The Natures of San Francisco

My own intensely reactive confrontation with 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–


image.pngCalifornia 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.

13.  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–

image.pngNature in the City map of San Francisco, detail of Presidio

image.png Josiah Wood, Bay Nature

–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.


Ocean to Bay.pngNature in the City Map, Third Edition

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–

The Problem: SF.pngGreenInfo Network

–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.

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 wetNature in the City/Bay Nature

north beach.png

14.  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 NITCNature in the City map (2018), detail featuring wildlife illustrated by Jane Kim

Wolf Bernal Heights-bannerNature 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.

imageThe New York Times

Leave a comment

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.