The Natures of San Francisco

11.  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.

imageThe 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.

920x1240Liquefaction 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.pngNature in the City

imageThe 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.

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

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