Category Archives: Benjamin Franklin

The Imagined and Actual Geography of Brexit: Topologies of Social Anxiety

The combination of a growing state security apparatus and economic insecurity on European boarders has created a fear of hordes and the arrival of migrants moving on foot that has created the now-dismantled migrant camp known as the “Jungle” near the port of Calais, not far from the Ferry Terminal for ships leaving for England.  Crossing to Calais on the Eurostar this summer, I looked out intently out of the rapidly moving train window for migrant camps who had been so central to the “Brexit” referendum by which  England recently left the European Union, that has held up to 6-8,000 refugees hoping to move to England–and some suggest the number reached as high as 10,000.  Indeed, as “Leave” seemed so successfully cast as an imperative, and “Remain” as the honest commitment to “Remain” seemed to have decidedly less media presence and staying power, the haunting residents of the camps, filled with refugees and migrants from Syria, Eritrea, Sudan and Afghanistan, if often left out of most maps of the election, provided a compelling if faceless specter for many.




The haphazard and improvised constellation of lean-tos, make-shift huts, and tents were ordered in streets beside orderly rows of fenced-off white metal shipping containers relocated to Calais to provide temporary forms of housing after their arrival.  Although there were not any migrant camps in evidence from my position in the train, the camps were in the past few weeks increasingly in the news, as the UKIP party that predicted an England inundated by refugee influx that social services and health could not accommodate, all because of England’s membership in the European Union, on the eve of Britain’s vote on the European Union Referendum–as “Leave” parties conjured fears of what belonging in the European Union would mean for the everyday Englishman in an age of increasing global displacement of refugees and cross-border traffic of men and women seeking work, education, and safety.  When the rapid train suddenly paused for unforeseen difficulties due to people on the tracks, one couldn’t but wonder how the halt related to those risking lives to enter the tunnel running beneath the Channel, whom local police quarantined in semi-permanent “homes” of converted shipping containers.

While the Eurostar connected two railway stations, and half of London and Paris was glued to the European Cup, the “Brexit” vote revealed a hiving off of about a third of Britain similarly eager to separate itself from the European Union–as voters voted, probably unaware of the consequences, in a plebiscite that trumped parliamentary politics in anti-democratic ways.  For Brexit became a performative mapping of a severance from Europe, in ways to manufacture an imaginary boundary between England and a refugee crisis.  The precarity of living in shipping containers now seems to be about as great as that of the European Union.  What was Jungle is largely destroyed, rendered uninhabitable save for the 1,200 unaccompanied minors who reside in the complex of huts, tents, and containers, as 4,403 migrants bussed to refugee centers across the country, to seek asylum, the settlement provided an effective threat of migration and effective specter of fear in the EU Referendum.  Indeed, it helped to ensure the surprising and unexpected success of a referendum designed to keep refugees at bay and finally withdraw the country –at significant national monetary cost–from the European Union for the foreseeable future.  As multiple fires began to burn in the Jungle after workers moved in to begin dismantling the camp, while some pointed the finger to refugees seeking to dismantle and erase the structures where they lived others pointed to British anarchists, even with the clearance began, so strong was the fear of migrants that the fate of 1,000 children seeking entrance to the UK is unknown, suspended by the post-BREXIT government of Theresa May.

English voters on the Referendum were presented with almost dizzying fears of immigration and declining social services that were impossible to visualize adequately.  In an onslaught that dominated the news and challenged voters’ attention spans and moral compass, “Leave” flyers used fear to mobilize against remaining in the European Union.  In a canny onslaught and bid for attention, reminiscent of right-wing politicians, flyers of  “Leave” raised the specter of fears of immigration policies out of control  and wrested away by a European Union whose member states stood only to escalate.  The eventuality of remaining in the EU was seen as an abdication of responsibilities, and a misplaced trust in Brussels to control the entry of refugees and Eastern Europeans seeking jobs into the UK:  if migration to the UK had grown to above a quarter of a million–“the equivalent of a city the size of Newcastle“–the arrival of two million over the coming decade mandated by “free movement of people”  conjured a suitably dystopian future.  Voting to Remain in the European Union was to accept this lack of control, and the subordination of British law to an over-reaching European Court; expanding the myth of foreign oversight of Britain, Leave claimed to offer the opportunity to check the flow of migrants to restore control to British hands.  The argument of empowerment may have been deluded.  But the powerful promise to return £350 million in taxes flowing to Brussels, and the prospect of immigration growth once such “candidate countries” as Turkey, Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro joined Romania, Bulgaria, and Croatia, to the tune of a cost of nearly £1.8 billion, provided a compelling rationale to vote “Leave” and to identify interests with the possibility of controlling the fair of the expanded borders of globalization alone, and rather than in the European Union.  As a movement of “faux populism,” carefully orchestrated to be effective at the ballot, the Brexit supporters stirred up fear into a central role in the election that attracted a growing range of supporters to the ballot.

The dizzying expansion of a region without frontiers was joined by a cry “to take back control” of England’s future.  The Referendum was presented as “our last chance to take back control,” a virtual mantra of the Leave campaign, and control “our borders” and international “influence” lest the nation be filled with immigrants against who one can draw no clear border.  With the Turkey, Serbia, and Macedonia joining the EU, ran the implicit message, Syrian refugees were bound to be waiting at the gates as well, without a compelling way to turn them back.


EU-523932.jpgDaily Express


Such a compelling framing of the debate about the nation’s compromised future in a landscape of expanding “rights” fostered fears of an end of public futures, “without handing our permanent control to people we cannot vote out”–as if the vote presented the last attempt at independence, ignoring the special relation of the UK had long insisted to the EU.  To be sure, the Leave campaign also increased regulations that the EU introduced, without suggesting other financial benefits.

The mapping of the response to the Referendum released a new plethora of maps in hopes better to explain the final vote of the plebiscite that precipitated the break from the EU.  Can these maps–and the mapping of social divides in England’s complicated tapestry of islands which integrate immigrants and regions where they still remain unknown, provide any insight in the difficulty to create consensus about the growing population flows that globalization has produced?  The question is important, because it suggests a new problem of political consensus not only in Britain and the European Union, but also in the United States.  For the unprecedented misinformed plebiscite gave voice to a deep unease with parliamentary deals that brokered the terms of England’s membership in the European Union, and with globalization, that dangerously undermined the responsibilities that the EU has gained to respond to the global threats of refugee crises–a role that has been foisted upon it by the economic promise Europe continues to offer as a zone without apparent national frontiers.  While we’ve been told by informed voices that the EU “had it coming,” whatever that means, or that the current European Union compromised British demands, or warned that the creation of social and political affinities could ever follow from enforced economic union, or give rise to public confidence, rejection by plebiscite of membership in the European Union subverted democracy, by a campaign bred from xenophobic fears and assertions the EU “has failed Britain” as a whole.

The recourse to demographic polling, hex bin maps sought to go beyond easy dichotomies, and unpack what seem deep-running fault lines within the country, and the difficulty of reconciling the nation given the increased political fault-lines attempted to process and reconcile divides in political parties that plagued the land.  But rather than suggest the complex lines of fracturing between the political mosaic of Conservatives, Liberals, Labourites, UKIP and Greens in England’s new political landscape, the Leave/Stay dichotomy revealed new divides in the body politic.




Despite the many tired dichotomies that have been extracted ad nauseam from data visualizations of the EU Referendum–from old v. young, north v. south, working class v. metropolitan elites; educated v. non-graduates; identifying as “English” v. cosmopolites–the complexion that has redefined the country reflects a growing retrograde tendency of rejecting the status quo and belief in the benefits of hiving off that was undemocratic and displayed  a perverse nostalgia of deeply conservative roots.


Queen Backs Brexit!.png


The referendum that former Prime Minister David Cameron presented as a panacea or safety valve to staunch opposition to the EU in Great Britain encouraged one of the most badly informed electorates in memory to protest the entrance of eastern Europeans into the country, and the perception of economic malaise and overburdened public services, and erase the benefit of free trade accords and that led to considerable economic growth.  The economic amnesia Brexit provoked led to a massive rejection of the national government and indeed political elites, even when undermining their economic interests, producing the increasing likelihood that many wish to leave Britain even among working class groups in England and Wales, and many voters more angry about the EU government than aware of the actual impact on trade relations to Europe or manufacturing and health standards.  Although turnout was in general quite high, with 30 million expressing their opinion at the ballot box, or some 72%, the vote was predicted to be determined by turn-out, and the distribution of votes varied.  If most in Scotland turned out, many in London and in northern Ireland voting less, and many of the regions who voted to “Leave” turned out to vote intensely–and turnout markedly lower in areas with greater numbers of younger voters–who tended to vote to Remain in reflection of their economic futures, especially in areas with greater student populations in relative to their size.  But the appeal to the nation and national independence deeply obscured the issues on the table.





What was Cameron thinking in opening up this question to a plebiscite that gave greater voice to those with stronger opinions, and indeed in opening up a question of particular complexity to a public yea or nay vote that hinged on turn-out?  Democratic “consent” to membership in the EU was long been “wafer thin” in much of Britain, and low turnout among the young gave a greater share of the vote to Brexit.  But the opportunity that the vote offered many the chance to decamp from the EU in ways few intended.  For during a refugee crisis, the cards were steeply stacked the party reduced to take “Remain” as its slogan, although the very passivity of whose construction suggested an absence of cogent arguments to respond to false promises of helping England’s shaky economy, persistent low wages, growing waiting times at National Health Service, and rising rents–all of which were represented as stretched thin by serving migrant workers and their families, and rising rents.

Partisans of “Leave” tapped such concerns so effectively that despite the value of data visualizations in anatomizing and describing the broad distribution of adherents mobilized behind a “Leave” mandate, the vote seems little understood or analyzed for its appeal as in its ramifications, and has created an ongoing puzzle about what place of England will now occupy in relation to the EU–or how the EU will look.




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June 28, 2016 · 11:26 pm

Green Urbanism? Blue Urbanism?

Since maps invite their viewers to enter an image of the natural world, as well as to relate places to the broader geographic context in which it lies, they offer increasingly useful perspectives to relate the ocean to the land.  The perspective they offer on all regions has long been rooted on the land,  however.  And the coasts–and indeed the dangers–for adhering to such a “landlubberly perspective” on our rising oceans are increasingly apparent.  A perspective that privileges mapping inhabited lands –and orienting viewers to a set notion of place–places us at a particularly disastrous disadvantage when assessing questions of climate change, or reacting to the increasingly lethal storms, tsunami, and typhoons encountered as the inevitable consequences of climate change, and that coastal cities–from New Orleans to New York to the devastated Philippine coastal cities of Tacloban, Ormac or Baybay–seem condemned to repeat.

In continuing to rely on maps whose perspective denies that of the future expansion of oceanic seas, we threaten to lose perspective on our changing relation to the sea.  We have long found threats of the invasion of ocean waters difficult to integrate in an inherited image of the city as a bounded entity, and continue to draw clear lines around the cities in which we dwell:  our maps draw clear lines between land and water.  Perhaps this is because waters seem so difficult to circumscribe or bound, and the fluid relation between land and water difficult to render accurately or draw.  When an influential movement of urban architecture and planning calls for a greater integration of the natural world–so often bound outside of cities or city walls–within urban entities, they retain the notion of the bounded city.  Recuperating the term the entomologist and biologist E.O. Wilson coined, “biophilia,” to express the “innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms” in human nature that demanded attention, they argue that cities need to promote contact with nature, since, Wilson argued, such contact provides a spur to creativity, productivity, and well-being.  The planning of “biophilic cities” is dedicated as a movement of urban design to “contain abundant nature” in their structure.  The championing of “model cities”–such as Perth or Singapore–are promoted as examples of the “biophilic” age of urban architecture.

Yet are these models (often located in semi-tropical climates) not limit cases where we can most easily integrate oceanic waters into a built environment?  For by isolating the city as a unit in which to restore nature, there seems more than a bit of bio-fetishism in singling out new spaces where blue waters can enter an urban environment:  the optimism of its evangelical tenor as a movement of urban planners, dedicated to reframing the reintegration of cities with the watery surroundings has gained a broad charge and dedicated following, including partner cities that border on water such as San Francisco, Portland, Milwaukee, Vitoria Gastiez (Spain), Birmingham (England), and Wellington (New Zealand).  While the benefits of such urban architecture appear considerable, the challenges for expanding the role of the ocean in the horizons of city-dwellers seem only the start of restoring the historical isolation of the city from watery life, or integrating the oceans within our future urban planning.

The movement of blue urbanism is an illustration of courageous dedication to a project of reintegrating aquatic and urban environments–at least, presumably, before the shores of cities will be redrawn by ocean waters.  The considerable cognitive benefits claimed for these more enriched urban networks build on movements for integrating networks of urban “green-spaces”–including not only parks but green-belts and even forests is a reasoned reaction to urban sprawl and overbuilding and way to take charge of the built environments we create.  “Blue urbanism” would comprehend a watery frontier, offering opportunities for immersing children in rivers, urban parks, watery excursions, and underwater ambients which surround cities.   Blue urbanists espouses an improved integration among the fauna and flora lying near aand around cities within something like a green belt–and espouse the value of an analogous “blue belt” as a way to foster a new attachment to the waters and their shores, rather than seeing them as limits of built city.

Yet does emphasis on the human benefits of such contact carry a all too narrowly restricted notion of what a watery surrounding might be?  The watery oceanic borders of cities are in themselves rarely mapped, though the shifting waters of the Gulf Stream and other currents determine the shoreline inhabitants of North America, but might a map provide a fuller perspective on the interchanges and ecosystems lost by drawing firm barriers between urban and ocean life?

1.  The “blue urbanism” that Timothy Beatley advocates wields the rhetoric and best practices of green architecture’s “integrated network of urban space” to invite us to re-imagine cities’ relation to the shores on which they border.  Yet there is concern that such projects of rebuilding turn away from the depth of our historical remove from the waters that surround our cities–an increasingly pragmatic concern after the very fragility of this divide has been so traumatically revealed in recent decades, from damages inflicted on US cities by Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy or, afield, the Indian Ocean Tsunami and super-typhoon Haiyan.  The ecology of biophilic design, for all its benefits, could benefit from a broader global ecology, basing itself less on the benefits of human friendship with the biosphere, and being more oriented to global contexts of the cost of climactic shifts by looking back to the geography of the past–lest the affections of biophilia border on the bio-fetishism of the philistine.  The precepts of adaptation and resilience to mitigate bad policy decisions are of intense importance; historic maps offer base-lines to qualify the alienation of cities from their shores that compliment the need to build green and blue belts.  The maps we have drawn about urban areas may provide a basis to recuperate the integration of life along the shorelines we have lost, in short, and the nature and settlement of life along the city’s shore–as well as the ways that oceans serve less as a barrier to than interface with the shore.

While we map the trespass of waves over the finely drawn boundary lines of territories, measuring incursions across demarcated shorelines and property lines, and mourning the scope of damages and loss, we seem to remediate via maps–much as how OSM-mappers have begun to chart buildings and routes in the Philippines for delivering humanitarian supplies, as a way of rebuilding, if at first in virtual form–to restore urban infrastructures in digital form.

Mapping Tacloban via OSM

Yet these maps do not comprehend, for lack of a better word, the sea.  The terrible human costs of each of these events serve as something of an intimation of the threats global warming poses to urban environments, and invite rethinking notions of ‘planning’ replacing the imagined stability of  a built frontier of urban society with a more permeable line of inter-relations, even as we come to appreciate how little conscious “planning” went into the drawing of earlier boundary lines.  Both the human and material costs of these events compel an appreciation of the role of the shoreline, as well as intimations of the threats global warming poses to urban environments and indeed the world we have built.

Homes in Samar provinceReuters

Naturalists have recently begun to realize the power of maps to invite reexamination of our relations to place, however–often by using historical maps to excavate the shifting historical relation to the natural world that have led us to draw such finely parsed lines between planned urban environments and their surrounding waters to assess the costs of these sorts of fantasies of spatial distinction:  if we don’t build on the water, we cannot ignore it but at our collective peril.

Map offer a particularly precise if plastic means to situate place that are able to register deeper, less easily visualized, chronological changes and global contexts, or shifts within a regional ecosystem that would be otherwise difficult to conceive.  In age of rising oceans and global warming, maps draw relations between local settings and global changes to help assess the extent to which global warming threatens to obliterate or erode the stability of our concepts of place.  Maps of the circulation of waters around specific cities compel us to rethink an inherited oceanic boundary.

2.   Can a “blue architecture” invite us to re-imagine bifurcated schema of ordering of space to which we have reduced the relation between land and sea to a simply drawn line?  Or have we lost a relation to the land that a new building project cannot recover without clearer lenses to view the relation between water and planned environment, and to be invited to appreciate a clearer register of the relations between coastal cities and the surrounding sea, and, indeed, of the delicate interdependencies that are the basis for our sense of place, and underwrite how we imagine “place” as a category?  A historicized art of mapping stands to call attention to the ecosystem that might lurk beneath the threat of climactic change, and understand the changes they pose to local ecosystems.  The art of mapping provides unique tools to invite viewers to consider local settlements, and develop tools to re-imagine a relation to the sea new building projects alone cannot foster.

Sanderson's Base Map

We can appreciate the huge changes wrought in a relation to the shore by how a cartographical reconstruction of Manhattan island revealed in this stunning 1782 British Headquarters map drawn at the painstaking scale of 6 1/2 inches per mile reveals the island’s coastline as it was experienced by Lenape tribespeople.  Using the watercolor map as the base-map for his digital reconstruction of the local environment, landscape ecologist Eric W. Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society worked over five years to create GIS database, geo-referencing landmarks and sites to reconstruct the forgotten landscape based on 200 control points.

Sanderson’s completed map has a beauty that invites viewers to explore a computer generated landscape’s verdant arboreal landscape and rich wildlife, moving with amazing apparent precision over a web of lost streams, rivers, and hills that agricultural and urban development erased over time–most all of the more than 570 that distinguished the island Lenape members to give the name “Mannahatta,” the ‘island of many hills,’ and to map over 627 varieties of plants in the island, and the 233 types of birds and 24 different mammals who lived in its delicate interstices of interlaced ecosystems, in its swamps, ponds and the estuaries of its shores.

The older shoreline strikingly engages one’s mental map of Manhattan’s shore.   It jar one’s notion of place, and shift the stability of shorelines, streets, and riverine banks within one’s head.  Superimposing data from a Google map visualization of the verdant forests, ponds, streams, and marshes before four centuries of landfill shrunk its coastal geography, the map reveals a huge change in place in a powerfully persuasive graphic form.

Indeed, the superimposition of the shifted maps–the street grid and coastal drives laid above the earlier contours of the island’s expanse– is compelling by the complex cognitive dissonance it creates, placing multi-lane expressways and drives on the expanded edges of the island, so that they run across the marshland estuaries of the Lower East Side or cut into the blue waters around the island, suggesting the actual de-naturing of the landscape even more than the de-naturing of place that all Google Mapping templates seem to afford–and far more eerily reminding us of the extent to which we’ve effectively distanced ourselves from the expanse that the island once occupied as well as the ecosystems that it held.

Welikia 1609 Map of Mannahatta

3.  The remove of the world of this island situated on merging saltwater and freshwater, and with a dynamic verdant ecology is apparent from Markley Boyer’s stupendous digitization, which recreates the island seen by Henry Hudson in 1609, and which, if not a map per se, compels us to both explore its content by mapping them against our own experiences and spatial imaginaries.  The almost palpable landscape invites us to explore its content, as if as it invited Henry Hudson and his men in:

Mannahatta's verdant paradise 1609
These now absent beaches, marshlands, and estuaries in the landscape offer a striking contrast to the current shore.

The integration of its coasts to the river echo the shorelines that John Randel, Jr. famously mapped in delicate watercolors in a detailed rendering of its many hills between 1818-20, even as the grid of streets was lightly traced and projected above a far less level urban topography, where the city descended in differently manners to the rivers and estuaries on its shorelines, most of which have been erased by time:
Randall Farm Maps

Boyer’s glorious digital reconstruction recreates the shimmering presence island of hills, rivers, and trees that Lenape knew in its speciated glory, mapping the messiness of that shore in ways that inspire a vision of or compelling case for the optimistic dream of restoration of these shores:
Mannahatta:Manhattan from south
4.   Maps offer persuasive forms to re-think cities’ relations to oceanic shores, perhaps more compellingly altering deeply set attitudes than new practices of planning to integrate more fluidly and esthetically water and land.  Although Beatley calls, at, for new attitudes to the surrounding world, and fostering a new culture of lifestyle, curiosity, and an integration of the tactile presence of the seas in “blue urbanism,” we  might better appreciate the nature of the frontier created between city and water not only in the benefits of immersive aquatic environments in cities, but respond to the absence even of registering seas in urban planning by examining how we came to map a disconnect between cities and ocean– and the cultural divide that has emerged between shore and urban space that was elaborated from the mid-nineteenth century, and is now deeply established by zoning, districting, EPA standards and urban planning texts.

In asking to extend our concepts of cities to the oceans that surround them, we might work not only to make new maps, but use old maps to be mindful of the need to extend our sense of place through the refiguration of urban spaces–noting how maps mark and register the depths of the cultural divide between urban and oceanic space, and examining maps to chart the losses of a shifting historical relation between the city and ocean.  Such a remapping of the city’s relation to the land is echoed in the recent interactive mapping project of Stamen Design, Surging Seas, which tracks rising sea-levels caused by storms or flash-floods, mapping sea levels in relation to the inhabited land–and visualizing a nine foot rise in sea-level of nine feet, here in lower Manhattan, based on data from Climate Central.


Stamen-TriState Submerging Seas
And the interactive site allows one to track what changes would happen if the sea-level were to rise it to a ten full ten:

Surging Seas--NYC, 10 Feet

5.  At a recent discussion in San Francisco’s Exploratorium about relations between land and sea promoting such a “Blue Urbanism,” the relations between place and global change rightfully gained considerable attention.   Most presentations focussed on specific examples of cities, but the problem was pressingly (and depressingly) relevant given the recent typhoon.  Occurring in a room exhibiting such splendid shifting nine-panel global color video projections, courtesy NASA’s LandSat satellite photographs or the Goddard Flight Center, of Global Precipitation Levels, Sea Surface Currents and Temperatures, Ocean Currents, or, below, Global Aerosols, they seemed to provide a unique context for rethinking the presence of the local in relation to the sea.  For only in rethinking built relations between land and sea, and the compartmentalization that led to the diffusion of aerosols, the shifting of water temperatures, and  changes in the level and salinity of oceans over the past one hundred years, can we measure the human footprints already left on environment.

Global Aerosols Exploratorium

One such remapping of such relations and attitudes might begin from maps, it began to appear–and from the inspiration maps might provide to remap relation around San Francisco, not only by seeing how space was filled by the city–or the urban conquest of space–but rather how the negotiation of the boundary with the sea was based on spatial practices of such longstanding nature, entailing and perhaps rooted in the representational practices of defining space as an area of settlement and urban planning–and a practice of planning that sees space as filled up by housing projects that cut off the marine space of the sea.

The projected maps on plasma screens raised questions of how to rethink the sedimentation of such deeply set cultural practices, if only by providing a context for the dramatic remapping of urban environments at a remove from the ocean’s ebb and flow–or relate place to a far broader context of environmental change.   When Rebecca Solnit recently offered a haunting analogy between global warming to the processes of gentrification that threaten the fabrics of urban neighborhoods–both occurring with blinders to the overall structure and coherence ecosystems, whether the social ecosystem of urban space or global ecologies, and of removing oneself from our role in creating a scenario of global warming or urban change.

6.  The history of spatiality and of spatial practices that define the city may suffer, one soon realized, from the separation of such “spatial practices” from an appreciation of urban environments.  The circumscription of the spatial is partly inherited from the conceptually pioneering–if idealizing– strain of thought in the work of the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre, whose notion of in The Production of Space was rooted in an Aristotelian or Kantian categorization of space as a human creation.  For when Lefebvre distinguished forms of apprehension among social practices, representations of space, and symbolic models of spatial representation, he refined how Aristotle cast position as a category of human apprehension and Kant affirmed space as an attribute of human judgement–rather than an ecological space of multiple species’ interaction, or indeed of biological overlap.  Instead of commodifying space from a human point of view, we fail to register either local specificity or the density of coexistence around place:  maps can return attention to all too often forgotten margins of settlements, and effectively reconstitute place in a greater environment.  A similarly broad sense of the sea-shore as a “primeval meeting place of the elements of earth and water, a place of compromise and conflict and eternal change,” as much as opposition, was suggested by Rachel Carson, who suggested the basis for understanding the shorelines by “the long rhythms of earth and sea that sculptured its land forms and produced the rock and sand of which it is composed”–and the biological communities specific to each.  She chose a map of the Gulf Stream as a sort of emblem for the situated knowledge of the shore, using a version of the 1769 chart of Benjamin Franklin based on the working knowledge of a Nantucket sailor, Timothy Folger, that is the end-paper for her 1950 The Sea Around Us; Carson praised the map for transmitting understanding of ocean currents–and for the first time locating the course of the equatorial Gulf Stream, or “Gulph Stream,” on a map, in ways that embodied a tacit familiarity with the flow that many sailors well knew, but which Franklin, as Postmaster General, was frustrated to find absent from any chart.

The recovery of the rare original Franklin-Folger map showed a pointedly less centrally defined Gulf Stream than the composite map reprinted above, but illuminated a new need for mapping oceanic expanse–in this case, for the postmaster general to elucidate the greater time needed to traverse the Atlantic from England, which world maps or charts had long excluded, in failing–or, more accurately, not knowing how–to map the seas.

Franklin- Map

7.  The question then becomes how to adequately map the seas, as much as urban space.  The ability to register and communicate familiarity with place–and with a watery space–is particularly lacking in most urban maps.  The absence is a considerable difficulty for adequately registering knowledge of the sea on its own terms, or the shoreline and its inhabitants.

Or can we use maps to register a shifting knowledge of the ocean’s shore?  One charge for spatial history would be to excavate the construction of space in different environmental contexts.  If it is to extend beyond the recapitulation of space as a human construction, “space” might be more adequately placed in a global–and less of a human–context by recognizing and affirming space as an ecological category.  One place to start would include the negotiation of deeply set cultural categories of division and differentiation that are framed in maps, taking the map as a human artifact–rather than a representation or a practice, a model of interaction that conditioned and provides evidence of lived experienced.  For the tendency to idealize space at an Apollonian remove–an image perpetuated, to be sure, in maps which subject the cognition of space to human understanding–abstracts space as a category of apprehension, rather than registering the density of interaction through a suitably “thick mapping” across boundaries, borders, and regional change that recuperate buffer zones, watersheds, and shorelines we have lost–in ways the art of mapping is uniquely suited to portray.

The challenge of recuperating the network of estuaries and streams that once surrounded the low-lying areas around the San Francisco Bay, for example, might negotiate with how we constitute the terrain for urban life by drawing a clear divide from the surrounding waters–or the perpetuation of the fantasy of drawing a clearly demarcated line dividing water and land.  Rising seas once flooded a river valley to create San Francisco Bay, whose many inhabitants  long existed in relation to a less clearly defined shore.  Maps can reveal how humans have interacted with the Bay over time that created deep mental barriers to interaction.   One can trace the shoreline moving in hundreds of feet inland, and slowing in past centuries to but a millimeter a year, or a city block over the last century, as a  shape-shifting feature with which bay residents have negotiated in different ways since a time when people lived near the bay, and negotiated with its salty marshlands, as a map of native American Shell Heaps that ring the bay eloquently reveals by noting the clear buffer zones that inhabitants created on beaches to meet rising tides.

BayShellmounds 001

The maps registers crucial details of the negotiation with marshlands and wetlands now lost or recently restored, outlining an image of interaction with the sea that is not immediately recognizable, and difficult to negotiate with our own changed landscape.

The particular coastal region near El Cerrito indicates the building up of these mounds to create a permeable barrier from the resident crustaceans along the marshlands running from north of Albany Hill to behind Point Isabel–now landfill, then a remote rock in the Bay.


The salt marshes, and the five creeks that fed them, are evident in this detail of the 1856 US Coastal Survey:

Salt Marshes

Yet as people moved inland from an 1850 shoreline was reduced by almost a third all of a sudden in last fifty years in a quite rapid and decisive manner, to create a new sense of the stability of the shoreline that segregated land and sea which will be particularly challenging now with the rise of sea levels projected global warming.  The illusory stability of the shoreline is however inevitable . . .  and the bay on track to expand again by 2100, to return to its size of 1850, in ways that pose disastrous consequences for such overbuilt regions of low elevations.  All low-lying areas are threatened by this projected expansion of the ocean, from Foster City to the treatment plants near to the Bay, to Oakland and San Francisco’s low-lying airports . . . and Oakland’s port.  In cities with waste facilities, oil tanks, refineries, ports and airports lie close to the water, as in Richmond, Oakland, the Carquinez Strait and Albany, ocean waters pose very real environmental threats illustrated by the tsunami’s breaching of the Fukushima Daini power plant.

8.  Can we redesign the shoreline differently?  Observing these low-lying areas that stand in close relation to the water in this map of 1850, we might consider the importance of beaches that can constitute a natural buffer to the shore, and the need for restoring their role as transitional zones and regions that has been so precipitously eroded in our environment.  For the erosion of such transitional spaces–and the overbuilding of the shores–has rendered more vulnerable low-lying areas such as Albany, Emeryville, Oakland or El Cerrito, encouraging blinders about the potential possibilities of future risk.

Sandy beaches that once circled San Francisco similarly served as barriers to the encroachment of the sea.  The loss of beachfront corresponded to a huge expansion of reclamation by landfill, and a resulting loss of estuaries, widely known around the Marina, and evident in the expansion of the city’s shores from an 1895 USGS topographic survey:

Lost Land SF-Historical Creeks and Shore marina detail

The loss of estuaries, creeks, and rivers in the entire peninsula of San Francisco since 1895 is less well-known, but even more dramatic:

SF Built Out:Loss from 1895 Topo

Will the process of getting to know the shoreline again provide a way to make them stable barriers once again?  Will we be able to provide natural resources by fluvial deltas, and support the growth of these buffer zones to do better on a second chance, by expanding an estuary system linking to the ocean that was so drastically mis-designed in the 1950s, when it was even proposed–if the proposal was reversed–to pour more landfill into the Bay, and re-zone the estuary, in order to fill an expanding housing market?

Bay or Rivewr

While it was not so prominent as the urban planners had proposed, the dramatic loss of such crucial buffer zones as tidal wetlands is evident in a comparison of first coastal survey of 1850  in this overlay of coastal maps, courtesy the San Francisco Estuary Institute, detailing the configuration of the coastline as it was and as we have made it,  over the century and a half of urban growth throughout the Bay Area–and the dangers that this poses:


The map cannot begin to conjure the shifting dynamic within the landscape and ecosystem we have lost–although the system of dykes and landfill suggests the beginning of the possible excavations of a lost shoreline.

This image of the expansion of the city’s urban claims to housing derives from a cultural and deeply anti-ecological view of the city as a site of stability–and ocean was seen as a site of antagonism on which, in the domesticated image of the bay, the city could rightfully expand–and the estuary be recast as a river to accommodate housing needs.   In starting to change our attitudes to our shorelines, and to view them as sites for other residents and as permeable barriers, we might start from changing our attitudes to the sea:  and remember, with Rachel Carson, that it is through our expansion of the “artificial” nature of cities that we have forgotten and somewhat brazenly rewritten our relation to the shoreline and the sea.


Maps, of course, forge bridges between nature and culture in provocatively engaging ways–and engage viewers by mapping these relationships.  If we are starting to remap place in provocatively interactive ways, the challenge is to best map the shifting relation between place and the global changes that call for an extensive remapping of place within the world.

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November 14, 2013 · 10:19 am