Category Archives: San Francisco

Mapping Nature in the City

What’s left out of most maps of cities is often the most important, and the most difficult to measure–but most vital to note.  While most maps note clear edges, sharp borders, and crisp divisions to ensure their legibility, the enterprise with which the local non-profit Nature in the City dedicated itself to remapping San Francisco suggests a new relation to how data lies in relation to the viewer, or how the viewer of the map lies to its surface:  for rather than offer a form of way-finding, the map invites viewers to explore the rich palette of its surface to investigate a complexly textured relation to water, estuaries and changing shores.  The recently printed map from Nature in the City attends to mutable boundaries and surface of urban space–viewed less as a settled landscape–no buildings, streets, or even roads and highways are noted here, but as an elastic surface, extending across a deep history of time, as the recent static map made to suggest the seismic risks inherent in the San Francisco landscape printed to commemorate the 1906 earthquake offers a similar deep history–if one that is focussed on the risk of vertical building.   The editors of the Nature in the City that map staked out the fluidity of its “endless forms”-adopting the evocative phrasing by which  Darwin coined to appreciate the extended temporal space of the evolution of animal life to chart the space that exists outside its paved space, to evoke the multiple layers of habitation that unfold in any place.

The result is to extend the pedagogical function of the map as a project of public education, and learning, by shifting the relation at which data lies in the map in relation to the viewer, as much as to place a premium on its legibility:  we are invited to engage the data in a delightfully embodied way, resisting the disembodied data deposited in the overlays of most web-based maps.  The exultant result is quite data-rich, but not at all data-centric:  untethered from the constraints of data, and the pointillist authority of the pixel, we appreciate the detail of the pictorial map evoked in its surface, over which we are invited to pour with keen attention and attentiveness.  And although when the New York Times adopted the new set of USGS data on liquefaction zones that stretch across most of downtown San Francisco to map recent ambitions of vertical building in an area of sever seismic risk, the striking end-product that projected three-dimensional extrusions of each buildings, situating them as lone witnesses standing like holographic sentinels over an aerial photograph of the ruins of the 1906 earthquake, similarly suggests a temporally deep space,  if one focussed on one single incident in somewhat glibly simplified terms, to ask bluntly if the site of the earthquake has somehow forgotten the event that shaped the evolution of its urban space in permitting the violation of local building codes.

There may be a need to excavate this sense of deep space, given the limits of memory in most data-centric maps.  The richness of “deep space” in the “nature” map captures enriched perspective on place it offers viewers–orienting them to the space of its waterways, springs, watersheds, and shoreline, with an eye to how each layer of geomorphology redefined and will continued to redefine its habitats in ways that open some deep continuities over time.  The density of detail that suggests an appreciation of place as an ecosystem, rather than a point, recalls the relation to place cultivated in Rebeca Solnit’s marvelous atlases of urban sites, which as much as presenting way finding guides compile the layered human habitation of place that treat the map as a form of exploration.  As Solnit’s maps exult in the possibilities of cartographical legibility which are increasingly limited in the standardized and somewhat sanitized formats of our own servers and data maps, uniting and adapting maps, overlays, illustration and ortho-imagery of aerial photography in a particularly sensitive synthetic register of place from several perspectives, uniting terrain, watersheds, and bathymetric readings in a broad and deeply textured record of habitats.

The Nature in the City map is a site of reorientation to place, loosening its vital forms from the abstract point-based readings of GPS.   The city is mapped through a sense of perpetual movement of rocks, animals, birds, flowering plants, and insects across space in Nature in the City‘s new map of San Francisco, which ably shifts our attention from the built environment the focus of most city maps to the harder to map edges of the city, both in space and in time–extending to the past and into the future, tracing the shared space of organisms where what we see as a city exists as an ecosystem.  And the edges of San Francisco make it an especially opportune target for mapping–both from it shifting shoreline, to the fossils of deep-sea radiolaria that can be found in its rocky peaks of chert, and the more recently arrived plants or species that have been attracted by human habitats, as seal, to the migration paths of the salmon that have long swum up its streams and whales that have foraged in the kelp forests on its coasts, to the urban forests and hidden streams and waterways in the city that distinguish it from the bedrock schist of  many other metropoles.  The seismic risks we often associate with the place are not so clearly referenced as the deep history of its evolution.

The stimulating counter-cartography is both pictorially abundant and solidly based on current datasets, that allow us to discover unbuilt spaces of the city that are usually ignored in the anthropocentric maps of built spaces that are largely or entirely paved.  Most maps have great difficulty in recording what goes on at the city’s margins, and a-historically represent the city as a timeless complex of buildings, frozen in time, as if to deny their historicity, and glorify the construction of place as a human achievement.  The mapping of San Francisco is often no different in its sense of local encomia that meld the built and unbuilt as in printed Renaissance maps that champion the built environment as the true human achievement of a sanctified space–


Jacopo_de'_Barbari_-_Plan_of_Venice_-_WGA01270Jacobo de’ Barbari, VENETIE MD (1500)


–that both draw wealth from arriving ships as a mercantile center, but was also elegantly isolated from the waters that surround it, even if nourished and fed by the ships at its edges.  Even in most recent OSM maps of cities, the mapping of building heights by extrusions suggest a built panorama that displaces the natural surroundings, or presents the city dotted with bits of light flat green, with only limited attention to the non-built setting.


NYC ext.pngOpenStreetMap, Three-Dimensional Map of New York City (2015)


The new maps of San Francisco depart from the fixed hierarchical perspective on place that geographical maps afford–and the ability to survey relations from an elevated perspective, by using that data to place the viewer in far closer relation to the “nature” of place that the aerial or perspectival view defines as subject to human vision.  The disruption of this fiction of visual supremacy and coherence is what joins both the Nature in the City  maps and the image of earthquake vulnerability that were recently printed in the cutting edge visualizations by which the New York Times invited the nation to orient itself to San Francisco’s newly built vertical downtown to commemorate the 1906 eartquake.  If the supremacy of the aerial view is questioned in each, they do so in very different visual strategies of inviting viewers to explore the situating the relation of place to the natural world that such maps deprivilege in their celebration of built space.  All maps are selective, but the selection of built environment alone impoverishes our sense of place in ways both maps seem in different ways–and to different ends–to address.


1,  The maps of the built constructions of the city leave out what are often the most important things that move in its structures, lie on the edges of the urban environment, or create new edges, breaks, and interruptions within the asphalted pavement of streets–the cracks of urban topography, that’s where the light shines in.  The attention tot he far richer intersections between the open spaces that exist on the margins of buildings and in the interstices of the built environment offer a far more ethical and ethically enriched experience.

As metropoles shrink, new possibilities of creating green spaces in the city are increasingly entertained, and have brought us to see the city in new ways:  in part, the increased remove of the city from “nature,” and the exclusive focus in maps on the built environment, has led us to become aware of how much is excluded from an image of .  But the dichotomy between “nature” and “city” is perhaps preventing us from attending to how green spaces can be cultivated at the same time as periods of intense urban growth, even when cities face problems of accommodating new residents.  San Francisco has hardly shrunk–in fact, the reverse is true, with rising pressures on many neighborhoods to accommodate residents in an era of ever escalating rents, increasing numbers of evictions, as the scissors of a real estate market create a far more populated place that few can afford.  But the over-building of its downtown was suggested in a striking data-rich pictorial visualization of increase seismic risks that was printed to invited readers on the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake, in a map focussed on dangers of the density of the downtown’s vertical expansion,

Two roughly contemporaneous approaches of rendering such data–both in the recent map of vertical buildings in downtown San Francisco that commemorated the 1906 earthquake in The New York Times  and the more detailed, on the ground maps of the cultivation of existing urban habitat in San Francisco’s open spaces focus our attention on urban growth in new and provocative ways, focussing on the man-made coasts of the city to draw attention to the rich habitat it still manages to offer native species–


north beachNature in the City (2018)


–or the stretch of towers that have recently redefined its skyline–creating a new vertical expansion stretching from the Salesforce Tower to the Transamerica pyramid–whose pronounced peaks and valleys rest on what was long recognized as unstable ground.  The mash-up of a past view of the destroyed landscape flattened by offshore tremors over a hundred years ago against the current crop of skyscrapers pose the related question of how anthropocentric our sense of the possibilities of urban building reflect an almost inexplicable alienation from place, and from the seismic threats that building in a recognized liquefaction zone poses, but sees “nature” as posing a perpetual threat to the city’s built environment, rather than optimistically suggest the benefits of appreciating their complementarity.


Towers: Sales Force to TransamericaNew York Times, April 17 (2018)


Both maps attempt to sift through the vast amounts of open data to offer new forms and formats of urban engagement in concretely visual form, exploiting the vast image banks and data that are increasingly available to compose a detailed image of place in an era that demands increased environmental awareness.  If the first warns of the dangers of vertical construction in a region whose proximity to fault lines cannot be forgotten, the second tilts viewers attention from the human-built to the unbuilt spaces of San Francisco which stand, even in an age of what seems overbuilding, as a biodiversity hotspot, where then restoration as sites of animal and plant habitat coexist in the built city.  Both turn from the questions of urban growth alone, in other words, to focus our attention on the compatibility of urban growth with the place of nature that has often gone unmapped in plans for expanding a built environment.  Nature lies less the specter of fault-lines, however, in the map in the header to this post, than in the islands of open spaces that preserve corridors of wildlife whose restoration offers viable habitat within the city we so often see only as built.  

As massive amounts of open data are increasingly available about cities, the need to offer such a deep perspective on the temporal axis seems critically important in cartographic ethics, and the richness of both maps suggests the limits of using a slider bar.  For time is a crucial element omitted from the hope that data will provide a means to measure the impact of the growth of urban buildings but offer  a site for transforming civic space–both by fostering engagement in civic space, and awareness of urban ecosystems–are increasingly explored.  And what better way to do so than through elegantly designed maps?  While we’ve long drawn lines between the city and the outdoors, as cities grow to mega-regions, and loadspace overwhelms open space, the notion of such a division makes less sense.

The West begins where the pavement ends” once defined a counter-geography of open lands in the western United States.  But as paved space spreads across the nation, the ubiquity of paved ground makes it impossible to see such land cover as antithetical to nature, there seems an urgency to mapping relations between open spaces and paved lands, and to move out of a clear division between the garden and the city, if only to gain some bearings of where we stand:  is the absence of assessing the impact of paving is to some extent hampered by the training of our eyes to look at paved space on maps, which have the dangerous effect of deeply diminishing our sense of eco-literacy or ecological change?


2.  The mapping an abundance of nature in the city of San Francisco may not be inherently surprising.  But it shocks the viewer in its outsized proportions, that run against the basic decorum of the map.  Surely the surprise of a city able to contain and even cultivate the green lands–and even nurturing plants and wildlife–seems sharply removed from the rush of urban environments, the noise of cars, freeways, and rush of urban life.  For in selecting the abundance of habitats possible in an urban space, the “Nature in the City” project invites one’s eyes rest on the map–without feeling overwhelmed by the intensity of the urban environment, from the coast lines of the city, circled by pelicans, whales, salmon, harbor seals, sand dollars, shorebirds as avocets, and, within its terrain, to coyote and butterflies situates the city not only as built space, but as a geographical nexus of lived habitats that intersect–




–as a living locus of migration,–rather than orient viewers to its built space.

Pealing back the composition of this map, the confluence of backing, data sources, and support reveal the congregation of non-profits dedicated to the conservation and protection of open spaces in San Francisco, and an activist environmental tradition dedicated to documenting and preserving local “bioregions” beside its built space:  if Peter Barstow founded the non-profit in 2005, to inspire a conservation movement, the momentum of the Parks Department, Presidio trust, California Academy of Sciences, Exploratorium and San Francisco Foundation have helped promote the project of connecting map readers to the city, as the Nature Conservancy long supported drawing our attention to the relation of nature and the high rises of urban space.

Indeed, considering cities not as sequestered from nature by blankets of urban smog and limits, but sites whose carbon footprints can be reduced starts from actively fostering habitat at time when half the world’s population lives in urban or urbanized environments, which cover only 3% of the world’s surface.  The broader crisis of urban ecology led me to be immediately attracted to the sensitive condensation of wisdom and engagement of the environment in a set of pictorial maps of San Francisco.  The map’s poetics–not limited to point data, despite its relative richness, rests in shifting the readers attention toward its open spaces, appealing to a sensory reading of the environment akin to taking a walk in wilderness–as Henry David Thoreau–and inviting them to notice insects, birdcalls, or windblown trees–the very sensory characteristics often absent from a map of paved space, which privilege routes above wondering, and a rectilinear organization of space, rather than the specificities of a lived place that our maps often ignore or overlook.

The warmly colored static map reflects a deep desire to remap the city in different ways than mapping softwares allow, or the tyranny of the grid, and engage the engaging ways that they use open data to render place in distinctive ways that could be more easily inhabited.  The rich existence of habitats–and the deep view of sites of nature in space, making us look back to the rich ecosystems of what were once tidal wetlands in the very area that is now overpaved.  To be sure, the map doesn’t suggest quite the historical depth of a landscape whose grassy lands were once populated by roaming camels, zebras, and wooly mammoths, but by excavating the rich habitat suggested in the nutrient-rich lands of tidal wetlands, long reconfigured since 1850, it suggests continuities in wild lands, as much as among wildlife.




Selective foregrounding of the relations between ground surface impermeability, which in the country covers not only 4.1 million miles of paved highways–or 8.3 million lane miles–but corridors extending within miles of the roads, but land cover change that suggest a massive urban expansion, affecting 65,000 sq mi of coastal regions between 1996-2010, an area the size of the state of Florida, and 13% of the Gulf of Mexico or 15% of the southeastern United States, per the Coastal Change Analysis Program (C-CAP).  If viewers can explore the levels of ground cover change across the coastal regions–regions where landcover change has produced huge consequences of runoff in data maps, to assess the potential impact of ground cover change on coastal communities, the local attempts to balance such massive land cover change suggest ways of keeping in touch with local habitat.


3.  The question of local landcover that has restricted increasing islands of green is even apparent in the city of San Francisco, surrounded by more vital habitat most other American cities, if not nearly as green as Vancouver BC.    The massive effects of overpaving has created a habitat for cars, and its greyed out urban growth makes the land cover shifts over the century of the city’s once largely sandy terrain even if most of the development is only at low or medium intensity, save the paved downtown–

land cover SF.png

forest:high intensity:med intensiy.pngNOAA C-Cap Land Cover Classifications/ESRI

–but presents a deeply engaging surface of habitat, as much as pure pixelated space, from the casting as the shoreline as active habitat, often overlooked in records of its built space–


north beach


–to the detailed depiction of the city as a palimpsest that overflows with undetected nature, not only poppies and thistles, but underwater crustaceans (oysters–the vestige of a once thriving oyster colony in the bay, shorebirds, and fossils of invertebrates, in ways that invite us not only to remap the urban environment but to try to explore its wealth.

Centerpiece NITCNature in the City


The complex constellation of wetlands, green space, coastal currents and bathymetric lines reveals a mosaic that is nested in both high intensity and medium intensity development.  In San Francisco, open space and some stretches of bare land and forest contained in pockets of a landscape of development, that have allowed many to preserve not only remnants of five hundred indigenous plant varieties, but helped continue to nourish an ecosystem still particular to it in contrast to other cities.  If paved and cover in cities is estimated at 30-40%–35% on average for California’s capital; 30% in Portland and 24% of New York City– the increasing availability of open data and urban orthoimagery allow us to drill into the local data, and resolve questions of our relation to the built environment.

And even as impervious pavement covers a growing portion of the country, providing what the Center for Watershed Protection coyly called a “habitat for cars,” of streets, parking lots, and highways, the illustration of the survival of habitat in creeks, lakes, and open spaces, is not only ethically important.  The layers of habitat revealed in the Nature in the City –a title that reverses the privileging of paved space in most of our navigational maps–suggests the deep history of natural habitats that are only now being recovered by endangered species, and that long distinguished the unique contact with nature in the city on the Pacific.

Is it possible that the maps of paved space we rely on prevent us from wandering, and actively engaging the world with our minds?    This map allows the abilities of the saturation of sensory stimulation of the solitary walker, who,  removed from conscious acts of spatial measurement, responds to the non-built world as a tranquil space; it invites its user to discover the hidden Isle de St. Pierre that is lying in the city’s paved neighborhoods–not only Golden Gate Park, but the Presidio; Mission Bay; Bernal Heights; Inner Richmond; even Civic Center and the Western Addition–that are so often rendered as grey space on our iPhones as we move in urban space, glued to their screens, or the voices that remind us how to navigate its streets, rather than to the native flora and fauna that whose abundance are so unique to define a place.


image.pngFremontodentron/James Gaither


The paths it suggest aren’t human–if it does allow one to follow the trails marked in orange on its surface, as if to urge one to explore off the road and on foot the rich habitat that remains.  The reveries of walking are not guided itineraries, but invite us to wander in mapped space to discover how its non-built spaces afford somewhat hidden habitats, if it is not so strikingly evident an intersection between mountains, lakes, streams, and forest.


image.pngFormer monastery in St. Pierre island, Switzerland where Jean-Jacques Rousseau lived from September to December 1765, when he wrote Reveries of the Solitary Walker


As Rousseau had described the considerable enjoyment that he took on his walks in enumerating and describing the plants in flower that he saw, and moving from these detailed observations of the natural world around him in St. Pierre to what he called the “complete picture,” the images of thistles, a detailed image of urban ecology, watersheds, the range of rare breeds of magnolia, among the greatest selection of which in America live in San Francisco, California poppies, and coastal scrub and other native plants like huckleberry and California Sage encountered in the city.  But unlike Rousseau’s solitary walker who wanders in nature, the map offers a point far less rooted in the human observer.  Rather, it offers a point of departure for the ecosystem of a mosaic of over five hundred plants in the peninsula, that attract a broad range of insects, birds, and animals, extending back to a prehistoric ancient ecosystem, of significant biodiversity–and here recalls Darwin’s notion of an open and endless cartographic form to do so.  For who are the inhabitants of place anthat actually have long defined it, the maps so gently asks of its readers, humans or the longstanding trees, plants, and complex habitat that we might do well toa ctually attend to, experience, and observe?


image.pngCalifornia poppy (Eschscholzia california); tidy tips (Layia platyglossa); Gillia tricolor; Phacelia campanularia/Don Mahoney


As we use increasingly limitless maps that pan across the city, saturated with data we can never process, that allow us to pan, zoom in, zoom out, we have internalized a sense of a virtual “zooms cape” as much as a landscape, that links an array of different sorts of land cover in pixellated form.  The grid relaying satellite imagery to local servers offers limited reference points by which to assess the land cover change, as we need to to so most; the uniformity of our cartographical literacy tends to wipe out records that are rich with the past in their illusion of a completeness.

The focus on the paved areas of San Francisco are often seen as making the city a biodiversity hotspot–if one separates the ancient biodiversity of its wild past to the paved present, and contrast the contrast between the “nature” of the indigenous landscape of the peninsula against the built out urban grid, where are condemned to live on paved streets.  But the dominance of the grid in the aerial view erases the ecosystems that continue to thrive, or the ability to move from inspiration in the particular to broader reflection on the universal questions of the city’s future as a site for urban organisms.

But rather than indulge in a “before” and “after” sort of fantasy, that seems deeply historical, despite the contrast between the pre-1750 image that reveals a bucolic San Francisco’s open spaces, streams and estuaries, with the overpaved city which defined its bearing on a grid–


image.pngWild Equity Institute/Nancy Morita


—the map invites us in, to the ecological richness of a sense of deep time in the city, across the remolding of the coasts that were defined by landfill, less in terms of a fall from a state of nature–an ahistorical narrative–than an appreciation of the arrival of new plants–who can deny the pleasures of Campbell’s Magnolia, or Saucer Magnolia, the oysters introduced in the bay, or coyote that  followed humans to the city, to enjoy and appreciate the actual palimpsest of the city as it exists, not only with rich manzanita, and even palms and eucalypts, beside more native plants that offer a deep view of the mobility of nature across space, as well as the indigenous habitat, taking the abundance of “endless forms” in San Francisco more seriously scientifically.



image.pngNature in the City: Spring in San Francisco


Despite the power of the “compare and contrast” parallel images–recalling the parallel projection of pairs of slides in so many art history courses given in lecture halls that has created the DNA of many art historical arguments–the broader purchase of the expansive sort of habitat that maps onto the city in ways we rarely chart.   Instead of viewing nature in a monolithic “now you see it, now you don’t!” fashion, the constant motion of the lived city is what the pictorial map tries to bring to the surface from its built environment, offering a rich historical appreciation of place that seems particularly indebted not only to environmental thought but to Solnit’s intentional enrichment of our cartographic imagination, in constantly innovative atlases of urban space orient us to their heterogeneity, shifting compositions, and layered morphologies.  For rather than positing a “dot” that exists in one site or has strict boundaries.  Part of the beauty of the Nature in the City map is the similar sense of engagement it plays with the bounds of San Francisco county–noted on the map–that notes the way we bound space and the constant motion of life that is in it, and that maps have such a hard time calling to the fore.

The comprehensive abilities of map tiles that arrive on our devices in our pockets imply a false comprehensiveness that the Nature in the City map challenges.  If hand-holds may restrain us from interacting with the every environments they describe, and the circumscription of bound “rest areas” and parks, the combination of LiDar readings of street trees provides a detailed record of the landscape we have built, and with which animals interact, as if to restore our agency to an ecosystem by rendering details that foster what one can only call augmented eco literacy.  By integrating different data-based forms of LiDar, orthoimagery and detailed observation of the ground of a region we thought well-mapped, it shifts attention from a “habitat for cars” that continues to dominate so much of our landscape, constraining other habitats and lived space, and use open data toward open spaces within the built city, and drill beneath the overlays of the data-rich maps we are used to consult day to day.

If the mapping of the edges of built space, and the margins of man-made landscapes on which we focus and replicate in most maps, makes it hard to see the complex relations between the broader ecosystem and the built city, or the city’s constructions and its nearby faults, both maps bring us to move, mentally, to map a broader web of inter-connections and associations, one through close attention to the individual poppy, standing erect at the base of the map, as if emblematic of the fragile but persistent place of nature in the city, and the urban ecosystem, or tracing more shocking lines between the sandy soil that has made built structures more vulnerable to seismic shocks and the recent spate of vertical buildings whose rebar cores barely reach the bedrock.  Only in making such connections can we really come to think, after all, about the future of built space, and do so in less starkly oppositional terms between the grayness of the built environment and the natural world it tends to exclude.

These maps provide helpful tools for thinking about the future of cities.


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Filed under landcover change, map design, mapping nature, San Francisco, urban ecology

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”:



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








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.



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


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:


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.


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.


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