Tag Archives: California

Mapping the Current State of Surveillance

The ACLU has explored the expansion of crude techniques used by the FBI in mapping American Communities–in a sort of darker side of the illuminating geography of data amassed in the US Census’ American Community Survey.  Much as Senator Jon Tester not that belatedly strove to balance his desire for “law enforcement agencies to use cutting-edge tools to catch criminals and protect our borders” with the appearance that such technologies “potentially violate the Fourth Amendment and represent a significant intrusion into the lives of thousands of Americans,” the ACLU has recently mapped a growing geography of surveilling that the FBI has created in recent years that include the very surveillance devices of dirtboxes which Senator Tester, who has quite staunchly supported citizens’ civil liberties, invited Jeh Jenson of the Homeland Security office and the Attorney General to take time to explain to the country.

Senator Tester’s belief that stricter oversight is needed stems from the “extreme lengths” to which federal agencies have so assiduously cloaked such programs in secrecy, his letter of request about the widespread use of dirtboxes that act as cellphone towers to intercept phone communications by both US Marshals and the US Drug Enforcement Agency may well have stemmed in part from the geography of a widespread surveillance program that the ACLU has started to map in the state of California, but which might reveal both the dissemination of military technologies of surveilling across the nation, and the local expansion of the new level of worldwide surveilling recently focussed on and directed mostly toward areas outside the territorial boundaries of the United States.  While we are waiting for Mssrs. Jeh and Holder to respond, the arrival of the scope of the mapping of residents of California–or even those traveling in the state–might well give pause if not raise expectations for the scope of what levels of individual surveilling will be revealed.  For the map of degrees of surveillance shows something of a microcosm of the extent of the expansion of surveilling ourselves of the very sort that Senator Tester was so rightly wary that he has promised to his best to publicize should it pose so clear a violation of the US Constitution as seems the case, in an attempt to place them under the oversight of both courts and the US Congress in order to restrict their use.

The maps of surveillance that the ACLU has taken upon themselves to provide is not only “cutting-edge” in its use of tools of surveillance but suggest the degree to which law enforcement agencies actively aspire to something along the lines of precognition of which groups might be likely to commit crimes in recent years–as if in a gambit for the foreknowledge Philip K. Dick imagined pre-cogs helping police apprehend criminals before they commit crimes in Minority Report,  but based not on the psychical foresight of “pre-cogs” so much as the statistical prediction of categories of probably cause of criminality or value of surveillance that runs against many of our legal traditions.  Such snooping for intelligence gathering recalls the sort of racial profiling former which Attorney General Eric Holder (quite rightly) once lent his voice to strongly oppose, following the 2003 DoJ “Guidance on Race”–yet which he incrementally allowed from 2008 for both national security and law enforcement alike.  Holder has hesitated to restrict or unmask such activities as an abusive expansion of surveillance over Americans.  And he has allowed investigation and surveillance of “behaviors” and “lifestyle characteristics” to be directed at American Muslim communities from New England to Northern California.

These activities have actually continued to expand dramatically over the past decade–including instances of the outright abuse of community outreach programs first initiated to build trust.  In a bizarre absorption of such outreach into the apparatus of a tentacular system of state surveillance, the monster seems to have been fed by the deep fears of the insufficiency of procuring further information,  and the need to gather it at all costs.  In ways that recall the suspension of individual human rights in the use of torture to obtain state secrets–but is directed to monitoring its populations, much as the extraction and mapping of such racial and ethnic data by the FBI’s Domestic Intelligence and Operations Guide (DIOG).

Such crude tools of mapping function by a pervasive sense and logic of invasiveness.  We are mapped in ways that lack even the logic or ethics one expects from a government service, it appears, as government services aim to create a sort of all-seeing eye for mapping populations, vacuuming up information in an almost paranoid manner.  ACLU’s Chris Soghoian has recently disclosed the existence of widespread surveillance program among US Marshalls across the state of California, including a fleet of airplanes flying from five metropolitan airports dedicated to collecting cell phone data and equipped with dirtboxes to do so–since 2007,  that parallel the NSA’s programs of surveillance, now known to be concentrated on the Southwestern border of the US by the DEAImmigration and Customs Agency, Homeland Security Agency, and FBI.

The degree of widespread and almost routine adoption of public surveillance systems by the government across the United States might be best understood as a sort of surveillance of the everyday, ranging from video surveillance, false cell phone towers, or facial recognition software that offer a range of tools to map populations to a degree never known.  The new nature of law enforcement mapping may suggest something like a desperation to agglomerate information, and a deep difficulty to hold back on abilities and technologies to extract information on individual whereabouts, and indeed to track persons where they could not be often seen.  The ability to map the invisible, and to try to intercept signals that move through the air, transcends whatever notions of mapping to which we might be habituated, cultivating new abilities of collating information that seem deeply intrusive.




Techniques of mapping populations have grown in their intrusiveness far beyond the mapping of ethnicities, initially pioneered by men like Francis Amasa Walker, that offered a statistical visualization of the demand for more information than most maps can provide.  When Walker mapped the nation’s populations from 1873, as Secretary of the Census, he offered a way of reading national space in new ways for public ends as well, potentially, for the needs of the government.  The recent mapping of ethnicity and behavior has of course augmented in detail in order to track individuals’ spatial position over time, as well as to chart patterns of individual behavior.  The compilation of such an exhaustive map of spatial position has grown for reasons of security, but meets a increasing interest in reading maps of local populations at a level of detail and crude classification renders Walker’s tools of tabulating the composition of the population something of a precedent for enlisting new technologies of surveillance used to create the appearance of safety and quell  fears–although the forms of tracking, intelligence gathering, and remote sensing must have created a broad body of map-readers whose charge it is to interpret the massive range of data that is daily culled.


alker Legend


What has perhaps most radically changed is the studied intrusiveness with which such data is culled–and the precision of ongoing surveillance that it allows by a proxy army of drones. stingray tracking devices that mimic cell phone towers to capture identifying information, cameras of automatic license plate recognition and scanners of facial recognition systems to create a state of surveillance that we are only beginning to map.

The quantities of data that such tools amass is suggested by a survey of the layers of procuring information across the state, recently issued by the ACLU to draw attention to their amassing of data without public notice, which seems to complement the large-scale infiltration of Muslim communities.  But it goes beyond them, in suggesting a mapping project that monitors daily behaviors and to target individuals by a battery of technologies which abandon and depart from tools of rendering to collate data human minds could not visualize.  These technologies cannot but change how space is experienced–and perceived–even if we lack an image of the results that such surveilling will be able to produce, since the master-map will remain inaccessible to our eyes.

The government money that is directed to maintaining an intensive level of intrusive surveillance of the everyday across the state of California alone has been mapped by the ACLU in interactive form to allow comparisons between levels of surveillance that exist in California’s communities and fifty-eight counties.  The map was appositely issued together with both a community guide to resist intrusive surveillance technologies whose use has so dramatically expanded, oriented to different technologies currently used, and its initiation of a statewide campaign against abuses of intelligence gathering that use drones (used in three counties or cities), body cameras (used in thirty-two), tools of facial recognition (used in sixteen) or video surveillance (used in sixty-one–roughly half the number of cities and counties surveyed).


Video Surveillance in CA

Highcharts/US Census


That’s right, the cost of such surveilling of the state?  Quite a bit over $18 million.

The number of states and counties using Automatic License Plate Recognition, a particularly invasive mode of monitoring populations on the road that comes at only a slightly lower cost, is similarly quite expansive (fifty-seven), suggesting the broad range of areas that are subject to surveillance in California’s largest cities and (interestingly) Central Valley:





Grouping the technologies, Attorney General Kamala Harris, the state seems strikingly well covered for less than $50 million of your tax dollars:


Grouping the Technologies



While Facial Recognition techniques are concentrated in mostly in the Southlands, it augurs a particularly invasive form of individual mapping, whose apparent concentration on questions of immigration may be destined to expand with time beyond the sixteen counties and cities where it is used currently.


Facial Recognition




Face Recognition--CNN


Although we have focussed on the technologies purchased by local police in Ferguson MI, we have done so perhaps ignored the spending spree on body cameras by local authorities across the nation.  Uncovering the considerable expenditure of some $64 million on mapping the whereabouts of potentially suspicious individuals poses a new level of government invasiveness across the state.

The ACLU has created a specially designed checklist for local governments and authorities across the country to consider, before adopting technology that we associate with the NSA.  Such advanced technologies, enlisted as useful without clear oversight practices having evolved or being instituted, or even with public notice being given, have been seem designed to create a comprehensive map that echoes, in microcosm, the state of surveillance we’ve been learning about increasingly this year.  Stingray technologies, able to track a person’s location based on cell-phone signals, are a high-precision level of mapping, already adopted in twelve counties or municipalities including by police in Oakland CA, are increasingly widely used by police throughout the United States in fifteen states, the adoption of which can be tracked interactively, if you are planning on Thanksgiving travels and would like to know.  (And it’s not only the government that is now in the business of using cellular interception technologies for the ends surveilling, we’ve been recently reminded, lest this sort of snooping only be understood as a top-down activity, rather than a widely available software for intercepting unencrypted calls long considered private by means of a radio scanner.)


Stingray USe

ACLU invites members and non-members alike to send email letters, with the subject line “Don’t Map Me or My Community,” to express their desire to help restrict such intelligence-gathering and mapping tools that are regularly based on practices of ethnic or racial profiling, and set new standards for invasiveness.  NSA has long been doing this sort of tracking worldwide, but the intrusive mapping of populations across the US has come home to roost.


Surveilling is a backformation dating from the 1960’s from “surveillance.”  Its use has, however, unsurprisingly really taken off recently , even if it has crested from about 2000, the omniscient folks at Google let us know . . . and the question that this post might pose is how much it is destined to further grow in common usage.



Leave a comment

Filed under ACLU, Homeland Security, mapping surveillance, Tools of Surveillance

Mapping an Invasive Species? Eucalyptus in Berkeley, CA

The mapping of invasive species on land or sea provides one of the clearest ways of visualizing our shifting ecosphere:  in mapping of the threat of invasive marine species to coastal ecosystems, Michelle Slosberg developed her marine map of the spread of invasive species in 2011 when an undergraduate at MIT.  She did so by mapping sites of high-risk areas of marine “invasions” along coastal waters, geo-referencing data on ballast water of ships to determine the risks of the presence of invasive species that were carried by ships from one ecosystem to another and specific to the northeastern coast of the United States.


Invasive Marine Species Mapped



The vectors of travel in ballast water are shockingly widespread, and the container ships traveling from China to across the Pacific, or along the Atlantic, increasingly import species accidentally that are rarely noticed until they propagate:  the number of harmful alien species mapped worldwide have so grown that some 84% of the world’s 282 marine ecosystems are documented to contain invasive species, and in 2008 coastal regions with harmful alien species were dense in ecoregions in the Mediterranean, in the North Sea, and along the California shore and Hawai’i.




Blue waters note areas where fewer harmful alien species were found to dwell.

The complex vectors of marine migration of alien species have only begun to be mapped, but heighten anxieties about the definition of “national waters” or marine borders, increased by shifting temperatures of ocean habitats and lend new meanings to the maelstrom of modern life:


Major Pathways of Marine Invaders

Fears of the heightened potential of geographic relocation of species by mapping points of transfer paths of airline flights offer by linking regions of similar temperate zones:


map invasive_species



The category of the “invasive” redraws spatial boundaries–and inflects taxonomic identifications–to suggest a shifting map of the natural world, combining nature and culture and resisting the stability of a fixed map.  But mapping the spread of “invasive species” often charts less an invasion in early stages of development than a process of resettlement, as in this map of wild carrots that flourished after they arrived in our national borders 250 years past, but still classified as weeds in mid-western and north-western agricultural fields:

WIld Carrots in US

The wild carrot seems relatively benign, and was introduced at about the same time as domesticated carrots to US farms.

The danger of labeling an “invasive species” by mapping its lines of incursion is to constitute a category that elided the existence of external environmental influence.  But how to chart the undeniable impact of commercial practices or climactic shifts that serve to facilitate the geographic dispersion of an ‘invasive’ species?   Indeed, mapping the species’ ‘invasive’ nature–or even the term “invasive”–effectively renders transparent the identity of the pernicious plant as a bacillus, deflecting agency from economic practices to the collective species labelled nonindigenous; such maps become distorting lenses to foreground effects of a species’ dangerous tendencies to spread over space that remove blame (or responsibility) from the economic or climactic change to locate it in the species it tracks, and indeed flatten temporal change:  maps of invasive species prove a perfect example of the strategies for the power of map-signs to reframe the experience of nature illuminated by Denis Wood and John Fels.  A classic case is the dangers of rapidly reproducing predatory lionfish through the Florida keys, which having migrated or “arrived” from warmer ocean habitats threaten to destroy local marine life, whose presence can be highlighted, removed from its environment, in a striking map of its marine spread:





This sort of cartographical compartmentalization circuitously brings us to the battle over local eucalyptus trees, conducted largely around the invasive nature of nonindigenous Tasmanian blue gums long rooted in groves in the landscape of Bay Area hills.  Invasive species of plants are nonindigenous plants that spread in uncontrolled ways to an area they have never lived and lack predators, creating environmental problems and contributing to the extinction of native species and animals.  But how long can a plant be present in an ecosystem and continue to be labelled invasive?

Although airline traffic, like routes of ships, expands the network and increases the speeds at which seeds migrate across the earth, increasing the vectors of moving invasive species by accelerating contact between regions that did not share borders, introduced species–some 50,000 now exist in the United States–is conditioned by the suitability of the environments they arrive–few of which are on the west coast, although the travel of weeds alone cost California at least $82 million per year.  The very virulence of terminology to identify plants and animals as invasive–perhaps the biological threats of a postmodern age–has conditioned how we see the landscape before our eyes.

Recent debates around the proposals to clearcut 22,000 non-native trees in Strawberry Canyon and Claremont Canyon reveal a pitched battle in the Berkeley Hills and Claremont Canyon around labelling the Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus as ‘non-native.’  Whether or not the Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus  (Eucalyptus globulus) is correctly labeled as invasive is not only a question of fact, however, but reflects how one maps the place of the towering blue gum trees in the landscape they have created and long lived–and how one maps them as signs of fire-risk.  The removal of the trees that cover a large part of the hills, especially on the west-facing hills of Berkeley and Oakland, from the environment when mapped for clear-cutting, revises their place in Bay Area landscapes, and the struggle that emerges among environmentalists and planners (or local constituent groups, since the division is not so clear) reveals a battle between landscape and map, or a naturalized landscape of welcoming groves and a firescape dotted with unwanted risks.




Many land-owners share deep-running concerns about the fire-dangers created by the branches, shaggy bark, leaves, and seed-pods, all containing highly flammable oils, and explosive proclivities of eucalyptus trees:   multiple vectors of encouraging fire-risk have led the tree to be demonized as primary culprits of the disastrous 1991 fire in the Oakland hills that destroyed so much property and claimed 27, as well as forest habitat.

The characterization of the tree as an invasive–and even as a weed–are all rooted in its change on the landscape, as much as unquantifiable expansion of fire risks.  None seem greater than the piles of as the bark that, shed, create a dry ground cover that inhibits future plant growth, and raises the specter of quickly igniting kindling that stimulate powerful underdrafts after its combustible oils ignite that would push a wildfire’s growth out of control, as updrafts push flaming bark ahead of the actual fire-front, onto the roofs of nearby houses, at the same time crown-fires spread the canopy of leaves create crown-fires among towering trees that carry the level of flames into the atmosphere.  Once their combustible oils ignite, leaves and litter are feared to fuel a raging fire, offering firewood as groves of Eucalyptus themselves explode and ignite.  Hence the fears summoned by imagined firescapes expanding by burning crowns and flaming bark thrown by winds that are provoked by those leaves’ presence.




So what are the abilities to contain this vegetation whose vigorous spread seems to obstruct the growth of other plants in the ground area they cover by displacing native plants?  Attempts to map areas for their elimination reflect the fears of property owners, recently saddled with newfound legal liability for responsible land management, and responsive to the availability of federal funds to land management in the hope that future fires would not consume the lands they manage or impinge on nearby houses, and create any suits of environmental liability.  If causing huge financial damages is hoped to be avoided, the question of legal liability seems to have been the primary factor that motivated further attention from large-scale land-owners as the University of California or regional parks.  Already by 1991, the University of California at Berkeley began to clear thousands of “invasive” eucalyptus within the purple section, as part of a larger ten-year plan to remove 25,000 trees from its property–or the grove in the below aerial view in the Claremont Canyon, in projects of “land management” directed to such a reduction of risk.


Claremont Canyon Fire Mitigation




In December 2009, these plans received a setback as FEMA denied four separate grants to the University of California, Oakland and the park system for $5 million to remove eucalyptus, pine and acacia trees from the ridges above Oakland and Berkeley, but plans to for clear-cutting some 82,000 Berkeley and Oakland trees, a quarter of which lie in the protected Claremont and Strawberry Canyons, to be followed up by 700-1400 gallons of herbicide in land belonging to Regional Parks.  Similar interventions clearing eucalyptus encouraged the large-scale project to clear-cut the eucalyptus from the hills–dramatically revising the landscape of the region to be reforested by “native” plants whose seeds may lie buried by eucalyptus litter, and would be re-introduced after careful extraction of each and every blue gum.

The hills were colonized and indeed filled by eucalyptus, and most especially the Australian import of the Tasmanian blue gums, around UC Berkeley’s campus, in Regional Parks that could be said to themselves litter the  Berkeley and Oakland hills–Tilden, Wildcat, Kennedy Grove, Anthony Chabot, Lake Chabot, Redwood, and Sibley–where the planting of eucalyptus replaced grasses and wildflowers that covered the region, as in this image of Kennedy Grove.


Kennedy Grove


Yet there is some evidence–not widely acknowledged–that cast the eucalyptus as something of a windshield whose presence in dense groves, by blocking winds, would actually fights wind-driven fire, acting both to break and interrupt the flow of the wind that bears the fire and as a screen to trap flying embers that might be in danger of spreading and starting wildfires.

The decision of UC Berkeley to once more seek needed FEMA funds of $5.6 million to fund for the clearcutting began in 2013, with hopes target an expanse of some 22,000 non-native trees from Claremont and Strawberry Canyon, in order to mitigate fire risks for residents haunted by the devastating firestorm that swept through the Oakland Hills in 1991 Oakland Hills that destroyed some 3,000 homes in the hills.  Many residents remember the Eucalyptus as fostering the rapidity with which the flames of the raging fire spread across the hills:  as “fuel-productive” trees that produce huge quantities of combustible litter, they are readily labeled high fire risks, and have few protectors.  Even though some 19,000 non-native acacia, blue gums, and Monterrey pines have already been destroyed, the destruction of the expansive grove destined to be felled and chipped would potentially end a major protective windshield, but would no doubt reduce how we quantify fire risk.  And the current thinning of Eucalyptus and other invasive species as acacia and Monterrey pine in the regional parks in the East Bay hills, despite the mobilization of a community-based Hills Conservation Network (HCN) to protect them, will cover 2,000 acres, targeting diseased and dying non-native trees as much as converting the region to grasslands, leave a forest spotted with chemically treated stumps where trees once grew.


920x920-31024x1024Paul Chin (S.F. Chronicle)/July, 2015


It was because Native Americans regularly burnt grasses to encourage their growth and spread their seeds, inhibiting the spread of trees, that the spread of eucalyptus was so extensive in the grassy hills, where they were planted to impede further local grass-fires.  The importation of the eucalyptus plant from 1850 was not only for ornamental ends, but to create fast-growing hard-wood forests was originally celebrated–if incorrectly–and presented, strange to say, as a further reduction of hazards of fire that regularly broke out in the grasslands.   They were also screens, to be sure, for further construction of residences and houses in the hills.

The arrival of the trees in the Bay Area was spawned by unsuccessful lumber schemes, designed to meet the needed infrastructure and housing materials for the region’s growing population.  When the Judson Dynamite and Powder Company first introduced the tree in the 1880s to use their canopies and dense foliage in order to hide ravages of construction and muffle sounds of explosion or construction, the trees’ arrival was greeted in local papers as offering relief from the regular grass fires “that almost every year swept over the hills,” as was argued in the Oakland Tribune–a somewhat common-sense theory that research as now revived, although the argument that they offered wood that resisted burning was openly fraudulent.   At any event, the species robustly grew on plantations of trees as Frank Havens’ land company–the Mahogany Eucalyptus and Land Company–planted some three million eucalyptus and Monterrey pine in plantations of 400-900 trees/acre across 3,000 acres in the East Bay, billing the tree as “the most valuable on the face of the globe,” offering hardwood for fences, firewood, shingles, telegraph poles or “ecclesiastical furniture.”   The tree seemed magical not only in the rapidity of their growth, quickly attained huge heights, but the multiplying of trunks from their bases so their wood could be regularly re-harvested:  yet as it was realized not to be quite so suitable for milling, and  readily cracked, Eucalypt monoculture became jungles able to suck water out of the ground, leading to calls to thin the population that crowded out native species.  As the difficulty of combatting its fires became clear, the survival of the eucalyptus became something of an economic dinosaur that had outlived schemes for the sudden profits of crops of wood.

One can map the spread of the species first planted to disguise sites of construction, mitigate disturbing sounds, or create miniature parks or groves, to a mini-industry of plantations.  But can one ever map the losses or the density of Eucalyptus trees in the Oakland hills?  One can hardly call the tree non-naive to the state, given the century-long spread of the mid-nineteenth century arrival across different micro regions and environments from coasts to valleys to foothills to dry desert:



Eucalyptus globus state-wide


The prime danger that the trees pose to fire is in shedding their foliage, particularly after colder weather:  the 1972 freeze led trees to shed some 50 tons of debris per acre, over an expanse of 3,000 acres, creating a tinderbox of bark; the shedding was cleared by federal disaster funds.  The 1990 freeze played a considerable contribution to the disastrous 1991 East Bay hills blaze which consumed over 3,300 homes, and led East Bay landowners to work to prevent risks of future fires.  Regular clearing in times of intense shedding of shaggy bark–the eucalyptus trees’ “litter”–surely poses a more economic response to the need to mitigate fire risk.

But the characterization of “match sticks loaded with freeze dried fuel” shifted the blame from dead grass, wooden houses, and vacant lots–and points the finger at the invasive tree, and particularly to question its proliferation on public lands.  Loni Hancock, then Berkeley’s mayor proposed chainsawing down thousand of these “invasive species” or “weeds,” to reduce the dangers of fire-risk–albeit while creating dangers of soil erosion and changing the habitat.  The wide planting of the tree throughout the state not only served needed screens or decorative cover, but valuable fence- or scrap-wood and firewood, given its quick growth.)




The “disorderly” trees that did not clean up for themselves were labeled “invasive” and even identified by the evocative term  “unwanted immigrants” that needed to removed from public parks and lands conceals the risks equally posed by landscaping with non-native shrubs or Monterrey pines.  Tasmanian blue gums have, no doubt because of their visual presence, coppicing, rapid growth, and towering size been seen as weeds, and also been defended as “native enough”–as residents of over a century and a half–continuing the arboreal personification and obscuring debate.  The Berkeley poet Robert Hass, longtime friend of the eucalyptus’ shaggy bark and camphor smells, got in on the fun when vaunting the blue gum as “California’s largest naturalized citizen,” aware of the serious stakes.  The debate on the trees’ status as alien immigrants set the stage for Verlyn Klinkenborg to enter the debate about “non-native” status of the blue gum eucalyptus, noting that the tree’s exclusion from a “native” land that existed over five hundred years ago relies on a pretty “imaginary snapshot of this continent taken just before European contact,” and, in omphalocentric New York-ese, questionably comparing their place in the landscape to the evolving arboreal landscape of Central Park, whose variety has long welcomed interlopers and foreigners in ways often imagined as a microcosm that reflects the urban population.   The point being that the landscape evolves.

Yet the California Native Plant Society deems “native” only species predating European contact, and the concerted efforts of public lands to strip the areas that they administer of fire risk have led to a huge investments of regional park and utilities corporations, no doubt eager to respond to insurance threats, to eradicate the blue gum from the local landscape, labeling it as a tinderbox to be uprooted.  A broad range of local authorities who administer parklands–UC Berkeley; City of Oakland; East Bay Regional Park District–have tried to secure up to $5.6 million  from FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program to mitigate fire risk by a plan to remove tens of thousands of eucalyptus.  The group of suspicious non-natives—eucalyptus, Monterey pine and acacia—would be removed in over 1,000 acres, in hopes to expand the indigenous oaks that eucalyptus first replaced.

The 2010 result was to put a mosaic of vegetation management on view:


Proposed Actions on Eucalyptus


The 2010 report proposed Hazardous Fire Risk Reduction measures largely administered by the East Bay Regional Park Development:





Or, in the most focussed picture of mitigation in the regional parks of the Oakland and Berkeley Hills:


Tilden Termination of Eucs



Yet local environmentalists’ have resisted a plan to begin with clear-cutting of Eucalyptus trees, followed by annual application of herbicides, and then five to seven years of pulling seedlings–not only for posing risks to local endangered wildlife, from the whipsnake or California red legged frog, as members of the Hills Conservation Network argue, but may well stand to create even greater fire risks.

Yet the classification of the tree as “non-natives” is to some extent laughable–to judge by the crude state-wide choropleth of their spread, which is in many senses a basic counter-map to the final solution of arboreal demolition.  Indeed, the demand for their clear-cutting or selective clearing in residential areas reflects a desire to mitigate risks to expensive property, and no doubt lower insurance rates, as much as it reflects a direct tie between the growing risk of fires in California in an age of rising temperatures:


Eucalyptus globus state-wide


Elwood Cooper, no mere booster of Californian wildlife, wrote in his 1876 Forest Culture and Eucalyptus Trees, distinguished the value of the trees by noting that they “possess qualities which place it transcendentally above all other plants; . . . rendering localities healthy in which to sleep a single night was almost certain death,” placing on their doorsteps credit for making healthy the environment. Recent recent attack on these non-natives for increasing fire-risk on account of their contribution of dry leaves–or “litter”–to the underbrush may contribute to fires spread by their oil-rich tree crowns and highly flammable litters, but contrast to the majesty of the tree that was once seen as a basis for encouraging local forests.




It is hard to imagine the loss of the trees from the landscape, whose branches hold birds’ nests and whose flowers feed hummingbirds and monarch butterflies, whose groves smell “of camphor and the fog-soaked earth,” in Robert Hass’s organic poetics, themselves word maps of the physical experience of the Bay Area he loves.

Leave a comment

Filed under alien species, EBMUD, ecosystems, eucalyptus, FEMA, invasive species, mapping environmental risk, mapping invasive species, mitigating environmental risk, University of California

The Density and Habitability of Urban Space

How to map the compelling question of urban livability?

The journalist, blogger and economist Paul Krugman sought to qualify exactly which pressures drive the costs of urban housing recently in “Conscience of  a Liberal.”   Krugman qualified how population density effects urban housing prices, by noting the importance of mapping density in new ways.  Scarcity of space or land constraints might seem to shape prices from a point of view of supply and demand, but Krugman argued that we can attend to a new urban geography by looking at aggregate rather than standard population density alone:  in response to Noah Smith’s argument population density was less relevant than proximity to economic centers, he argued that the rise in the prices of extra-urban areas across America, and “hiving off” of exurban areas in such cities as Phoenix or Houston, where the relative scarcity of land does not determine prices and population density in cities’ centers can change independently from the prices on its peripheries.  Following  Richard Florida, the mapping of “population-weighted density” of census tracts that can capture the way that Americans tend to be moving toward less densely weighted areas of habitation, even if the population, nation-wide, is rising.  (While population rose 10% in the US 2000-2010, it also spread out across urban areas, which became less densely weighted over time.)

This new picture of the United States that has cultivated a “lifestyle” of a less dense mode of living seems to be based on the increased valorization of “inhabitability” as a metric for home ownership in ways that are for more widespread than the movement to the suburbs in the 1970s:  we are all moving toward less weighted centers of population.  The hiving off of new suburban regions on the map that Krugman describes have not only pumped-up real estate is a reaction, in part, of voting with one’s feet against the over-density of urban space.  To be sure, although New York City property values are high, if we all lived in at the amazing density of New York City, the entire 7 billion inhabitants of the globe could fit into a geographic space similar to Colorado–a state which currently has a low density in much of its expanse, but whose pockets of population density are interestingly clustered close to adjoining regions of medium density.


One thinks of the much-circulated infographic, repopulating the world within the United States at the density of global metropoles, that suggests the exceeding density that urban cities have come to acquire, and the continued density that a city such as New York or Paris holds, in comparison to San Fransisco or Houston:


The variation of cities suggests some reasons for, say, the greater “livability” of certain places, as well as the distinct nature of the urban experience in a broad selection of cities across the world.

So what does this “hiving off”–distinct from suburbanization, as it suggests an exurban experience even outside of cities with relatively low population density, entail?  The 1970s phenomenon of widespread suburbanization, allowed by the creation of major highways and arterials that fed by commutes to urban centers like New York or Los Angeles, which served as an endangering withdrawal from many public schools in cities and urban centers, reacted to the intense pace of urban growth and in-migration.  Rather than based on suburban homes, the hiving off of communities echoed a similar demand for “habitability,” but was now about creating new spaces where exurban communities could be created, and how we could use the concept of aggregate density to measure them.

Krugman offered a more specific updating of James Kunstler’s compelling critique of urban sprawl.  when it was launched in the 1993, Kunstler decried the unwarranted expansion of suburban housing and malls in a manifesto that responded to America of the late 1980s, The Geography of Nowhere, as “the greatest misallocation of resources the world has ever known”–what he called “dead spaces” that he saw as produced by the new attitudes to space that the automobile allowed, stripping vitality from urban centers, and creating the rise of quasi-spaces of strip malls as suburban heterotopia, displaced amusement parks of purchasing, lined with unproductive spaces of parking lots.  This partly architectural perversion of lived space, for Kunstler, led to an evacuation of vitality.  Krugman focusses rather on the place that “habitability” has gained among the economic forces that shape the prices of urban homes:  his argument begs to be mapped, or graphically modeled as well as understood by statistical indices.

Economic thought might be playing catch up with cartographical modeling here:  the critical mapping of density, after all, began right after the 1870 census, when Francis Amasa Walker, superintendent of the census, offered a new model for mapping the population density of the nation not according to county, or electoral districts, but according to the actual contours by which the citizenry inhabited space:  dividing each square mile into its relative density of inhabitants, Walker distinguished those zones with less than 5 inhabitants/sq. mile from those with 5-15, 15-40, 40-75, 75-125, and over 125 inhabitants/sq. mile in 1872, and from that year undertook a number of projects with congressional funding that mapped that distribution against wealth  per capita, to create the first map to record the distribution of wealth in the nation’s geographic space, revealing the dynamics of income distribution along spatial axes–in what Susan Schulten aptly described as the nation’s first example of an infographic.  (Never one to not consider the uses of mapping populations, he created similar maps for the US Congress that mapped population density against disease, illiteracy, public debt, ethnic groups, and the birthrate.)

Desnity of Population [of US]

Such a clear figuration of density does not correspond to actual urban areas, given the former density of rural populations–or have fine enough grain to distinguish property value in them.  But it roughly reflects property values in the nation.  But its generalization of density across each county provides a useful metric to understand variations in the generation of income, tax revenues, and birth rates.  While a model of density-independent population growth may be applicable to animals–plants, insects, mammals, and other seasonally reproducing species, population growth is rarely independent from density in human populations:  and with the increasing segregation of age cohorts in contemporary America–and the graying of some cities, and lower age-level of others, the metrics of growth are especially not uniform.

A more contemporary, but less statistically exacting, version of the infographic–stated in the bluntness of th modern infographic, might provide the following portrait of the relative density of individual states in the union:

sq kilometer

At a finer grain, we find a density map as the following, which provides far more refined detail:

specialreports_2edb.population density usa

And we can zoom in for density of regions, in ways that provide a clearer picture of the Southwestern states in terms of how they broke down by counties, over time, around metropoles:


To be fair, such a general level of density is not that relevant to the points that Krugman addresses in this specific issue, where he advocates the need for moving away from such generalizations of state-wide population densities, which are less meaningful for microeconomic questions, to examine the organization of the city as a unit in ways that will allow us to distinguish the changing character and economics of urban areas.  Krugman considers how changes in urban geography across the US reflect a new paradigm or model of population density, he asks us to consider new tools to map where ‘average’ Americans live by the “weighted” density of population distributions similar to the sort of maps Walker first innovated, and focus attention on the relative density of different zones not of the nation but individual urban areas.

He argued that overall ‘density’ means less today than ‘aggregate density‘ or the relative density of neighborhoods or sectors of new urban growth, and used this as a dynamic structure to  map population density according to weighted density to better  understand how the “average” American lives.   He does so to offer a critique or assessment of how his fellow-economist Bill McBride suggested attending to population density as they were correlated with housing costs his competing finance blog, Calculated Risk.  Does overall ‘density’ mean less as a measure of housing cost, Krugman wonders, than ‘aggregate density’ (or relative density) within selective regions of cities?

Like Paul Krugman, I would question the meaning of density as an index of value, but I would suggest we need to develop tools to understand the dynamics of density that involve a more fuzzy or less quantifiable variable of habitability, which I would argue if less easily quantifiable becomes more evident in maps.   And in the remainder of this post, I’d like to show how maps offer a measure of the fuzzy value of ‘habitability’ as well as its inverse, a perceptions of ‘uninhabitability,’ might be loosely understood as a way to map the increase or the radical diminishing of property values rather than density alone–or understandings of how density drives demand.

We might  use these maps to include other variables that shape density, and use maps  to do so.  The question of how we can try to map habitability, both in terms of access to open spaces, access to markets, and attractive environments, might create an even better index of value.  In San Francisco, for example, where property rates have risen dramatically in the past several years, and whose neighborhoods are confined to a small area of land:  Oakland is itself much less dense, if also confined by similar topographic limitations, notably the mountains:  but four of the ten most expensive housing markets in the country, including Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco, and Marin, are in the Bay area, according to the recent March 2013 Report of the National Low Income Housing Coalition–and in the state that requires the greatest hourly wage to rent a two-bedroom apartment.

out of reach hourly wage per two bedroom

To be sure, the variations of real estate and population in a state like California are closely tied, given the huge variations of density across the state.


Yet the profound variations in the Bay Area, to take one example that is clotted with a red of high density, indicates profoundly striking differences in desirability:


And such dramatically differing variations across the region seem to be distorted by the demand for living near a not-densely populated area such as Silicon Valley, where real estate prices are suggested in this Kwelia map of 2012 which illustrates the relative geographic distribution according to median incomes–and suggests the very real distortions in real estate that can occur independently of actual or weighted density.

screen shot 2014-01-17 at 9-2.14.13 am.pngKwelia

Whereas the debate between the economists turned around the measure of density, it’s unclear why in an age of complex data visualization Krugman omits variables beyond density or to map determinants of urban spaces.  As an economist is wont, Krugman tends to confine himself to contrasting the relative value of alternative models of housing markets in urban space.  If we accept the model of scarcity as the motor of rapidly escalating real estate prices, it’s hard to explain the rise of attraction to less densely populated urban areas in urban areas, however, or the re-use of less inhabited areas as new areas of density.  If we might assume rising population means rising housing costs, as Smith has since noted in an update to his post, transit policy and presumably other public policy issues related to urban infrastructure can influence or shape housing costs–issues that introduce habitability as much as density as an influence on housing costs.

If we weigh models of density and populated-weighted density as models of urban environments, population-weighted density might help explain the social geography of urban spaces at a time when average American increasingly live in somewhat less dense neighborhood:  during the first decade of the century, population has broadly “spread out within metropolitan areas” and brought a “hiving off” from cities and led many cities to abandon the model of a vital urban core is often associated with  “quality of life.”   But the generic term does not reflect how urban space becomes mapped as habitable to different populations and demographics:  for just as cities are mapped in new ways by public projects of urban infrastructure, people map areas of settlement around the contours of urban space by preferring zones,  in turn attracting further interest in them.  An interesting liberal strain of response to Krugman’s post bemoans the end of Jane Jacob’s model of the city as constituted by local communities and the positive sense she gave density as causes of the community and vibrancy of individual neighborhoods, which she valued as the basis for urban life.  (Many also critiqued his argument as not acknowledging the economic models of different cities, from how the absence of economic vitality thins cities like Detroit to how hi-tech creates a new geography of work.)  But in mapping population-weighted density only in numeric terms, Krugman may ignore the appeal that the neighborhood–as much as geographic location–has on real estate, and the increasing flexibility with which a neighborhood–even of different but overlapping socioeconomic backgrounds among their residents–is redefined in particularly flexible ways.

Less attention is paid in both models  to the constraints by which people map their own living spaces, even when constrained by a city’s complex and often unfair geography.  Parts of urban environments are recast as more habitable based on different criteria, often in response to the made or ‘created’ geography of the city–or fail to be recast in habitable terms.  The growth of desirable land in Los Angeles responds to the constraints with which freeways have sculpted urban space, and indeed in ways bound by the 405 in a sort of deterministic way, and the creation of the former Cypress Freeway shaped–and in cases destroyed communities in Oakland, California.  Vice versa, patterns of urban settlement and housing prices helped the investment in an urban infrastructure as transportation in Boston or New York, because they led populations to map their lives in urban space.

Does density alone shape market prices?  In a sense, yes:  but density is a reflection of deeper indices that one might better term ‘habitability’ given their manifold causes and considerable variations.  Changes in workplace practices and locations encourage a shifting relation to the urban space, as more people work on-line, of course, and live and work in isolated archipelagos around cities:  the vitality of neighborhoods that Jacobs celebrated has become far less important as a unit of economic meaning with increased geographic mobility and more dispersive work environments, including telecommuting. As a result, the framing of a debate between population-weighted density or the availability of “space” as determining land value omits the notions of habitability shape urban space: rising land prices in LA, for example, reflect the shifting attitudes to space created by a system of freeways that shaped land values–rather than scarcity–and defined a map of urban settlement outside corridors of transport that, more than mountains, shape Los Angeles neighborhoods.

This reflects the desire for a way to maps how areas become understood as habitable:  and in Oakland, where property values have risen not only in response to the rising rents in SF, but as the city has been defining new notions of habitability by restaurants, urban gardens, and public spaces like farmers’ markets.  By trying to identify a model for urban settlement, geography of population density becomes a stick of measurement rather than the remaking of urban spaces:  multiple complex constraints on the habitability of urban environments limit the development of urban land values.  In  the recent recouping of housing prices in the Bay Area, for example, areas of recent price increases were mapped based on data from Zillow.com–and metadata from Google Maps–to find a considerable recuperation of costs in San Francisco and Fremont alike, despite their quite different density, and a mild recuperation in many of the low-density areas of Berkeley and Oakland, as is rendered evident in the regions of light rose coloration below.


Bay Area Property Map

Conversely, if much of Richmond, Brentwood, Antioch, Union City and Hayward remain selling at a far lower price than in the prior boom, many Oakland properties sell at a brisk price, and hi-tech areas like Mountain View–and some areas near Walnut Creek–are positively booming.  To some extent this has to do with access to economic centers:  the less populated but also less desired and more removed Daly City is nowhere near recovering its boom prices, while Mountain View has surpassed boom prices.  But the widespread recovery speaks to issues of habitability, as much as density.

As a counterfactual, let’s look at some actual urban environments where the question of habitability responded to a striking lack of investment in creating a habitable urban space with adequate infrastructure or access to green space–one crucial measure of habitability.  Consider, for example, the considerable distances at which less valuable property lie from green spaces or urban parks in Los Angeles, creating an endemic that led the “LA Streets” Blog Santa to bring the city more green spaces last Christmas.  (African American neighborhoods enjoy .8 acres per thousand people, in contrast to the recommended 10 acres per thousand inhabitants, or the median 6.8 in high density American cities.)  Pink regions here map a distance from park exceeding the LA average, most of which are concentrated away from the shoreline or surrounding national forest:

Access to Parks in Los Angeles


The value of land responds to how we map urban spaces as habitable often shapes property values, as much as the questions of the availability of space. Something like the new Stamen map that focusses on the readability of mapped space by watercolor tiles, pioneered by Zach Watson, provides a new resource to look at urban space to analyze questions of habitability without being distracted by data overload, in what was intended as a visually simpler and pleasurable alternative to the tedium of Google Maps, provides a manner to differentiate neighborhoods in San Francisco–albeit a region whose high real estate prices don’t need much explaining:


SF Greenspace Stamen


Krugman provoked an interesting comment that advances in GIS could provide new tools to include aggregate densities in urban spaces.  Indeed, working with the above Stamen map, or with a time-lapse model of aggregation might provide tools to show the shifts in how space became ‘habitable’ or worthy of inhabitation.  These tools offer the ability to map a new geography of work:  one could model of the shifts in economic redistribution of wealth in urban space, or relative distance of residents to workspace, that might map the relation of neighborhoods to space beyond their relative income or real estate costs.

Flexible GIS models might also help reveal the different maps people create within a city as an environment in powerful ways.  In juxtaposing the alternatives between two models of urban life–the metric of population growth, which  creates competition for limited resources of land in a somewhat Malthusian fashion, or population density, or urban settlement informed by how agglomerations understood in terms of population-weighted density shape demand in extra-urban spaces or urban peripheries for land that changes land prices–the mutable map of the urban fabric is either dramatically oversimplified or ignored.   When land is constrained, the first train of thought goes, rising populations increase the price of land faster than inflation; the questions of how people map land as habitable–and desirable–more informs the second proposition, pointing to the rise of “edge-cities” on extra-urban space that become desired centers of population.

That choice between population and weighted density seems a bit artificial,  because both are abstracted from how people make concepts of neighborhoods out of open space–by mapping it as their own, or by not being able to do so.  Today, New York has of course become the model of a high “population-weighted density” city, based on the average land density of its inhabitants, or the relative density of its populated areas.   But whereas in the 1970s suburbia gained value in the 1970s around greater New York, leading them to abandon a city that became defined as less “habitable,” and to define preserves away from commercial activity, we now value habitability as a relation to a neighborhood, or something like one.

The remapping of the urban core as economically vital paralleled a shift in the understanding of its “inhabitability”– mapping not only its density, but what makes it conducive to habitation or less appealing as a living space.  Could we map the shifts in aggregate population density to investigate patterns of land value, to examine the rise of prices in New York and in regions of uneven density of population spread out within large cities?  One point here would be to chart the spaces made and created in individual cities over time that informed property prices by creating new models of the habitability of the same spaces and of urban life.   To do so, I’ll use maps to illuminate shifting attitudes to space.

Before considering urban geographies, it’s interesting to map a distribution of the predominance of bars to grocery stores in a cute map that I can’t resist–with surprising concentration, the number of bars exceeded grocery stores in urban areas clustered in the Midwest and parts of New England, and areas of the plain states and spots of the Southwest.  It would be interesting to pursue this map into urban areas–does the prevalence of bars over grocery stores suggest a greater role in serving neighborhoods, or a preference for the social function that bars serve in specific urban or rural regions?

Grocery Stores v. Bars

The map may tell us about a culture of sociability–in the colder midwestern north, and New England, bars are important sites of aggregation.  The map speaks about how folks create habitability in urban space in response to different constraints.  We can use this model, more importantly, and this will be the end of the post, to expand the criteria by which we look at urban spaces beyond density that can help raise new questions about the relationships between property value and urban milieu.

Others might reveal the increased livability of different spaces within the city, as this map of the green spaces in New York City, perhaps the city that possesses the densest urban core, in ways that map urban resettlement outside the region of its greatest densities by the foundation of community gardens and urban agriculture, discussed in an earlier post, which notes those places that accept volunteers by blue dots:


Community Gardens NYC region


The map reveals not only an expanding urban green-space, but the re-envisioning of densely occupied areas as of more livable urban spaces, in ways that mapping population density or aggregate density alone don’t suggest.

Still other maps of urban environments reveal the constraints on the very maps we make of urban space that are so central to housing prices–a process perhaps missing from Krugman’s discussion of two attitudes to the analysis of land-value.    Maps are a central tools of real estate to attract attention to  property and shape urban space into neighborhoods, and fit notions of habitability into existing spaces.  Many structures define these spaces of habitability, not necessarily understood in terms of weighted density alone.  Los Angeles is not, as Krugman’s piece suggests,  “hemmed in” by mountains that constrain city’s sprawl; its low density seems to run out to the Valleys, as freeways define the urban space and create  anew map of property values and more habitable and valuable land.  It almost seems land properties rise in their remove from the freeway, where the relation of land to freeway is more easily mapped, much as much of the value of land in Santa Monica seems to recede in value from the Pacific. Freeways or overpasses divide urban space and help structure maps of habitability; freeways of easy commute may, conversely, increase the value of hived off aggregations of “edge” cities, by improving connectedness to other environments.

We can map moreover habitability in different ways.  Cities like Oakland CA offer a sort of counter-example of a space where habitability set off a rapid rise of real estate values and the price of land:  there is no clear confine to urban space, but the spread of restaurants, green spaces, farmers’ markets, urban farms, and open public spaces fashioned a new notion of the inhabitability of distinct areas of its urban space in successive districts, earlier shunned, even when considerable crime continues to plague nearby parts of the city and the city hears the screaming sirens of police racing to the victim or scene of a homicide.  (If some would say real estate prices derive from the flight from the property values of San Francisco, that only seems to be the icing on the cake.)

The value of land is not a simple calculus of limited supply, but of the mapping of urban space–first taken up by real estate agents who sculpted Oakland’s neighborhoods, but informed first by a shifting sense of the habitability of the land, whether in the middle of an old port-city or the more trendy area of the Temescal.  Demographics prefer different models of habitability; the age of the population of Oakland seems exceptionally low, for example, as they might first define the city as more habitable.  The shift of populations toward less densely settled urban areas reflects this shift in how we have come to map habitability, one might say, even if aggregates of population density reflect land value; without numerical data to show for it, I  offer that the value of land reflects the relative scarcity of habitable areas in urban space, but also shifts as notions of habitability emerge.  In New York, the premium on habitability drives the growth of new neighborhoods, from the allure of Soho or the East Village to Brooklyn Heights as more habitable than more crowded urban environments.  Imaginative ways to map public spaces create habitability in urban regions; the lack of parks in Los Angeles fuels a somewhat undifferentiated urban expansion and settlement.

But there are huge obstacles to mapping the habitability of space in the very regions and cities that habitability might be encouraged, as we find habitability to become, in much of California, the preserve of the wealthier few, and urban spaces constrained by barriers to their physical improvement.  Take a simple map of the distribution of parks in the state, and reveals radical differences between the parks/inhabitants: the polemic map ties park-poor areas to income, contrasting darker greens to show greater availability of acreage/thousand inhabitants in the San Francisco than Los Angeles areas:




Income variations allow the possibility of a flexible and inventive relation to maps of habitable space–as the clumping together in aggregates or scarcity of desired urban lands reveals.   As we become more movable in our work, and develop a more flexible notion to workspace, this shifts the relations of local routines of personal and work space, and there is considerable choice about the spaces where we live:  workspace is less dense in different cities, to be sure, as silicon valley or other IT belts like the Research Triangle around Durham NC, but the premium on the flexibility of defining one’s own model of habitability seems to determine the new urban geography Krugman describes.  Further anecdotal evidence, beyond the United States but in North America, might point to the shifting geography in urban Ottawa, where the residential Glebe was distinguished by rising residential real estate.   Within the shifting infrastructural map of the city, one maps one’s own personal space.  Indeed, the bizarre settling of San Francisco’s sky-rocketing real estate prices is partly driven by the arrival of highly paid executives working in Silicon Valley, shuttled to their work in select buses whose routes allow them to select an alternative to public transit, as discussed in an earlier post.  The paths of flights into San Diego, to use another example, skirt more select residential areas like Mission Bay, create a zone marred by the rumble and whine of overhead airplanes.  And the organization of urban space no longer reflects how we map and understand urban geographies as habitable–or come to dismiss them as simply uninhabitable and worth less.

Only by balancing what maps tell us about how an urban region gains value for its habitability can we effectively broaden the discussion and use maps to measure inhabitability against degrees of uninhabitability and will we be able to extend the critical evaluation of value beyond questions of supply and demand.

Leave a comment

Filed under human geography, infographic, mapping density, Mapping Park Poor Neighborhoods, Oakland CA, relative density, urban geography, urban growth, Urban Livability