Category Archives: San Francisco

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 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.

San Francisco from the Air, 2020/Shmuel Thaler/Instagram

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.

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Filed under data visualization, environmental geography, map design, nature, San Francisco

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