in which the environment long nourished pelican, salmon, and monarch butterflies and is nourished by them,– inviting us to engage their ecosystems and in doing so to reconsider and redefine our ethical relation to the landscapes where they live.


The map compels us to ask how best to enter San Francisco’s urban landscape, to appreciate the ecosystems it both nestles and conceals.  The very different ways of viewing available open data about the place of nature in the city–and concretely rendering a story to either the redesign of the downtown’s character and a fragile local environment in the face of a quite disorientingly rapid redesign of the western landscape that we often wish we could rewind.

27.  The coincidence this year of the release of the Nature in the City of the map of local habitat on Earth Day and the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake this year raised the question of how to map San Francisco in unexpected ways.  On the one hand, there is an image that is dominated by the ominous narrative of the overpaying of once open-space and the real estate market spun out of control, as unchecked as global warming led to visualizing the dense towers over 850 feet in downtown San Francisco on the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake  against the historical destruction of the city’s liquefaction zone.  On the other, there is an invitation to explore the dynamic habitat not only as a static place, tethered to geological formations, and a destiny of destruction, but as a resilient and persistent space of the wild–that is also a map that helps us enjoy the space we inhabit in ways we didn’t know we could.

All viewers who scrolled down the page in their browser were compelled to contemplate, for a moment, the the future unfolding of urban devastation–as if it were the bombshell of the day, even if its value as an interactive map that users could navigate was limited, and the mash-up it offered cool as a superimposition that broached a question few had posed in an intensity and urgency that derived not only from its use of reds against a black-and-white background as its color-scheme.

The superimposition the modern towers against the ruins of 1906 as monuments of an ancient world from an unknown if perhaps soon-arriving vantage point in the future, collapsing time to underline the extreme precariousness not only of our climate and environment, but what seems unsupervised urban growth.  Each extrusions marked a skyscraper not as a triumphant building over ruins, but overlooking the future ruins that they risked becoming, as if to invite us to navigate an impending apocalypse, provoked by the the shaky terrain of the downtown.  Indeed, the sandy underground of the liquefaction zone seems poised to swallow and destroy what local boosters have portrayed as a sign of the culmination of urban gentrification or, alternately, as the concrete signs of economic growth.  Can concrete towers be sustained by clayey sand, even if load-bearing concrete pillars extend deep into bedrock deep below?

The mashup of photograph and building heights suggests the dangers of  a return of the repressed, resurrecting memories of the city’s earlier devastation as a back drop to remind us of the presence of nature in its its built space.  For encouraged by the spread of a by now global vernacular for urban status, towers, as if inspired by the Trump Tower condition of elevating oneself by one’s income above an urban terrain, and building monuments to the concentrated arrival of urban wealth, the growth of towers, often with money from Silicon Valley, have expanded construction in downtown San Francisco’s sandiest soil in what seems a violation of the common wealth, in deeply a Thoreauian sense, and of the city’s natural wealth:  although the largely sandy terrain of the city framed by hidden fault lines long tempered tendencies for overbuilding, the dangerously unstable soil hazardous that limited building density in the west coast city seem to invite disaster in their hypertrophic gentrification of the downtown, now colonized by such mixed use residential towers.

Might one create a more satisfyingly engaging map of the same city?  The public interest that is preserved by the most recent Nature in the City map exemplify the ways in which the common wealth of a place may be captured and promoted in cartographical form, enlisting its observers and readers in a way that promotes some might call ‘ownership’ of public spaces, but others an ethical investment in place by compelling us to see it quite differently.  The cornucopia of natural wealth of habitat is shown as stubbornly, elegantly, and abundantly flourishing in boundaries of the same urban landscape whose palette of greens recalls a hand-drawn map, whose design almost conceals–as the best maps do–the fact it is in fact exceedingly data-rich.

28.  The stunning graphic success of the  Nature in the City map in registering and capturing the variegated urban space rests in its tactile presentation of living evidence of the ecosystems that San Francisco supports.  Viewers are invited to enter into it and explore–the maps works by inviting readers to travel where they are able to be seen, through a combination of cartography and art, and in so doing illustrates an alternative story of accommodating nature in the city and inviting residents to preserve its presence in our minds and by our action.

The project of Nature in the City is indeed an exemplary one of what has been promoted as projects of “participatory change,” based on deep local knowledge of the setting and environment for local benefit, rather than an outsider’s view of urban growth.

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Nature in the City map with images of animals and plants by Jane Kim

The corridors of habitat that run through San Francisco’s built environment that Nature in the City foregrounds call viewers’ attention to the  “stepping stone habitats” of modest size linking open spaces and parks in the city create a rich picture of the overground stories in restored public lands, vanished in many other overbuilt cities,  to prevent the inevitable local extinction of animals like the hairstreak butterfly whose populations live in islands of restored plant habitat, serving as sensors monitoring local environmental health and pest control.  By orienting viewers to the habitat of the hairstreak, indeed, the intensive detail of the map of San Francisco designed and produced by third edition of the Nature in the City map invites us to drill down into the habitat in non-built spaces, to develop, as Thoreau urged, a deeply ethical relation to place than mapping the footprint of a built environment could ever allow.

hairstreak habitat

Hairstreak Butterfly in Nature in the City; hairstreak illustrated by Jane Kim

The role of mapping as an act of civil resistance is provocatively successful, for it affords a broadened way of looking at our “common wealth” and our care for public space.  While we usually map cities’ buildings and take their form as the building blocks for urban elegance and encomia, the new maps of the city–of earthquake dangers and habitat restoration–depart from a worn-thin rhetoric of the boosterim of the built environment. The alternative encomia that they offer wrestle with questions of the status and value of the “urban” as a continued good, one not only driven by market forces.  Indeed, by creating an alternate sort of encomiastic map–not to the buildings, but the green spaces that the built environment allows–we perform a sense of preserving wild of the very sort Thoreau would approve, and that demands we refine the ethics of our relation to the urban space.

29.   As if in counterpoint, the alarmist tenor of mapping San Francisco skyscrapers is scary, and deeply shocking as a record of built space that seems to have proceeded without heeding nature.  The expanse dedicated to luxury apartments and mixed-use space indeed offers a case in point about the risks they pose for the city, and the somewhat duplicitous promotion of “clean” LEED-certified construction:   billed as “green housing,” towers like the Salesforce Tower (reaching 1.4 million feet above sea-level, boasting “fresh, outside air” and views of the bay–and divided into sections with naturalistic names, “Bay” and “Sky,” as if to remove it from a man-made construction) and the Millennium Tower (an unprecedented fifty-eight stories) both est on load-bearing rebar piles of concrete sunk 300 feet deep underground past the sandy clay soil, hoping to reach into the bedrock below.

They seem removed from the nature of the place as they seem increasingly alienated from the ground above which they soar, and have shown to be eerily disconnected from it.  The claims of access to nature that these buildings allow is indeed window dressing for the environmental dangers that they pose.  In an age of increasing anthropogenic transformations of a global landscape that was long guided by maps that paid limited attention to the ecological or the underground, so focussed are satellite maps, the UTM projection, or global geo-location on discrete points, disembodied from a landscape, we are apt to not see the place as a site of historical transformation that stands to alienate ourselves as inhabitants as much as viewers from the meaning of place, even as we offer window-dressing claims to be LEED-certified and boasting features of water recycling and to be low-impact in nature. Rising like a futuristic monument to built space, an obelisk placed in the center or the fragile earth downtown, the sleek skyscraper seems out of tune with the skyline and even the built environment.

Telling of a story of the risks of such alienation is difficult.  But to do so might bring us around to gain a better understanding of the dynamics of place and landscape modification, as well as the steps we can take to understand reactions and points of resistance to such modification, and through that our relation to nature.  For the scope and scale of land cover transformation threaten to disorient what we thought was a known place–and compel us to try to remap our place to it, and remap the natural habitat that still exists in, as well as the natural dangers that face the city, and raise questions of the possibilities that exist for slowing down if not taking stock of the pace of urban change and expansion of built environments that risk compromising local habitat, if not risk the implosion of urban place–and not only in San Francisco.


Portland and Mt. Hood

The challenge of transformation in San Francisco is steep, however, and makes a nice point, as it is also such a vibrant center of local mapping and visualization, and offers a place to illustrate the need of telling a new story about place through maps that focusses less on the encomia of an architectural environment, and reveals fears about the absence of supporting the increasingly tall foundations in sandy urban terrain.


Millennium Tower’s Shaky Foundations

The environment of San Francisco is usually cast as a site of danger–both because of sea-level rise from the Bay, but the 70% chance that an earthquake of a magnitude 6.7 or greater will occur in the next 30 years from nearby faults.  Quite recently, USGS in 2016 tried to help orient the public to such risks by a detailed liquefaction susceptibility map to organize the levels of risks a full quarter of San Francisco faces from nearby earthquake faults.  The map of block-by-block risk of soil types in an area of increasingly dense residential skyscrapers raises questions of habitability and risk that even new building practices cannot address, and present a storyline we can barely bring ourselves to assemble–and to place the most dangerous areas of the city–especially the popular areas of its piers and downtown–as the most susceptible to tremors in a region of risk, although the notion of mapping “risky neighborhoods” seems to deny the interconnected nature of the urban fabric, and to be a bit of a mental artifact of the dangerous disaggregation of the pointillism of GPS.   (The map released in public newspapers and media had a distinctly different tenor and shock value than the maps that USGS in fact designed.)


U.S. Geological Survey

The data of “risk” is a difficult one to narrate, in part because we can only imagine its endpoint as one of devastation.    But the datasets compel translation.  And as we try to understand the ‘fate of place’ in a globalized world threatened by environmental and climatic change, mapping place lies increasingly on the front table of our epistemological travails.  To tell a story about place that maps the changing nature of place against other images–images of local habitat or of the dangers of shifting tectonic plates, we use data to try to take stock of what sort of “place” remains, and how best to visualize an engaging story about place that is best able to orient ourselves to the future of the place we inhabit.  The need of maps that better orient us to a local landscape and our place in it–as much as to mobilize us by fear–must lie in making a sense of that loss concrete.

The anniversary of the 1906 earthquake may have seemed to offer one chance to do so.  San Francisco seems concrete land cover in the larger view of the Bay Area above, a deep dive into the local habitats of place suggest the way that place is a complex web of ecosystems, rather than a built space; the built spaces of the city in a site of seismic risk may even be seen as particularly precarious sites, suggested the New York Times, by projecting 3-D extrusions of the new landmarks of the built city against an image of the devastating quake of 1906, in order to make the dangers of living in the liquefaction zone even more clear for the increasing number of towers and skyscrapers–an architectural style American and global, but long foreign to San Francisco’s seismic terrain–create an increased topography of danger that even the best data cannot help us narrate.  And so working with a historical aerial view of the devastation of 1906–


–the mapping of the new sites of skyscrapers in red extrusions, sitting as ghosts of the present on the ghostly landscape of the past, lead readers to imagine the risk of falling buildings on its historically unstable terrain.

houses with salesforce

New York Times (April 17, 2018)

The image created an immediately arresting mapping questions about the future of the city, in the newspaper’s national edition, consolidating questions about a burst of vertical construction that reflected newly stimulated interest in downtown realty and the new combination of mixed use office space with high-end residential housing.  While the map portrays the degree to which the demand for housing and high-end real estate as an alienation from nature–indeed illustrating an amnesiac relation to the nature of the terrain between the fault lines of the continental shelf–

–it effectively laments a remove from nature in the desire for lucre, as if the adoption of a now-global metropolitan architectural vernacular of the skyscraper is poorly transferred to the west coast, even despite recent advances in retrofitting technologies and structural reinforcement have allowed the rebuilding of a new East Bay Bridge and a loosening of building codes.

30.  The problems of showing place–and of representing place–are all the more complicated in recent years, with place increasingly subject to global, land cover, and climactic or environmental change.   The uneasiness of our relation to place was captured when the New York Times sought to interrogate the logic of vertical rebuilding in San Francisco against the ruins of the 1906 earthquake, because it created a heightened dream-like relation to place; the interactive map starkly imagined the location of increased building heights of new skyscrapers against the ruins that stretched along Market Street for its readers, as if to map the present risk against the past disaster, and to anticipate the scale of disaster of a future urban apocalypse to come.  In contrast, the newly detailed Nature in the City map uses strategies of mapping open data in what has become a center for map making to take stock of the future space of the city, suggests a point of orientation on the remaining place of green habitat in the city, rather than orient viewers to its built space, and to focus on its rich animal and plant habitat, rather than built environment.

Perhaps the sense of an encomiastic view of urban space seems so antiquated in an era of increased risk to built environment and nature that the disrupted landscape seemed a proper way to imagine the ultimate scenario of disaster.   The profound changes in the city’s urban landscape, population, and rental market have been tracked through open data in the economic remaking of the city by notices of eviction, gentrification and erasure of urban identity, revealed in shifts in ethnic composition, demographics, as well as urban homelessness of many city residents, are as difficult to embody in their human consequences as more “scientific” data as projections of sea-level rise.   (Have all only served to increase the acute instability of our sense of urban coherence and urban identity?)

The choice to focus on the remaining open spaces revealed in Nature in the City’s smattering of greens mediate datasets compiled over ten years to selectively map an urban habitat in order to raise clear questions about its space, and foster if not encourage our preservation of an ethical relation to it.  The detailed Nature in the City map invites viewers to take stock of open spaces it celebrates in relation to the built space, which it downplays in favor of rich animal and plant habitats.  But as data alone fail to tell a story, or to create a visualization that involves viewers, the datasets that both maps use are concretized in pictorial images–extrusions or animals and plants–that create a clearly compelling relation to place, telling stories responding to ever-present fears or offering reassuring reminders of a broader ecosystem we also inhabit, but often overlook for its buildings and paved spaces, but offer nearby sites of urban escape.  Indeed, the manner in which it does so only increases the stakes that viewers will gain of the place that the map illustrates.

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Nature in the City map (2018), featuring hand-drawn wildlife illustrated by Jane Kim

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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