“A man in the city,” wrote American novelist William Gass, “has no natural thing by which to measure himself.” Gass wrote, in two thirds of the way through the last century, thinking mostly of the cities on the east coast of the United States–but not only. Since then, the measurement of man has been outsourced to numerous devices–from not only height and weight, but calorry intake, income, carbon footprint, and racial identity–Gass was, as a resident of the Midwest, aghast at the notion of nature in the city, and of the reduced relation to natural habitat: “Nothing can live and remain free where he resides but the pigeon, starling, sparrow, spider, cockroach, mouse, moth, fly and weed, and he laments the existence of even these and makes his plans to poison them,” Gass writes with an exasperation of the midwest, in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, before moving to zing the city-dweller: “His parks are potted plants.” Awareness of the biophilic needs of urban inhabitants for contact with urban greenspace, that has prompted active redesign urban environments in an overpaved world, responding to evidence greenspace reduce stress and mental illness, mapping the presence of nature in the city can hardly be reduced to parks.
Long before politicians railed against cities, asking where the heart of the nation’s heart lay, this icy put-down summoned the identity of the interior to dismiss the paltriness of urban parks as poor replacements for the nature world. But the if the built centers of San Francisco have grown in recent years–both in its downtown skyline and neighboring Oakland–as any departing airplane can see–the maps we make of our changing cities demand we attend to how they invite us to explore and navigate urban space in all its dimensions–including the role of the city as an ecosystem.
We bristle in San Francisco at the dismissal of our built environment, or the urban assets of verticality as a measure of cosmopolitan urbanism. From the seat of the departing plane, one might forget that the city not only borders significant greenspace across the Bay, but that San Francisco and the East Bay are living habitats.
We who live in the city are more accustomed to see a unique sort of habitat, and a confluence of not exactly rural but open space and green corridors in an urban environment. Even as vertical crowding may eclipse its green, the urban ecosystems they nourish prevent the symptoms of urban dysphoria associated with built environments, and notwithstanding threats of seismic disturbance or sea-level rise. Gass’s rather bone-chilling evocation of the coldness of rural isolation eclipses the real work of nurturing deep ties to a abundant ecosystems in San Francisco’s built space. And in an age when trees, and urban greenspace, face threats of car pollution, extreme weather, and the uprooting of trees to make way for construction sites or trim branches for urban safety or interference in above-ground power lines in many Bay Area cities, the value of absorbing CO2 and preventing floods by absorbing water have created a virtual boom of greening urban space.
Increasingly, we are attendant to the urban habitat they offer, beyond the cult of verticality as a metric of urbanity. Trees have been increasingly seen as presenting a basis for the future flourishing of cities and sustainability of urban space, with the growth of greening projects across the developed world: since 2007, an active New York City overseen by Bloomberg rooted over a million trees in urban space, and have taken root in London, where Mayor Sadiq Khan aims to make it the first “National Park City” while Paris is building four inner-city urban forests by 2020. While building heights provided a measure of a metropolis in the twentieth century, projects of urban greening have led to a search for more climate-tolerant trees–including “resilient” non-natives, like the three-toothed maple, even if urban planners are wary of invasive non-natives: Ireland’s commitment to plant 440 million trees by 2040, and hopes in Ethiopia to plant five billion seedlings in a year suggested a positive project of greening before the coronavirus pandemic, and an optimistic foot-forward re-engineering of the urban biome of unprecedented scale.
1. It was not always that way, and the spate of overbuilding in San Francisco has led it to aspire to a vertical landscape, as if out of envy of urban skylines of the east coast. If environmental dysphoria might be countered by planting of trees, San Francisco has gained a skyline of something like skyscrapers–as if in spite of its seismic risks–
–while the place of nature in the city in San Francisco, rather than on its outer bonds or beyond its walls, even before construction of a looming Salesforce Tower, we seek still to see as a site for outdoor recreation–
–if we may, as in a recent encomia to the city’s often beleaguered transit authority, bracket its impact as a building by reducing its size, and presence on our skyline, by continuing to render its towers as roughly equal to the TransAmerica Tower familiar as a point of reference that once dominated it in the past, as if its skyline remained roughly uniform.
The transformation of overpaving urban space has led to city maps that are more reliant on a strictly automobilistic perspective, as Google Maps and Bing are drawn from the perspectives of a space that is inhabited by cars, more tan the wildlife of the city: the perspective of the walker in the city is less easy to approach, in maps that are biased by their exclusion of open space that is so important to one’s mental health and sense of place: if the American West was once defined by its open spaces, “where the pavement ends,” the pavement that spreads out from cities to the burgeoning Bay Area makes it a sort of transportation hub, where cars move along its freeways and downtown, often clogging Market Street, increasing a market for new navigational tools of traffic flow, rather than the open spaces that drivers might even neglect if they did not also wander the neighborhoods off the beaten path: the decal of urban wildlife associated with the car’s perspective is, unsurprisingly, marked the pigeon as an urban inhabitant of peaking into this automobilistic world as if from an Archimedian point–
–whose cocked beaks and blank eyes emerge from the car door’s gleam to note the increased compromising of a biophilic relation to urban space.
And if we may still sense the city is present in nature, overlapping with bodies of water in ways one can still smell in its oxygenated ocean air, one want to map its relation to its environment, and find environments of living species that coexist in and with it, from raven nests or occasional hawks and odd coyote, or the pleasures of the butterfly, cormorant, and heron–that we too often fail to notice and to see, as if to cut off aspects of urban livability to create the environmental dysphoria we seek to avoid.
The sense of San Francisco as surrounded by the Pacific and freshwater basins, and a confluence of saltwater and freshwater, and a terrain whose sandiness and lack of bedrock has limited its urban growth. But the clear and unmistakable sense of being on the water, or lying close to it on three sides–defines a sense of what it is like to move in its micro-climates, and indeed the rewriting of its shores, while expanded by landfill, have resisted the possible dramatic change of an elevated freeway that bound its edges. If one can look back wistfully at the redefining of its relation to land and sea, there is a sense that even if some of the shorelines around the Embarcadero have clear breakfronts, and that undersea rivers, underground shipwrecks, and some bays are overpaved–
–that the older pre-1854 exists in the ocean air that enters its shores, if the coast is fixed. For if the low structures around the shoreline reflect in large part seismic risk, there is will to remain a model urban area, unique and exemplary even in an age of globalization and climate change, not entirely low-lying, but facing significant threats from sea-level rise. The overlapping of ocean and land environments are nicely captured in the species, from shorebirds to insects to thistle to prehistoric radiolarian, that populate the surface of San Francisco in the elegantly dynamic, if static, full-color map from Nature in the City, which presses web-sources and online data into a new illustrated paper form.Continue reading