Natures of San Francisco

31.  Both visualizations concretize the availability of data sets for viewers in unique visual palettes and ways–either by focussing on the recent construction of buildings that have proceeded from the 1970s, extrusions set against a landscape of devastation, or presenting a fertile landscape of an often hidden ecosystem that the team of mapmakers have carefully worked on over multiple years to invite the viewer to explore the changing natural morphology of open spaces–not only the parks, each labelled in detail, but grass, shrubs, tree cover, and city trees–in ways that tell a very different story map about the inhabitation of space, looking not at built environments but the environments that San Franciscans have also–in part through the Nature in the City group–worked to preserve.  It encourages human stewardship of natural environments in the city in a wonderful illustration of fostering public knowledge and involvement in urban space.

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

The range of mapping tools and visual technologies to capture the city at what seems a moment of change arrest our attention, in hopes to help orient us to different aspects of the city both as a built environment and as one accommodating open “green space.”  The alternative views of the city are not only a question of viewing the glass as half-empty or half-full, but as suggesting the basis of mapping an ethics of place.  The question of ethics is not about data at all.  Both views use recent data–the Nature in the City map of 2018 shown in the header to this post reflects over a decade of design strategizing and local investigation and research–the views could not be more different in orienting us to a stories of a quickly shifting ground-plan.  The playing to the fearful eventuality of a disruptive nature that we have ceased to listen to, trusting clusters of deeply-sunk cores of rebar to penetrate the bedrock beneath, as in the Millennium Tower, to bear the load, seems unethical in its desire to tap into the fears conjured by anyone who looks at a  ruined landscape.

But the Nature in the City map prompts us to navigate space by using a diverse range of datasets of ground cover and habitat that celebrate the achievement of accommodating urban wildlife and growing habitat.  Rather than suggest the arrival of the big one, in the ultimate insider’s view, it asks us to navigate the areas of open space where nature exists and cane observed.  The maps of the local habitat in greener areas of San Francisco invites us to see the city as greener than we might imagine at a time when land cover is increasingly man-made.  In a deeply Thoreauian sense, there is an unruliness with which it invites us to savor the details of place, disrupt the built structure of the city and attend to the parks, pathways, and urban forests or lakes, transcending the built environment with its simple focus on sites of habitat, not roads, intersections, freeways, or monuments, and encompassing a multi-faceted nature from sand-dollars to insects (if lepidoptera) and invite us to exit the structures where we dwell to find where they live.

But it is perhaps most inspired by Thoreau in how it invites us to take a stake of ownership of lands we don’t in fact inhabit, and develop our relation to them.  In order to white-out human presence and constructions, a rich light green and warm deep blue tones alone invited me into the space of the city in a new way, as soon as I saw it, focussing not on built but open spaces, even as sea-levels rise, and invite us on a deep dive into the city’s lived environment and tempting me to seek out hairstreak butterflies.  The preservation of such open spaces reveals the city’s deep reserve of green–an instructional understory–to orient ourselves to its true wealth.

32.  Is it purely a coincidence that it was on the very same week, incredibly if fortuitously, that the New York Times released the map of the explosion of skyscrapers in downtown San Francisco, on April 17, 2018, ostensibly commemorating the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake.  The visualization asked us to ponder the growth of the urban environment as much as the ground, concretizing a story of seismic risk by querying an apparent collective reluctance to confront the legacy and two major fault-lines that frame the city’s location:  the spectacularly direct visualization of the towers above six hundred and forty feet in its liquefaction zone maps an influx of building capital into the downtown as opening up new areas of risk.

The looming towers in the downtown area seem a statement of hubris that expanded with an influx of building capital–and the promise of a tie to San Jose and Silicon Valley, by using recent the data set USGS released of seismic risks in the downtown liquefaction zone, to tell an even more pronounced story against the memory of 1906.

New York Times (April 17, 2018)

And by placing the striking verticality of buildings on the edge of the shore, and, even more dramatically, against a panorama of the ruins of the 1906 earthquake lying downtown on both sides of Market Street, each skyscraper or building of a certain height becomes a danger sign; we’re  invited to contemplate their future collapse as an urban catastrophe waiting to happen, focussed on metropolitan expansion and not concentrating on inconvenient but stubbornly present underground faults that haunt its built space.

Rather than conjuring a view that orients readers and web-surfers from afar, Nature in the City designed a vibrant and dynamic map which, if not web-based, and printed on paper, invited and indeed compelled me to process the surprising prominence of green n the insider’s view of an explosion of urban wildlife detected after close observation on the ground.  The Nature in the City celebrates the unique nature of the city as a site of habitat, rather than a built space.  In sharp contrast, the orthoimagery (an image of orthorectified data) of local plant density and natural ground cover in San Francisco offered an insider’s view of how a region known for regional biodiversity and proximity to beaches, majestic headlands, oceans, and natural preserves is a site where one can actually map nature in the city, and not only in Golden Gate Park and the Presidio or Alcatraz.

It suggested not only the remaining open spaces of habitat as a two-edged sword, matched by the  resilience of nature even in the face of coming future changes in sea-level, instead of raising alarms of ever-present risk, illustrated in perky colors and illustrating the threatened species that can be seen in the city if you know where to look.  If many of the downtown towers are built according to green specifications–and with professions to urban sustainability that present themselves as models of responsible building–the map of sites of open space and habitat orients us to by mapping the place of “nature” across the city in a directly engaging way by asking its viewers to shift their attitude to its built environment, and to accommodate the potential dominance over forces of nature–including anthropogenic sea-level rise–to the city’s built space.

Nature in the City (detail near Embarcadero, showing open spaces and sea-level rise)

Indeed, the juxtaposition of the new skyline of San Francisco–pictured as ghostly red extrusions, against a 1906 aerial photograph, the “Ruins of San Francisco,” bluntly hint at the seismic instability of the Salesforce Tower (1070 feet), Transamerica Pyramid (853 feet, tapered at the top), and Millennium Tower (640 feet), portraying them as unthinking sentinels waiting for the Big One to arrive, with the one hundred and sixty buildings that rise above two hundred and forty feet in the downtown area today, showing them all not as emblems of architectural triumph or economic growth, as if to alert us to an impending disaster–despite a professed commitments of any builder or corporation to claims of “environmental sustainability.”

The view of San Francisco’s towers concretized the perspective of an outsider–the national newspaper of record–contrasts to the intensity of looking at the current ground of the city.  Indeed, on the ground we see the inter-relations of open and paved spaces of San Francisco’s land cover, rather than scold the city with risk of return of devastation 112 years ago atop which a new spate of skyscrapers has been suddenly built, as if with scant attention to its geology and proximity to neighboring fault-lines that lie deep underground.  The two ways of mapping the city–one from inside, and one broadcast online–offer quite radically different ways of using maps to react to the urban surface–and tell a story about the dangers of expanding built spaces through the increasingly anthropogenic alteration of urban land cover.    Although one is apocalyptic, in ways that seem right for the times, the other celebrates the survival of open space in an overbuilt world.

33. Each of the maps not only tells different stories, and uses different media to do so, but offers different ways of viewing the city–either as a site of apocalypse, similar to a 1970s movie that occurred in Los Angeles, raising questions of the oversight of seismic risk by local authorities, or examining the shades of green that San Francisco has been able to preserve and remind us that we can seek contact with the habitats.  The surprises of the rich biodiversity in San Francisco are gliding, wonderfully out of scale with one another or with the map itself, as if to pop out at the viewer, in sharp contrast or counterpoint to the hulking skyscrapers, as illustrations of the possibility of contact with endangered species habitats in open spaces is shown not only in nearby Marin, or natural parks and protected lands in the Sierras, but in the city itself–as the lone coyote crouching on hind legs and yelping into the night air beside Bernal Heights.

Wolf Bernal Heights-banner

Nature in the City map of San Francisco (detail of coyote illustrated by Jane Kim)

The dynamic sense of witnessing how nature that inhabits the city–and the threat of rising tides–is optimistic if not celebratory, but tells a story of sharing space and accommodation.  If the story that the scarier map conveys is all too simple–earthquakes are dangerous!–it is amazingly effective as a panorama.  The assembly of 3-D extrusions of taller buildings in an expanded liquefaction zone convey a sense of seismic risk in concrete terms that hardly needed to be narrated–even if it is amplified in the story of building codes.  The perspective view frames a story about lines of seismic activity hidden under the ground, but presented risks that the city’s government could be called out about; in contrast, the locally produced map designed after years of research by the non-profit organization Nature in the City celebrated the habitats across the city map of San Francisco’s often hidden but enduring wildlife.

By mapping the inhabitation of open spaces, and a delicate balance that the city uniquely maintains, the viewer is not hit invited to explore the data sets in reassuring ways, and to match against their own experience,–proposing that even in an area of ever-increasing anthropogenic change as a site still worth exploring, and treasuring.  Indeed, in contrast to the alarms set off by the red extrusions that seem to tempt the occurrence of underground tremors, the map invites us to look in detail at the habitats that street trees, back yards, and urban parks provide for endangered species as the hairstreak butterfly–and invite us to reconsider how we inhabit the spaces in which we coexist with them.

Nature in the City Map of San Francisco (2018)
(Detail of Hairstreak butterfly, by Jane Kim)

Try as we might to orient ourselves to downtown San Francisco by srolling down a superimposition of a black and white panorama with the red outlines of  tall buildings created a cautionary image, treating each building as a flag.  The map triggered, in contrast to the comforting map of urban habitat and open space, instinctive fears and a nightmarish vision of destruction, situating the present downtown towers against a historical aerial photograph post-quake ruins.  If the view by data visualizers at the New York Times captured attention in arresting ways, compelling you to read the story that snaked along the page you scrolled down, the revised map that developed over multiple years at the nonprofit Nature in the City tracks hidden habitats of the city, telling a story of the overlap of ecosystems and the built city in ways that showed signs of hope–even if its data was used on detailed surveys of the actual city from naturalists, biologists, and orthoimagery of the actual landscape, in an artistic image that invited urban exploration.  Rather than project the city’s skyscrapers on the ruins of that site, it drew attention to the butterflies, frogs, whales, pelicans and oysters whose habitats intersect like an unknown Venn diagram with the built city overground.

The dramatic superimposed images that invoked the ruins of 1906 for readers of the New York Times, lest they forget the dangers of seismic destruction, raised the danger of any seismic shocks to San Francisco’s new skyline not as an atmospheric view, but rooted in the geology of downtown, picturing the downtown skyscrapers superimposed for greatest dramatic against a not-too-subtle aerial photograph, “‘San Francisco in Ruins,’ of the smoking expanse of a devastated Market Street–an ur-image of urban destruction.  The historical image served the function of marking the anniversary, and asking us, in a sort of site-specific time travel, to ask how far we had come in construction practices and building supervision.  Even though the majority of new downtown buildings–and certainly the Salesforce Tower–are ‘green’ and constructed to LEED certified specifications–the Salesforce tower is rated Platinum and offers its tenants state-of-the-art water recycling (the largest water recycling in a commercial high-rise in the United States), to illustrate its commitment to green office design, and limited greenhouse gas  emissions.

But by juxtaposing the heights of buildings, mapped in extrusions that suggest their imposing three-dimensionality and dramatically call attention to the vulnerability of the recent “Manhattanization” of the downtown.  If San Francisco sought to spur the business zone by fostering new projects of high-rise construction, the fear of importing tall buildings as corporate icons to a region where few extend 600 feet above ground raised the big “What If?” scenario against the nightmarish vision of urban devastation.  While the towers championed their commitment to green values, green building certification, and “positive impact” on communities, the alarming “map” of the dangers of building in the face of seismic risk presented a picture of uncontrolled nature, brilliantly juxtaposing the ruins of the 1906 destruction with the 2018 skyline for immediate effect.  The mash-up invited speculation of how geological conditions were considered in the rooting new skyscrapers in the concrete cores–prompted partly by the recent the sinking of the Millennium Tower, but acting as a public historian, spinning out a potential future scenario of urban catastrophe.

San Francisco in Ruins.png

San Francisco in Ruins (1906)

While both maps were based on sound data, they offered hugely divergent views of past, present and future, hinging on radically different perspectives–one based on the intensive building of status-conscious towers in a region notoriously well known as resting on sand and mud, and the other rising from the waters, sands, and earth to suggest the range of habitats that the city also comprised–lest we overlook its preservation of quite abundant habitats.  Even while noting impending dangers of sea-level rise that will return much of the are south of Market and piers underwater by 2020–

–the invitation to attend to open spaces and green habitat contrast to the holographic red silhouettes of actual building heights imposed on the ruins of the 1906 quake to question the wisdom of building codes.  If viewers of one map see the city as a habitat, against their view of urban land cover, viewers who scanned the article commemorating the 1906 quake online questioned the wisdom of building in a liquefaction zone, viewing the city as an outsider more than the insider’s view of the rich ecosystems and remaining within San Francisco  around its open spaces and beside the built environment.

34.  The distinction between the open space and built environment are less pronounced than the different vision of cartography’s ethics–shock and awe versus wait and look.  It’s hard not to be struck both by their difference in tone, and the different sorts of “natures” each describes:  while both point to the contingency and danger of urban expansion without regard for nature, the Nature in the City map seeks to inspire readers to take stock of securing of habitats in the city for plants and animals.  In contrast, the interactive panorama of unsupervised vertical building in downtown San Francisco suggest the precareity of over-building in the face of undeniable seismic risk.

The graphic is far more arresting–and less inviting–but the backdrop of an old black and white panoramic photograph shot from 2000 feet above San Francisco Bay of the ruins of 1906 that led to the destruction of three quarters of the city and the burning of the old downtown, up Market Street, the projection of actual building heights conjure its seismic recurrence–


–by the cute trick of superimposing the spate of new building projects atop it, starting with the Salesforce Tower that looms over the new urban skyline–

houses with salesforce.png

New York Times (April 17, 2018)

–to invite us to pause before the potential of building in a site of potential urban apocalypse.

There is considerable visual impact of extrusions that seem holographically projecting red outlines of buildings across the liquefaction zone conjured fears of the risk of current precareity that is a classic view of the city as seen from outside; even with no real knowledge of the city, the risk of seismic disaster invite sudden fears that the buildings over two hundred and fifty feet pose for the immediate future, and recall; in a subliminal way, they may well recall a scale of traumatic destruction perhaps comparable to the loss of the Twin Towers in 9/11, but that would be the result of inadequate planning.  If the mash-up pastiche is in one of the more brilliant pastiche graphics of recent years, the image is more removed from the actual city than the excavation of urban environment.

If unforgettable, juxtaposing the past disaster raise pressing questions of the adequacy of present building codes, and the ruins of the new downtown invited, to be sure; but it conveys an almost proprietorial relation to the skyscraper among New Yorkers, in striking contrast to the map designed by Nature in the City which depicts in great visual detail, rich with greens, the fragility not of buildings–or the built environment–but an insider’s affirmation of the need to protect and maintain precarious state of urban wildlife habitat.

Both the panorama of skyscrapers clustered in the city’s downtown as monuments to Mammon in the midst of a liquefaction zone and the map of niches of wildlife are based on sound data, but orient viewers he anthropogenic building heights contrast with the preservation of habitat in ways so sharply contrasting to suggest the difficulty we all face in negotiating urban growth.  While the superimposition of monumental buildings on an aerial photograph of the devastated landscape of 1906 suggest the distance of the SF planning commission from historical memory, the persistence of habitats revealed in the revised Nature in the City map suggest the ways that water, animal species, and plants have their own “memories” of returning to the city that we are so accustomed to see as a built environment.

While both visualizations built on accurate data–either the starkness of building heights within a growing ground at risk for seismic activity, or, in the Nature in the City map, the habitats of species–they partial views they offer combine different mapping strategies. Nature in the City uses a range of accurate data and orthogonal imagery of San Francisco’s open and green space to tell several stories about the restoration of habitat and preservation of ecosystems that is, let’s say, data-rich without being heavily data-centric or overly complex.  The pleasure of the map’s legibility–in contrast to the fearsome image of destruction of a liquefaction zone–is almost a loving guide of how to live and notice space.

ture in city


Indeed, although the detailed map of urban habitat reflects sound data, the elegance of its illustrations suggests how lightly it wears it quite lightly, when first seeing it, and the use of art and cartography beckon contact with fragile habitat outside the city’s built environment.  In ways that depart from images that celebrate the monuments of urban architecture of place, it asks us to revise our understandings of San Francisco as a city, by directing us gently to expand our attention to the inhabitants of the place it describes, in a creative counter-map of the changing urban environment that offers a model of living in place worthy of and directly descended from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden in its celebration of place as an ecosystem to which humans are ethically compelled to adopt.

35. For by refining viewers’ relation to how a broad sense of place is inhabited, in ways that offer an ethical expansion of the knowledge of San Francisco we may already know, it presents the city at the center of a broader, unique ecosystem nourished by rivers, a rich offshore kelp forest, and plants that grew on now scattered dunes, suggesting the progress of habitat restoration conducted over two decades on the city, and the cleaning of the Bay, and offering a record of the return of habitats known–poppies and elephant seals–and less known–frogs and butterflies–that inhabit the city on the Bay.  Whereas the article in the New York Times foregrounded the dangers of overbuilding in a downtown without bedrock, unlike Manhattan, and their placement in liquefaction zones, the Nature in the City has worked hard to restore habitats once compromised.  In contrast, the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake that demolished most of downtown led to more alarmist record, setting off alarms at high volume in red about the unwarranted eagerness for an architecture of affluence.  Whereas the downtown once contained few large buildings, the mashup questions their place in the area destroyed one hundred and ten years ago, as if to measure just how much it matters how green the construction of the buildings are.

1906 burnprint

Few buildings exceeded six hundred feet in height in San Francisco until the 1970s,when the Transamerica “Pyramid” first arrived as an icon in the skyline, the second alarming growth spurt of sheer steel and glass that seems a next generation of businesses dependent on the online economy, which see themselves as interested in rehabilitating the architectural skyline of a metropoles, has been recorded in quite alarmist tones–to remind us the city’s building code doesn’t cover skyscrapers more stringently than five-story houses; the recent burst of constructing 160 buildings over 240 feet seems a gamble for city authorities, the risk of completing the Salesforce Tower–tallest skyscraper in the West, outweigh the benefits.


New York Times Interactive (detail)

In contrast to these fearsome stark reds, the deep greens in the Nature in the City Map–a far deeper historical record tracing inter-relations among species celebrating the survival of habitat in counterweight to anthropogenic building, due to efforts of habitat restoration.  The new Nature in the City map, elegantly illustrated in its third edition, presents a counter-map to the reflective images we fear of seismic risk.

Seismic risk is, to be sure, the defining features of San Francisco and Bay Area, known by all and seen from afar.  It can be measured in the confluence of the San Andreas and Hayward fault lines, and doesn’t run through the city, but surrounds the peninsula.  While the surface-view of San Francisco that invite speculation about the safety of such rampant building above six hundred feet in the midst of a downtown already susceptible to shaking underscore the dangerous instability of its underground soil.   USGS had already created a similar narrative, foregrounding the riskiness of building on artificial fill or artificial sand and mud–foregrounded in bright red, the dominant color of danger–from the piers that extend at right angles to the San Francisco Bay and along the hinge of San Francisco’s two grids of Market Street.



But there seems a bit of cautionary reprimanding of the San Francisco’s Building Codes and the SF Planning Commission for having allowed the construction of so many buildings with concrete cores in an area whose mud and clay have been long known as particularly hazardous for earthquakes, and whose own “seismic hazard zone” extends around the very area of the most intense construction.  Colored in a darker grey shade of below, and in contrast to the city’s asphalt, the notion of risk is almost implicit in one’s own knowledge of the city–

Seismic hazard zoine.png

Seismic Hazard Zone/San Francisco Open Data

–especially from newsdesks of a city that prides itself on the safety of its density of skyscrapers, as if to naturalize the right to build on bedrock and bemoan the folly of those architects who would attempt to imitate its spiky skyline.

NY Skyscraprs from above.png.jpg

36. Despite the historical risk of earthquakes in the Bay Area, where “nature” is often cast as menacing, the biodiversity foregrounded in Nature in the City turn viewers’ eyes to mapping the habitats that exist in the region and have been protected, both intentionally and by the geographic location, within its open spaces.

The Nature in the City map celebrates a green vision of the city, depicting the green spaces between the ocean and the bay, shifting aspect and perspective on the relation of nature to the city to the place of nature in the city, in a classic “duck-rabbit” shift of perception.  The map is a “counter-map” of the history of city maps, focussing less on its streets, buildings, paved roads, or urban monuments than to notice the presence of nature that its distinctive greening of many of its streets and open spaces bring, that the out-of-scale flora and fauna gliding over the map’s surface serve to invite us to seek out and explore.

ture in city.png

Nature in the City (detail of Golden Gate Park and surrounding neighborhood)

If both present images which invite viewers to look at the overlooked, it’s hard not to be struck by the stark differences in the ways each translate accurate data about the heights of buildings or the orthoimagery of niches and corridors of greenspace that distinguish the city in order to orient us to possible urban futures:  indeed, San Francisco, scored one of the greenest cities in the United States, barely behind Portland, is a surprising setting or a site of overbuilding.  The visions each offer are compelling a time when urban land cover change is accelerating in ways challenging to map, and its speed of change seems to dislodge the spate of overbuilding from its actual consequences, and at a rate of change undermine any historical perspective.

Whereas one presents distinctively green aspects of San Francisco, the exclusive focus on the built environment–where the arrival of a spate of growing bright red skyscrapers suggest danger signs in liquefaction zones–and untold seismic risks–contrasts with the detailing of the protected environments of urban areas where habitats flourish.  (It’s hard to assess which of the two city maps is more of the moment, but the combined media couldn’t orient us to more different visions, one filled with a proliferation of danger signs and one filled with sites of hope.)

The images of an advancing overbuilding of urban architecture, prominently displayed but the Times, summoned a scary image of the Salesforce Tower as a Tower of Babel rising over four hundred feet above its neighbors, seems a monument to lucre casting its shadow over buildings once seen as impressively tall, as emblematic of an unsupervised overbuilding of the downtown of the city, where increased building heights are cast as advancing invasive aliens forms, multiplying unchecked in the downtown area in viral fashion around Market Street, as if announcing, but asking the nation to take stock of its changed skyline–

looming towers

New York Times (April 17, 2018)

–in a rampant fashion by towering over nall earby buildings, so that it seems a full inch taller from the East Bay and can be seen from San Jose–

salsesforce centinel.png

–imposed on a potentially shaky, sand-rich surface of former dunes.  Cast as an arrival from Silicon Valley–although no skyscrapers exist in San Jose–Salesforce is the technically the first resident of the Transbay Transit Center that will link San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and emblematic of the arrival of a new scale of money downtown.  The promotion and hype surrounding the tower–view its scale in relation to the nearby Transamerica Pyramid in the publicity drawing above–seems unbound by natural laws of building as the article seeks to call our attention.

This only occurred, however, announced the Times, as a scary “seismic gamble” by city housing authorities, playing fast and loose with building codes to bolster the economy of the downtown, without adequate regard for well-established earthquake dangers.  The possibility of inadequate supervision by city agencies were accentuated by overlaying newly built taller buildings over a historical black-and-white aerial photograph of the post-quake city to foreground the risks of upwards xpansion a century after the city was tragically leveled by the quake, triggering fears at the difficulty of quantifying seismic risks that a range of the new growing towers that dominate the overbuilding of an active real estate market mid-Market area–

earthquake sf.png

New York Times, April 17 2018

–monetarily mapping crowded towers gainst leveled ruins after the fires were extinguished, lest we forget the lack of stable ground on which recent building occurred.  Rather than foregrounding the vital forms of the city, the attempt to illustrate the danger lurking in underground fault lines suggests the problem of a chiasmus between real estate construction and nature, in which the value of building space seems to have let caution fall to the wayside, and the danger that the irrational exuberance of such continued building projects portend.

In contrast, we are invited to examine the inhabitation of other parts of city, and surrounding waters, in the Nature in the City‘s revised map of urban ecosystems and wildlife habitat.  Indeed, by foregrounding areas of the settlement and flourishing of endangered species, it shifts attention from urban-wildness interface prominent in analysis of the tragic recent North Bay Fires, to explore how San Francisco actually nourishes a non-anthropogenic world.  If the Salesforce Tower already attracted natural strikes of lighting in September 11, 2017–

Salesforce Lightning.png

Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group

–as well as a literal lightning rod, the Tower dwarfing all other buildings on the skyline was a lightning rod for the dangerous elasticity of buildings codes for the Times, and a call to the dangers of what seemed unregulated expansion in a city prone to seismic risk and underground faults, that an apparently uncontrolled expansion of downtown buildings of ever-greater height, rooted in concrete cores, may be a hubristic gesture of upwards urban expansion without accounting for the precareity of seismic risks.

The Nature in the City map is, of course, itself a bit of a counter-map to urban boosterism.  Those red extrusions marking contemporary buildings popping out of the ruins extend above 600 feet and are often presented as a rejuvenation of downtown.  But it seems to have been also a bit of a broadside latched by the newspaper of record on local urban planners.  The New York Times–rather than the local news–felt a need to remind readers that this “city sits precariously on unstable, earthquake-prone ground,” rather than the bedrock of Manhattan Isle, but has built as if oblivious to engineering risk, and the sudden sinking and leaning of Millenium Tower, or  unveiling the nearby Salesforce Tower over 1,070 feet as with foundations on “soft soil and sand.”

The clever visualization situating many of these new buildings, constructed after decades of urban retrofitting, advanced an alarming image of the misplacement of skyscrapers by the Bay that seems destined to face consequences, as if the arrival of the Big One had been forgotten in the heady push to rejuvenate the downtown–and connect it more directly to Silicon Valley.  While Silicon Valley never promoted the American vernacular of the skyscraper itself, the influx of new money–deals for significant but second string players like Twitter; Salesforce–and of downtown luxury residences register an influx of new money that the Times decided to map as a gamble of construction, locating each not as emblems of wealth, but red flags of danger against the devastation of the last time that the Big One hit compel us to ask when it will arrive.

houses with salesforce

New York Times, April 17 2018

While the visual technology is not that new, the pulsation as one scrolls down the page of what seem unduly oversized “skyscrapers”–buildings of over six hundred feet–suggest that the Planning Commission was afflicted by particularly acute amnesia:  juxtaposition extrusions against the grim b/w image of urban devastation unforgettably maps future fears of a nightmarish situation in low-tech ways, so successfully one doesn’t even need to read the story to assess the toll.   The grim interaction that the images offer plant the need to assess the likelihood of future shocks, conjuring the magic of time travel, but raising questions about the ethics of casting an entire urban skyline as a cheap trick:  if sort of data-rich, the placement above the historical aerial view from a sky ship over the Bay conjures a narrative that lets what data there is do the talking, but offers a removed outsider’s view of San Francisco–yes, it was the site of a big earthquake in 1906, but somehow has built big buildings that it never had before.

In contrast, the gorgeously stunning Nature in the City map is designed to invite viewers to enter the habitats San Francisco still contains.  As much as orient viewers to one vision of the future, moreover, it serves to raise questions of how we can best nourish it, as we try to celebrate Earth Day; it urges readers to make contact with the corridors of greenways that link open spaces of the city.  This “deeper” history of place, while to bed sure rooted in data, fuses art and cartography to allow viewers to appreciate the pretty distinct balance between nature and culture that have allowed the city to be surrounded by clean waters, whose streams and pools that are also populated by avocets, jack-rabbits, butterflies, and poppies, as well as oysters, sand dollars, migrating whales and invertebrates, as well as wolves.  And it notes not the built spaces–or the places defined by buildings–but sees open spaces as preserving linked habitats of plant life, animal life, and a dynamic ecosystem.

The folks at Nature in City worked hard and long to devise a colorful map to celebrate the historical efforts and success of the preservation of wildlife in the city’s open spaces, interlaced like a tapestry over the built areas, whose map of open spaces and three levels of the height of foliage–grass, shrub, and trees over ten feet in height–provided a measurement of habitat its viewers were invited to explore.  All of a sudden, the city was celebrated as a site of vital habitats, whose presence affirmed the ethical power of their preservation–and the continuity of the habitat of far more significant for the moment than the city’s seismic risk.  (For its purposes, seismic risk is in fact pretty much beside the point.)

Naute in City head

Nature in the City Map (2018)

The “vision” of the city in the map is a far more appealing invitation to explore the amazingly resilient biodiversity affirms San Francisco’s frequently green land cover, based on accurate ortho-imagery, it is rendered as ready to explore in a visually stimulating record that seem to invite one to follow the birds, wolves, and butterflies to investigate how they inhabit the urban space.  The map is a brilliant a counter-cartography of the urban environment, offering viewers contact with sites of nature in the city that are presented to readers as if in a treasure hunt for the local habitats individual animals and plants to whet one’s appetite to navigate its often green streets.  Even if the map lacks a legend, it presents a surface to investigate–and also includes rich textual descriptions and habitat data on its verso–against the image of the city that one has in one’s mind, rather than to provide a way-finding guide to its space:  rather, the sense of the map is almost to translate a record of how the city’s biodiversity sees what we think of as an urban space, and to remove the city from its impermeable land cover.

Rather than dominated by the height of the Salesforce tower topped by a ziggurat casting long shadows across the downtown streets in its imposing bulk, animals that inhabit greener regions of the city suggest an alternative future geography, and capturing the stubborn presence of a receding wildness through the multiple, partial but the integrated ecosystems that it reveals among “urban” blocks, allowing, for a moment, the asphalted pavement and taller buildings to recede in our imaginary, as we focus on the layers of green.  If the selectivity of the map may be dismissed as unwarrantedly optimistic, and ignoring the dangers of pollution, critical habitat, and the expansion of construction in the downtown over the past two decades, the document is not intended as authoritative but to shift attention from the built environment that increasingly surrounds us:  the secret trick of cartographical selectivity allows us, for a moment, to focus on extent of green space and consider where it might be expanded to encourage the variety of native species in the city, which is part of what Earth Day is, after all, all about.

nature in city slide.png

Whereas the New York Times ominously proclaimed the city’s “Big Seismic Gamble” as an impending danger by superimposing the outlines of building heights as 3-D extrusions atop an original black-and-white photograph of the devastation of 1906, to embody the fears of The Next Big One in urgent fashion for readers, the manner that it made present the fears of an earthquake oddly seemed those of an outsider–more than a resident.  And in scrolling down and looking at the map of a past landscape that might return, after containing my own immediate fears, I thought back to the cocktails I had in a Berkeley back yard in the year when I first arrived in the Bay Area some thirty years ago.  I was clutching a martini, as a fellow east coaster asked with mock incredulity but real ingenuity whether the professor who had hosted us that night, and with whom we had just finished a seminar on Russian history, managed not to be beset by worried about earthquakes as a Bay Area homeowner.  After a pregnant pause, and maybe a sip of something stiff, he smiled and with a shrug responded “yeah, and I also worry about being hit on the head by a piece of falling lumber,” dispensing the entire matter as he lifted a vodka shot–before explaining that it was just not something that you think very much about after having reinforced your home’s foundation.

The presence of a seismic risk is, in a way, just not that present in the Bay Area, perhaps because it hasn’t happened yet, but also because we know that it will.  The regular emergency preparedness kits offered on public radio may be identical to other NPR stations, although we like to think the readiness kits are a nice reminder of the precarious nature of the Bay Area:  but it is a shared responsibility.  In contrast, the striking announcement of the expanse of hubristic overbuilding that led to the construction of more than 150 buildings taller than two hundred and forty feet, clustered largely in its financial zone, seems an announcement of that secret to the world.  True, the skyscrapers shatter the previous ceiling of five hundred feet in the very area where vulnerable earthquakes where chances of liquefaction are great–even if they do enliven the skyline.  Indeed, the spate of over-building in the downtown was boosted by the city’s late mayor, its effects on the urban economy and real estate market–and the social composition of the city–stand to be front and center in the upcoming mayoral election, as the lack of vision of making the downtown hospitable to non-profits, small businesses, and lower income residents has created intense introspection.

But the accelerated valuation of property rates in the downtown area–identified not only with Salesforce Tower and Millennium Tower but the arrival of Twitter in mid-market–responded not only to an overconfidence in structural engineering and retrofitting older structures, but, as Alexis Madrigal has noted, a new identity.  They reveal, in part, a keen sense of competition with Silicon Valley, and of arrival:  the relocation of several of the smaller tech companies of the region in the city where employees of Apple, Microsoft, and PayPal have long lived suggests a sense of comeuppance over time, and seems to be marked in a somewhat extravagant manner.  But the decision to dwarf the nearby towers with their immensity seems a new form of majesty, a brusque insertion of a strong architectural shadow that casts other buildings in their shadows.  The arrival of sixty-one stories of the Salesforce Tower, at a hulking 368 million pounds, seems to consolidate the extensive and extremely generous seems a space-ship that has landed from the Valley in the middle of the once lower-key downtown, a sign of the continued magnanimity of Marc Benioff, whose philanthropic generosity has renamed many hospitals; recalling a Mesopotamian ziggurat in its apex, the arrival of the tower, as a space ship moored in the city’s downtown, consolidates the firm’s relation to the city and the arrival of the first skyscraper of tech, as Madrigal observed, more than the arrival of San Francisco–it indeed eclipses San Francisco’s downtown icons, the TransAmerica and Sutro Tower, Madrigal noted, with its shadow–and offers a new way of seeing the Tech Boom in its waning days.  If we are living the Dark Side of Tech and its vision of prosperity, is the Salesforce building of Marc Benioff a last gasp?

Or will these buildings, looming towers of future destruction, the New York Times fears, menaces of overdevelopment that have entered the urban ecosystem long restrained by liquefaction zones, which have snuck into the city’s building codes in ways that they were never designed to do, and structural engineers have only begun to examine in a Building Heights Project as the so-called Millennium Tower prompted what seem millenarian fear as it suddenly started to list and sink a foot and a half into the sandy ground and to tilt over a foot to the left, prompting many residents to sell their multi-million dollar apartments at a huge loss; the boosters of downtown construction on San Francisco’s planning board allegedly didn’t even discuss seismic risk, let alone model it–like Nimrod’s construction of a tower in the eyes of a God who had forbidden human constructions to rise to such heights–



–the parade of two recent “towers” that joined the Transamerica Pyramid in the city’s skyline, but rising above it by an extra two-hundred feet, and in far less stable manner, in a manner that seemed a foreign species to the local styles of building.

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If San Francisco was not often seen as a site of urban apocalypse–Universal’s Earthquake was set in Los Angeles, back in 1974, then the city of the skyscrapers, and a city whose destruction was repeatedly cinematically restaged, as it was again in 10.0 Earthquake in 2014.  The safety of the smaller houses of San Francisco seemed more of  true sanctuary, and staid residences, chastened by 1906 but, as well as being overwhelmed by superbia, steep shifts in architectural construction and style–and indices of urbanite metropolitan majesty tied to building heights–appear to have collided with the proprietory sense of New Yorkers to skyscrapers as an index of urban majesty.

The backstory of the map is that the growth of skyscrapers’ building heights occurred without, amazingly, the sort of review of tall buildings by SF Building Inspectors are shocking: they seem the result not only of greed, or preening, but an influx of global capital beyond Silicon Valley, and the conquest of the city that has been long in the rear-view mirror, that has left a transmogrified downtown and mid-Market.  The downtown areas presents one aspect of urban overgrowth.  Indeed, even if the East Bay is far more dangerous as a site of active earthquake faults–and a site of widespread retrofitting–that has perhaps even stalled attention tot he expansion of buildings across the Bay.


California in USGS map of Faultlines

But is the picture so grim, or the dangers of the geological so pronounced this “tectonic time-bomb”?   The contrast of switching to the Nature in the City map that was published at the same day as the anniversary of the quake suggests not.  The Bay area as a whole might be imagined in a time of increased over-building, urban expansions and radically accelerated ground-cover change as a nexus of other habitats, and ecosystems, fed as it is by seven rivers, a site of bird and butterfly migration, as well as migrating whales; while less visible in the built-up images of downtown San Francisco, the active ecosystem of the area is foregrounded in the Nature in the City Map not only as a cartography of resistance but an invitation to preserve the delicate ecological balance of the region–and to root our understanding of the region as an intersection of non-human habitats, in order to reorient our relation to its space, as if to compensate for rapidly advancing anthropogenic change, as much as immanent natural disaster–the city as a bucolic site rich with habitats sets disaster far away from the progress made on its hills and waters.  They banish memory of the years of whale-hunting  from its celebration of the vitality of local habitat.


The destruction of San Francisco has been more often imagined by battles over super-heroes, or seen as a site of the arrival of whales.  Is the concentration on over-building an adequate picture to superimpose on the “historical record” of the 1906 earthquake that shaped its configuration?

Nature in the City has long suggested not.  For the presence of nature is so imbricated in the structure of a city that has readily and insistently remained green, and whose areas of intact and broken ecosystems demand to be treasured and examined, as does the deep ecology of the long-term patterns of migration that the city’s biodiversity continues to respect.  This is an expansion of the 2007 version of Nature in the City map, which emphasized the constrained sites of habitat within the reduced if surviving natural areas in a site formerly rich with wetlands, sandy dunes that extended into the current urban footprint, and oak woodland, which Peter Barstow, now coordinator of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, organized to promote nature conservation at an apparent  turning point of urban identity–taking stock of the fragmentation of areas that served frogs, owls, falcons, and butterflies–

ture in city
nture in the city large

–the advances of acquiring, analyzing, and remapping data of an actual integration of greenspaces on many of the streets, medians, and neighborhoods of San Francisco was expanded in the new edition, to try to put in evidence the “corridors” and “green connections” that still exist in the city–to foreground better the sense of “urban nature” that might provide a call and a model for living with remaining green spaces if not for treasuring and interacting with remaining green spaces that continued to provide valued habitats for bees, green hairstreak butterflies, and other endangered species in the city, whose corridors and connections might offer a possibility for the continued coexistence of urban spaces and natural ones, akin to the “biophilic” cities that contrast with the radical landcover changes that have been the consequences of extra-urban spread.


Green Connections, 115 mile connected natural space in urban network

The new map seems to be a call for citizen science and indeed of citizen mapping of natural observations in the urban area, and starts from an attempt to connect the viewer to the continued presence of nature in the city’s footprint in direct fashion, starting from a survey, based partly on LiDAR imagery and satellite photography but with public records, that cartographer Michael Webster crafted to illustrate the terrain of grass, shrubs, and trees that exist along the city streets, to create a surface where the presence of green can be explored not only in corridors, but in urban spaces, not allowing a grey grid to dominate space–save in Golden Gate Park, the Presidio, and the urban forest of Mt. Sutro–


–call attention the survival of what seems an old-growth forest (circled in red above, around Mt Sutro, preserved because of its steep grade and irregular elevation), where Great Horned Owls nest, the single largest forest that survives in San Francisco, but also the areas of green that line the streets, as well as the green areas of Golden Gate Park that replaced the dunes that once covered the same area and the extensive dunes and sandy stretches once in the nearby Outer Sunset neighborhood.

The composite of LiDAR leaders of habitat of green–darker green suggesting greater density of foliage, with density colored by the proxy of vegetation height, allowed a broader and far more detailed of the connected areas and corridors of nature for map-readers to explore, and use as a form of inspiration to understand urban space, as much as a tool to navigate urban streets, and indeed to offer a map of the city that used accurate quantitative data to present a data-rich image of what a non-human resident might see and understand as the dwelling sites in urban space–and an informed one that would also allow viewers to view projected changes in the urban environment that is bound to be affected by sea-level rise, and whose man-made shoreline now dense with piers and landfill area that is expected by NOAA to be dramatically different by 2100.

Nature in the City (detail)

Neighborhoods of the city, as Bernal Heights, could be dramatically revisioned by the map reader, in terms of the degree of green space in each, and in ways that would call attention to the constrained nature of habitat in many places, renaming the open spaces in the city as the most prominent–rather than those that are built–in order to invite a re-reading of the city’s urban space.  (The result would be the exact opposite strategy of the maps that foreground building heights.)

Sections of City--Bernal Heights
Nature in the City (detail)

The legibility the map seeks to promote is not based on a sense of data literacy, but invites us to read the data it contains, and to illustrate quite impressive datasets as effectively as possible.  The almost tactile nature of the map is not only artistic as an illustration of green space–color tones elegantly muted and soft to the eye, if not inviting–but allow one to see neighborhoods that one knows in terms of the level of habitat that they offer, not necessarily for our enjoyment as city residents, rendered lovingly in the artistic collaboration of the accomplished Jane Kim, but from an ecologically informative and informed point of view; the resulting map allows us to examine and note street trees, for example, as potential sites of habitat, whose growth and preservation would mean not only creating preserves and parks but continue to nourish the understory, directing attention to the need to balance the near-absence of trees in some residential or paved areas of the more urban Mission with the greener areas that lead to parks and centers of recreation in outlying areas, and to call attention to those spaces where more street trees might help to change the urban habitat, but also to absorb pollution of urban streets, reducing its carbon footprint.


Nature in the City Map (expanded detail)

The genius of the map to situate–obviously not to scale–the residents of greener areas on the map, giving them greatest prominence in the urban space to underscore the precious status of their presence and their dependence on remaining habitat, not to show them to actual size, but as if to allow us to marvel at their continued presence in the urban habitat, and remember that presence by marveling as if a lepidopterist.


Nature in the City Map (expanded detail), Hairstreak Butterfly by Jane Kim

The dramatic presence of the individual animals in the map–as the suitably colored Hairstreak Butterfly, once far more prevalent in the Western United States, and the coastal dunes of northern California, is not only magnified because of its small size–smaller than an inch–but to invert our attention to urban space, and to see it not only as a built environment but to remind us that it is a built environment which demands our mindfulness of the habitats that coexist within green areas of semi-urbanized space.

Hair streak.png

The animals, plants, and crustaceans selected for representation on the map–such as the elegant hairstreak–have been actively conserved by the return of native grasses and plants on which they depend, many of which originally grew in San Francisco dunes, to create an island of butterfly habitat in the city that allow them to feed in patches on medians or beside buildings of coast buckwheat, seaside daisy, and dune knotweed to encourage their continued presence in the city’s built environment and protect the species’ growth.  The mapping of each habitat–sand dollars on Ocean Beach; jackrabbits in ; Grey and Humpback whales in Marine Sanctuaries; brown pelicans in San Francisco Bay–suggest the vitality and health of the region, and celebrate their integration with the urban fabric and the active protection of endangered species through local activism and city policy.

Rather than illustrating the open spaces alone as balancing or offsetting the grayed-out areas of anthropogenic land cover in a mosaic that allows the habitats to be preserved–

Bay Area nature sites of open space.png

Nature in the City

–the active integration of ecosystems acros the city, and illustration of their dispersal, suggest not only the dependence of , but direct attention to the delicate balance of areas of animal habitat within the region, in an almost zen-like fashion, bringing attention to bear in the almost entirely grayed-out area of San Francisco in the above map, a map on the obverse of the path-breaking first map showing Nature in the City, the format familiar from most maps of recreational parks, the new edition encourages  readers to attend to the individual sites of habitat without subsuming ecosystems to the tyranny of cartographical scale, encouraging the forms of local observation needed to make contact with individual species dispersed across specific habitats, and announcing their presence to the reader at varied scales, and a lower scale than that of the map itself, as if to bring the viewer toward each region, regardless of its geographical size, and to suggest the greater naturalistic value of closer observation to a uniform geographic scale.

The plantings have been funded, organized encouraged by members of the Nature in the City Foundation, who designed the map.  And taking this one step further, to reach the readers that the map hopes to address and invite them to explore the very places or oases that the one-page map showcases, explorations of individual regions that the map describes–from the eastern shore of San Francisco and the shorebirds who live there, including the American Avocet, protected near the EcoCenter of Heron’s Head Park, or the areas in the Presidio where Pacific chorus frogs have dwelled near where water pools at the base of Presidio Hill since and still survive, with some human assistance.  (Reservations can be made for the Avocet Amble along the shoreline’s green waterfront, to move from the map to the city with naturalists of the Nature in the City team, to look at the range of shorebirds which the Avocet was chosen to represent on the map.)

avocet exp

Nature in the City Map, detail

The contrast between the hope in the image of the city advanced by the new Nature in the City map, not only of the places of continued vitality in the city but the engagement in the preservation of habitat, and a broader ecosystem, couldn’t contrast more sharply with the image of Towers of Silicon Valley corporations’ wealth, built as new monuments in the city of shaky grounds, contravening a long modest skyline with monumental buildings of an age of oversized capital.

The building of these monuments to engineering aren’t celebrated by the Times, but in their “Seismic Gamble” visualization seem in a downtown that is dangerously close to landfill.  The buildings fan out from Market Street–the seam at which San Francisco’s two grids join at something like a 45º angle, in an attempt to “revitalize” the downtown area as one of prime real estate.  If one invites the viewer to connect themselves in an often undetected ecosystem through its content, the other seems to scare the viewer from an uncontrolled epidemic of overbuilding recognizable from many metropoles and extra-urban areas of the United States–even if the epidemic of over-building in New York itself has slowed.  But the divergence between the maps could not be clearer, as well, with one trying to recover the natural shorelines and ecosystems created in the historical sand-dunes and beach grasses specific to the shoreline, and the other afflicted by an amnesiac’s relation to the shorelines over which the city was built and the greater dangers of liquefaction in sites that extended into the San Francisco Bay. Even if the skyscrapers seem removed from the huge piers that now extend out perpendicularly from the Embarcadero into the Bay, many of them stand in the very area that was once, back in the 1850s, considered offshore–or was shoreline habitat.

Britton & REY San Francisco CAL.png

Map of San Francisco, Britton & Rey, 1:18,100 (1852)/Courtesy David Rumsey Collection

The shifting shoreline of the city, which eerily echoes the new urban environment that is projected to be created by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, was very much in the minds of the builders of the first downtown area of San Francisco in the nineteenth century, back when the piles of those extending piers were driven into the Bay.

Bay of San Francisco 1854


Indeed, the Nature in the City map doesn’t prompt us only to look at the city from the sky, gazing down at the earth, but to start by looking at the ground.



Help promote eco-literacy, urban wildlife stewardship, and habitat restoration in San Francisco and purchase your own copy of the Nature in the City map!  

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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