Category Archives: San Francisco

The Natures of San Francisco

“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 acid-tinged venom of exasperation of a man of the midwest, in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. Long before Donald Trump asked where the heart of the nation’s heart lay, and railed against cities Gass did quite cuttingly with far greater acumen of the versions of nature accessible to city-dwellers, as images that replaced the nature world: “His parks are potted plants.” But the significant greenspace that long defined San Francisco and the East Bay–as well as nearby less urbanized areas–suggested both a unique sort of habitat, and a confluence of not exactly rural but open space and green corridors in an urban environment.

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–not to mention its greater seismic risk–have created a somewhat model urban area, unique and exemplary even in an age of globalization and climate changes, when San Francisco, if not exactly low-lying, faces significant threats from sea-level rise. But the fostering of a new relation to urban habitat has left the Bay Area and city far less insularly defined in relation to nature: if Rebecca Solnit rightly observed that the old geographers were wrong only in one–if one significant–way in describing California as an island, the significant surviving greenspace, cultivable land, and open space in the state, while under threat, extends to San Francisco and much of northern California, and significant parts of the southern coast. If the state is known for giant redwood forests and sequoia groves, strikingly significant habitats enter San Francisco’s own natural ecology.

The recalibration of the place of nature to which San Francisco has been long open has long been measured as something that is threatened and endangered in its scarcity, as paving of asphalt and concrete have dramatically changed its landcover, toward a shift to appreciate and embrace its nature, and indeed embrace the benefits of cultivating not only plants, but rather ecophilia. The celebration of an urban environment far often reduced to being mapped for seismic peril and proximity to fault-lines offers a deep picture of the specific formation and sustainment of a rather unique coastal habitat, both based on accurate data and pushing the boundaries of data visualization to excavate a rich record of–and promote a wonderfully tactile relationship to–broad concerns of ecology and environmental history.

The engaging design of the 2018 map commissioned by Nature in the City begins from a datapoint of each and every tree and green space the city offers, but fosters a productive way of looking at the urban environment, different in that it focusses far less on the pests we often seek to eliminate from our homes with urban fastidiousness, than to appreciate the range of species beside which city dwellers live, despite their frequent focus on roads of paved concrete: in a map that embraces the city at the end of the peninsula from bay to sea, the living cornucopia of habitat that spans the urban environment offers a new way to understand this urban space.

Nature in the City/2018

Although ecosystems are the most living areas of cities, they remain hidden from view on city maps of the built landscape or paved roads that define the mobilty of “urban” life.  But we often fail to orient ourselves to the extent of urban environments in most maps. And the changing vulnerability of cites to climate change and extreme weather has directed increased attention to the vulnerability and instability of urban space, in ways we are still taking stock through maps, the question of what maps best orient us to the future of the city have provoked increased attention from maps of sea-level change, to maps of vulnerability to earthquakes and seismic risks. No city has been more subject to such demands for recalibrating its lived space, perhaps, than San Francisco, the city that is most conspicuously built on several fault lines–so much that the expansive recent downtown rebuilding is cast as a “seismic trap” or a disasters waiting to happen–showing the spate of high-rise construction–

New York Times/“San Francisco’s Seismic Gamble” (April 17, 2018)

–against the backdrop of the widespread urban devastation of the 1906 earthquake on its hundred and twelfth anniversary, as if to suggest that the memory of that devastating event has receded into the past of public memory.

The grim image of a dangerous and unruly world of seismic shocks and faultiness is a contrast to the cornucopia of habitats and biodiversity of a city like San Francisco sustains. The power of the image of devastation asks incredulously how San Francisco has allowed the construction of large downtown buildings on such shaky terrain, as if the lessons of the past weren’t ever learned, lest the fears of fault-lines be forgotten, and the dangers of devastation that led to longstanding opposition to skyscrapers that have rampantly transformed New York City’s skyline be introduced.

To cast this change as local–or the charge of a local correspondent who arrived in San Francisco–is a projection of the parochial. The changes in urban skylines are nothing if not global, and the concession to building of skyline allowed the risk posed by underground fault-lines to be forgotten by the extent to which realtors have persuaded the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection to undertake a building boom despite seismic risk. The disturbing fantasia of the city destroyed by nature is no doubt an echo of the increased natural risks posed by climate change, risks of sea-level rise, and surging seas. The unharmonious relation to a world out of joint seems brilliantly condensed in the nightmarish image of urban apocalypse, echoing the struggles for global survival in early 1970s flicks like Earthquake! or 1998’s Armageddon, the benefits of cultivating a harmonious relation to nature, in response to the distance from nature in the shadows high rises cast on litter-strewn paved streets.

William Wordsworth was worried about psychically degrading nature on man of the “outrageous stimulation” city-dwellers sought–as if urban life provoked a change in the nervous constitution. A better example of the stimulation of the urban imaginary cannot be found than in the transformation of the skyline by vertical building,–even if the creation of urban canyons wasn’t what Wordsworth meant–the fear that a quest for excesses of sensory stimulation would fail to meet an “inborn inextinguishable thirst/Of rural scenes,” the question of how to compensate the losses that Wordsworth saw as the primary casualties of the build environment has found a new source of nourishment in the marriage of art and cartography that the Nature in the City project, inspired by the unique natures within San Francisco; lush parks contain live oaks, man-made lakes, sprawling botanical gardens, and mountainous natural preserves, and of integrating their mosaic of green that the ambitious 2-D project filled in of a green urban environment, using cutting-edge LiDAR technologies of tree density and canopy height to recast paved landscapes as something more like a living habitat, rather than the zoos that Gass described most city-dwellers use to be spectators of great cats from behind bars, as if to confirm their remove from a living habitat they are condemned to eroticize and confine to leisure time.

Nature in the City/2018

By placing this image of nature within the urban setting, against an image of the historical shoreline of a city whose modernization accommodated piers along its bay-facing waterfront, dramatically extended by landfill, to invite the viewer to peel back the earlier contours of its coast, as if to bring the nature of the city back into balance with its built space.

Nature in the City/2018

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

Cartographic Selectivity and the “Objectivity Question”

The comments elicited by readers of the imagined maps of Manhattan island  that I discussed in my last post were so interesting because they mistook the selective criteria of mapping for their objectivity.  The personalized maps featured in the Magazine of this past Sunday’s New York Times appropriated cartographical tools to  render personal spaces in the anonymous city, recalling the way we map the neighborhoods we live in and how they change with time.  But readers of the online version blamed them for offering limited perspectives of the city.  This was especially true of those posted by former city-dwellers who didn’t recognize the city as it existed in their own minds–or maps, and felt that their own mental maps were under-represented or neglected and just, sadly, not there.  We all have subjective maps that divide social space in our minds, that don’t line up at all with judging the accuracy or objectivity of maps.  As Becky Cooper, the curator of these maps, puts it:  “I’m really, really bad at geography. But I think it helped me to see maps more as biography.”  Cooper’s collection of maps are very different from, say, Cohen and Augustyn’s volume Maps of Manhattan that Tony Hiss introduced.  And they only gesture to what Henry James called the city’s “primal topographic curse”–its street grid–or the many neighborhoods that can be mapped and were mapped in the island.

Some blame might be assigned the limited demographic range of those invited to map their memories of the city, or map their memories of particular sites in a far more diverse city:  the selective criteria that each adopts might just as well be read as an invitation (or opportunity) to map your own image of the city, and otherwise unremarkable sites that you remember in identical cartographical outlines.  These maps transfigured existing maps of the inhabited island, mapping the island as inhabited by you, mapping individual memories, objectivity be damned and cartography full speed ahead:  rather than erase the role of the cartographer, behind the veil of objectivity, the cartographer becomes you.

The practice of selective notation of what qualify as a prominent site fits an age when AAA sells Trip Tik Guides that pride themselves as  accurate routing maps for trips, consciously designed as counterparts to comprehensive road maps of a region.  Trip Tik Guides hearken to medieval route-maps, providing a very selective guide–if a comfortingly narrow guide–to a world where we may all too often suffer from information overload:  they winnow the basics from the maps, a service that the AAA folks are proud to offer for any twelve destinations from any zip code.  AAA meets ADD, in other words:  these maps can help us decide what to pay attention to, or allow us to read a map when we might be too easily distracted by its contents to navigate effectively with them, or be tempted to stray off course by the inviting name of a region or a coastline that can’t fit our itineraries, or just help us plan an itinerary for our entire weekend trip.

Objectivity or the rhetoric of objectivity are central to the market for terrestrial maps.  But that rhetoric should not conceal that all maps are not only selective, but use selective criteria to make sense of space.  The  sharpness of contrasts of their selectivity as records that orient us to space–and the mental ties their selective criteria create in space–is a measure of the usefulness of maps as tools to think about a space that seems a dauntingly undifferentiated expanse before we’ve been there to visit and make it our own.

In the medieval maps known as “mappaemundi,” or maps that represent the world, “the religious importance of towns . . . determined their location and their prominence,” as John Gillis put it, rather than their location or size.  There seems some comfort in not plotting a sense of space, and of privileging Jerusalem’s position  in how medieval T-in-O maps, and the early printed world maps that retain the Holy City as their center, for the very reason that not many places even needed to be named other than Jerusalem in a map of global space.    The divisions of space in this 1485 world map suggests less interest in comprehensively identifying places or dividing space to scale than describing the configuration of lands around the city called “hierusa” and Holy Land, even as it claims to “lay everything before our eyes,” including the origins of our oceans, including “the sources of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean”:

 

macrobian_1483

Most of the map, including the “terra incognita” of the mythical Antipodes, is blank.  Before the increasing

population of space, terrestrial expanse was still more or less undifferentiated in 1493, when sites worthy of memory were few, and maps’ contents were not read by audiences familiar with few places or sites.

Regional identifications were few, and confined to known landmarks and major rivers, all of which are less detailed than the sons of Noah, Shem, Japheth, and Ham, who hold the planisphere by its corners, as if it were a tablecloth, or the puffed cheeks of the nine curly-headed winds who float in the intermediate frame:

 

Schedel map small

 

 

 

So we might ask what are the criteria that we use to differentiate space, as much as wonder about the accuracy with which we denote place.  The new emphasis in maps of ordering place by terrestrial coordinates of location defined a model for reading space in quantifiable or measurable terms, in which a graticule of parallels and meridians offered terms for the viewer to judge distance and scale.

The selective criteria of later maps reflected not only knowledge of toponymy, or discovery an abundance of place-names, previously unknown, but the cartographical ability to delineate meanings in space.  Successful criteria of selectivity allow maps to make space available to the viewers, and cartography provides a sort of public ‘good’ to understand public space.

Although this sort of juxtaposition would not be possible to most, precise urban surveys allow maps of provocative maps of overlays, presenting maps less as sources of information than a sort of resource to “think about” space and imagine public space, particularly advantageous to urban planners.  I had hoped to include different maps of the UC Berkeley campus, one that construed spatial relations on directions, another by mapping creeks, and the last highlighting in blue routes lanes of wheelchair accessibility.  Each differently privileges information for different readers–and offers multiple views of the very same ‘space’–one concerned with routes of access and travel, another with spatial orientation to finding the individual buildings for university classes.

 

wc accessile campus routes ucb

 

 

 

 

 

large_campus_map

 

Let’s turn to San Francisco’s space, however–more challenging to map and more recognizable, and offering examples more semantically complex.  The below maps explicitly construe relations that are hidden to observers, although with considerable spatial precision, as this visualization that performs a layover between crime, trees, and cabs in San Francisco, overlapping three data sets to  visualize a Venn diagram. This is not a simple visualization of data, but a unique topography based on selective criteria:  the concentration downtown of cabs (and hence potential witnesses or bystanders) do not lessen crime more effectively than the planting of trees; though it’s hard to see trees as an active crime-deterrent, the overlay tells us about how we construct our neighborhoods as living spaces.  Or, as the man who made the map, Shawn Allen, put it, “I’m still not sure if it’s significant, or even interesting, but here it is.

 

cabs, crimes, trees in sf.

 

 

The versatility and value of the selectivity mapping techniques depends on the readiness of the cartographer to perfect a legible iconography–as well as its ability to surprise and invite viewers to reconsider space by revisiting the socio-economic differentiation of a space that we might already daily move through.

The mapping of food access is a good case in point of how maps make space look different.  Although this map includes no toponyms or place-names, the synthesis of data into a tricolor spectrum of a data overlap creates a topography of food choices available in each neighborhood.  It poses questions of how food constitutes a neighborhood’s attraction and the constraints its inhabitants face, or consider how these choices arose.  Another map employs a color-drenched spectrum, glowing in flourescent hues that denote relative access to food markets across the city:  the spectrum dominates names of the city neighborhoods, to reveal a topography of food that underlies their divisions.

FoodMarketScore

 

One might better understand the constraints its inhabitants face by a more traditional map of retail stores–both in terms of different regions’ quality of life, as well as real public health risks.  This alternate data visualization is at a finer grain, identifying seven varieties of sites of retail food stores of different colors, with liquor and convenience stores noted by a simple dot of black.  This makes the map both more detailed and less easily readable for some, but provides a meaningful view of the city’s urban space.

 

Retail foods SF

 

 

Successfully selective criteria can help create a map that is a better public resource.  To craft these maps of neighborhoods better, we’ve even begun to push against the preference for the visual, in maps poised to break sense-based walls as well as esthetic boundaries to register an aural dimension:

 

Sound Map of Missionjpg

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Filed under Food Maps, Mapping Manhattan, San Francisco, sound maps, Stamen design, T-in-O, UC Berkeley Campus Map

Re-Mapping San Francisco

The late, great outlaw historian of cartography, J. B. Jackson, founder of Landscape and a Lone Ranger of the Berkeley hills, argued that the geography of the freeway was a dominant but rarely appreciated subject of academic study.  For Jackson argued that despite much study of maps and topography, cars coursing through space provided a new experience of space itself, and one that was poised to become the dominant way we experience the landscape.  Contrasting the space of the highway to the space of Mexica adobes, Jackson believed he identified the problem of writing about the experience of national space in the twentieth century, explored in a series of essays on the shifting perception of geography and highways, and the mapping of the new settlement of space.

Rebecca Solnit published a lovely article that might be seen as an expansion of some of Jackson’s points, but which takes a map as emblematic of the ways that commute routes suggest the dangers of such a shifting of the inhabitation of San Francisco’s public space.  For Solnit, the 2012 map that has been called “The City from the Valley” reflects the precipitous housing market of San Francisco as it makes evident the “invisible” network of a series of unmarked bus stops that ferry workers not to freedom, but to work.  The maps mark what Solnit describes as the arrival of “Google Invaders” in the city, and she sees it as concretizing the menace that an influx of new cash from Silicon Valley workers that has flooded the San Francisco real estate market, and effectively placing many of its current residents–focussing on the artists who have made the city their own–not only at a disadvantage, but as the apartments were they lived become targets of eviction.  As apartment buildings they lived in are converted from rental units to feed the insatiable demand for housing, the rising market prices of housing are met by an audience which uses a separate transit system–and renders unoriginal whatever organic community and economy Jane Jacobs saw as the basis for the American city.

The “shadow” transit network of private busses that ferry workers to extra urban employers who pay low taxes–and none to the city–tells us much about the way the Valley feeds the city, and the ways the city stands in relation to the Valley.  The mapping of transit contrasts, for example, to the apparent organic unity of the city’s transit system plotted from OpenStreetMaps, whose individually colored lines ferry workers and tourists within what seems its discreet organism:

SF TRANSIT

Solnit has recently immersed  herself in the problems of mapping San Francisco, and her piece brings together some of the familiarity with San Francisco as a residential city with an eery foreboding that San Francisco has come to symbolize a lifestyle with appeal among a breed of commuters to behemoths of Silicon Valley, who she characterizes as faceless sorts, ferried by dark-windowed private buses operated by each employer, as if Storm Troopers in suits.  The possibility of buying real estate in this city faces a squeeze generated by hugely wealthy potential residents who work outside the city, contribute minimally to its quality of life, and rely on corporate subsidized commuter buses that undermine the prospect of public transportation–and adopt a new means to use the urban infrastructure for tech workers to travel to their jobs in Silicon Valley not sharing revenues with the city.

bus trips research

Solnit included with her complex and more multi-faceted argument is captured a single map of the new private transport routes that have been introduced, as a shadow system of urban transit, by Google, Apple, and EBay:  Geoffrey A. Fowler crowed  that “A San Francisco design firm has literally drawn a map showing how the city and Silicon Valley are growing closer together through a network of private corporate buses” in The Wall Street Journal, heralding the growth of a new archipelago insulated by new commute routes that linked monied preserves.  Calling the network “the future of transit,” the routes are designated for corporate workers, rather than urban residents, and ferries them along special corridors from residences to places of work, severing connections to the places where they live without using municipal transport or brining benefits through local highway tolls.  The transit system that serves this new population of inhabitants working in the Valley reveals a sort of parallel existence of a financial network that has vampyrically sucked or absorbed the housing market, and daily moves to work at a remove from the city’s space on multiple peninsula shuttles whose opaque windows move folks to their work away from home, and funnel every increasing salaries into the housing market:  or, to reverse metaphors, the map that shows movement to and from the Valley might be seen as mapping not only the routes of busses that were not known publicly before the publication might be taken as emblematic of the influx of Silicon Valley money that increasingly feeds San Francisco’s population.

While such lines are private, and the sites of stops secret, the Stamen group used Field Papers to do an ethnographic mapping of private bus routes based on first-hand observation in order to create an alternate “atlas” from data traced by hand, and then scanned back and retraced in GIS systems like QGIS or OpenStreetMap.  The result is to publish the shadow routes that the private bus lines use to ferry workers from San Francisco to Silicon Valley.  Its designers devised the routes that these large busses with wifi and dark glass windows take to provide an elite mode of conveyance to work to contrast it to the existing transportation networks that serve the city, based on careful observations and plotting of such private bus routes based on close observations of the pathways that the buses actually take, using Field Notes to sketch the routes then assembled into a synthetic coherent system.  And they have called it “The City and The Valley” to highlight the unique relation of a city where residents increasingly go to the suburbs to work, and money from the Valley enters the city to inflate its astronomically ascendant rents.

stamen-bus-fieldpapers2

By plotting and publishing a rendering of the network of private busses against an OpenStreetMaps base-map, the exclusive commuter system could be charted in winking reference to a famous public transit system–Massimo Vignelli’s 1972 MTA map of the New York Subway, whose comprehensive Graphics Standard Manual invested something like modernity to the public transit system of New York City–that highlighted the exclusive clientele that the buses were created to attract, but imagining one would be able to similarly move between their lines in a nice conceit.

Private Bus Lines in San Francisco

The map provides a basis to define the corridors of transit for those who are looking where to buy their houses that will guarantee access to the restaurants, theater, clubs, cafes or aura of their new chosen city of residence, San Francisco, in which they have arrive, and was indeed drafted by a small design firm most of whose workers live in the Mission–and have seen the busses rather than ever taken them.  Solnit argues that the network of private busses effectively created a snare for its current inhabitants by forcing up real estate prices to unreasonable rates:  the map addresses those bus riders who work for Google, Ebay, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo and Electronic Arts, and has itself already even been used by over-eager developers in Bernal Heights to show the convenience of location to these corporate buses, and promote the ease of access to private bus lines that their neighborhood allows.

The adoption of iconography from the familiar image of its public transport, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, is telling.  Urban routes of transportation are mapped but dwarfed by the major corridors of the bright yellow stream of Google commuters,––– overflowing the commute from Lombard and Filmore to Van Ness, accompanied by a strong bright blue line of Apple workers.

The colors reference the Vignelli map, but also seem to replace or revise the familiar image of BART routes, while appropriating the schema of primary colors that designate the Colma, Richmond, Pittsburg/Bay Point, Dublin/Pleasanton and Fremont routes.  The subtle shifting of colors from the solid green, red, orange, yellow, and deep blue of BART lines seems undeniable:  the day glo colors of the Private Bus Lines map are both more hip, squeaky clean and somehow more oblivious to their urban surroundings.

system-map

Jackson theorized freeway views created a relation to space that deserved to be acknowledged, and called for buildings to respond to its landscape.  The darkened windows of private buses obliterate any relation to the landscape serve as pods that ferry highly paid workers from home to work, so that they needn’t be harried by the urban space that ostensibly surrounds them.  They are less interested in a relation to space, or the navigation of lived space, than the preparation of a speedy route of commute.

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Filed under BART, Private Transit Busses, Rebecca Solnit, San Francisco, Stamen design