Tag Archives: city maps

The Natures of San Francisco

“A man in the city,” wrote American novelist William Gass, “has no natural thing by which to measure himself.” Gass wrote, in two thirds of the way through the last century, thinking mostly of the cities on the east coast of the United States–but not only. Since then, the measurement of man has been outsourced to numerous devices–from not only height and weight, but calorry intake, income, carbon footprint, and racial identity–Gass was, as a resident of the Midwest, aghast at the notion of nature in the city, and of the reduced relation to natural habitat: “Nothing can live and remain free where he resides but the pigeon, starling, sparrow, spider, cockroach, mouse, moth, fly and weed, and he laments the existence of even these and makes his plans to poison them,” Gass writes with acid-tinged venom of exasperation of a man of the midwest, in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. Long before Donald Trump asked where the heart of the nation’s heart lay, and railed against cities Gass did quite cuttingly with far greater acumen of the versions of nature accessible to city-dwellers, as images that replaced the nature world: “His parks are potted plants.” But the significant greenspace that long defined San Francisco and the East Bay–as well as nearby less urbanized areas–suggested both a unique sort of habitat, and a confluence of not exactly rural but open space and green corridors in an urban environment.

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

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

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

Nature in the City/2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nature in the City/2018

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

Nature in the City/2018

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

The Recent Resurgence of Manually Made Maps

A somewhat celebratory survey of the recent rage for manually designed maps affords a veritable visual smörgåsbord of aesthetic pleasure and innovative graphical design.  It is interesting and tempting to compare them to the craftsmanship of manuscript maps, a subject discussed in an early post in this blog.  But the survey oddly makes little reference to the notion of the ‘counter-map’ that resists the omnipresence of the digitized map, and the manner we have come to be immersed in the traffic and generation of digitized maps.  To be sure, these are images suitable for framing.  But the appeal is in part a knee-jerk reaction to the satellite photo or the schematic land view.

In mediating a more fully stylized map of first-hand knowledge of urban areas clearly reacts to the increased hegemony of Google Maps–add your own business here!  map your way to work!  note your favorite coffee shop or restaurant near work!–as a plastic form of collective memory.  And, of course, a data resource on which Google can draw  in its own work.  The hand-drawn map is the map stripped of metadata and made without surveying instruments.  For the self-made map re-invests the format of mapping with a vibrancy and immediacy to enliven inhabited space once more–and indeed enliven the medium of the map that seems to slip out of our grasp as it turns up on our hand-helds, and even tracks our own habits of shopping, physical movement, data usage and cel phone use.  When we see the self-made map–and we buy them because of this–on Etsy or in the house of hipsters, we re-recognize places, and subscribe to how they define our emotional relation to space in ways that many other web-based maps make us feel more alientated.

If our memories are recorded in our maps, which note centers of interest, sites of pilgrimage, historical buildings, or public parks, the processing of how we track places worldwide in Google Maps is not somehow wrong or diminished, but has the sad effect of erasing any sense of specificity.  There is a display value of the map that is diminished from its reappearance on a tablet or smart phone, but also a dramatically reduced range of semantics or iconography:  it’s hard to imagine Charles Sanders Pierce, who enjoyed his spell of work on the conventions of map making and determination of spatial coordinates for the US Geodetic Survey, dressed in a neon shirt emblazoned with a corporate logo, using his expertise to boast of the benefits of Google Maps in tutorials.  The semantics of the Google Maps project is geared not toward innovation, but streamlined synthesis and ready access, after all.

And there is something of an erosion of display-value of the digitized map approximating Walter Benjamin’s concept of aura, since the refinement of data in digitized form approximates a concept of disembodied mechanical reproduction:  the emotional tie to the map is in a sense severed, the trace of the hand absent, the physical touching of the map’s surface gone.  These maps provide the clues and signs to reconstruct a mental map of place in one’s mind’s eye, rather than synthesizing the authoritative satellite composites whose clicks release downloaded data, but draw fewer associations from synaptic ties.  The focus of enriching the map’s metadata removes any trace of the hand.

Mapmakers like the artist Jenny Sparks set out to recuperate the specificity in place that still exists and see the map as a medium to invite the viewer to explore.  While there’s a tendency to map a uniform green, Sparks’ comprehensive imaginary but copiously detailed ichnographic stark rendering of the collective architecture of elevated skyscrapers in New York in 3D, in ways that collapse street-view into a crisp crowding of built boxes.  The map, interspersed with memories and words, includes Bob Dylan on 4th Street; Beatniks in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square; and the Farmer’s Market on Astor Place, and is interactively enriched with text.   Sparks winks at the zoom function of Google in the elevated buildings  of Manhattan, each carefully drawn, and words that unpack the cornucopia of memories that the built space of the city holds, as some sort of metonymy for its residents.

 

New York map by Jenni Sparks

 

The pop-up three dimensionality of the map plays with the flattened two-dimensional view of maps, but suggests a bird’s eye view into which viewers can peer.  A few close-up details of Sparks’ self-made map of reveal how the skilled placement of words among 3-D buildings in her imagined elevated view draws you into a space linked or bound by the colored avenues of underground subway lines, peering into its so densely cluttered detail:

 

Close-up of New York map by Jenni Sparks

The closer one looks, the easier to see an image of place saturated with the visual interest that Google Maps just fail to afford, as one falls into the map in order to get to know its neighborhoods, suggesting a unique zoom-in function that the clumsy navigability of Street View only approximates:

Sparks' NYC

 

The rise of the hand-drawn map not only is a testament to design or a rebirth of a craft, but uses precepts of design to counter the vagaries of digitization Google so actively promotes, in championing the synthetic properties of a register of businesses, places, and personal routes.  I’ve written elsewhere, earlier in the year, about Becky Cooper’s recent anthology of the recent efflorescence of maps that personalize one’s relation to place, almost a collection of tools to encode personal meanings for a broader audience.  These images recuperate the aura of the map and its materiality, its hand-made status and both the physical practices of encoding place and decoding space.

Something similar is going on in how Stephen Wiltshire draws Manhattan’s skyline from memory, lovingly attending the scale, proportions, and perspective views of each of the many skyscrapers whose sight so impressed Wiltshire on his first trip out of England that he promised to move to New York “in the future,” and claimed to have already designed his Park Avenue penthouse.  Wiltshire’s retention of and fascination with urban environments has been discussed by Oliver Sacks, and is the subject of Cities (1989) or Floating Cities (1991).  But his drawings are the intuitive opposite of a map’s abstraction of place by selectivity and spatial remove.

 

new_york_panorama_banner

 

Unlike Wiltshire’s intuitive renderings of urban space, the abstraction of space of a place underlies these hand-made maps, which sketch something like a hierarchy of relevance within their totality.  There’s a huge appeal in reclaiming the map as an intimate record of place, as well as an art of encoding meanings that encourage further examination, as this “mash-up map” based on the personal experience of Shawn Watts, and might be best described as his spatial experience of a long-distance relationship, compiling the places they had been together not only in his native Montreal, but in Athens, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia, as well as Montesquieu, France, and reflects his own deep pleasure in “hiding secrets in maps” as opposed to publishing information, and a pleasure in using the map’s form to map or be the surrogate for an interior emotional state:

 

Shawn Watt's Shutterbug

 

For Watts, the density of meaning in maps becomes a way to unravel and eloquently express one’s own state of mind in public form, and to invite the viewer to partake in the pleasure of decoding its contents.

 

Hope Mapped

 

This somewhat but only partly legible hand-made silkscreen map of London comes in varied colors, populating areas with figures and words to approximate a paper cut-out hanging as much as a map:

 

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If these maps treat the map as an artwork, the trace of the hand on the map is even more present in the medium of linotype map, recalling Renaissance single-point engravings or woodblocks.  The linotype word-map Marc Webber designed of Amsterdam, a historical center or clearing-house for engraved maps, places front and center the words often absent from Google Earth or many digitized maps to use them to fashion a sculpted cityscape, whose linotype words offer something of an alternate surface to see the city in one’s mind’s eye:

 

Mark-Webber-Amsterdam-Map-120-x-100cm-Linocu-Print-on-Paper-e1331468741268

 

In Webber’s ‘map’ of Amsterdam, the written landscape becomes a site to explore and its very surface a sight to ponder; the texture of its woodblock words gains new textural richness as it is seen from different angles, from which the materiality of place-names on its linoleum-like surface increases in impact:

 

Amst Linotype-Looking at Map's Surface

 

Moving in to examine details more closely, the map assumes status as a surrogate for the world, as if the one-to-one map of which Borges dreamed or described is suddenly translated to words that substitute for things, as well as to the notion of a word-map:

 

centraal_station_wider

 

The Central Station assumes a newfound concrete prominence that transcends its place-name, without the curled Stedelijk Museum beside it, from a distorted view of this mapped space:
centraal_station_close

 

Somwhat more derivative or second-generation forms of manual mapping already exist on the market, as the sort of silkscreen word-maps popular in New York that maps the city’s neighborhoods, many of which are as much destinations as the city itself–and might provide a tourist map of realty.  If it is meant to evoke neighborhoods, it oddly recalls  real estate, even as its cartographical transcendence of space seeks to create something like a cascade of memories whose every words might serve as triggers, rooted within lived experience.

 

Manhattan word map

 

If the map seems a bit of a bare-bones realty map to the uninitiated in New York life, it is far less elegant and inviting than pictorial perspective views realtors employed of San Francisco to enjoin viewers to become settlers.

 

Vene! Vidi!  Vicet!

 

There’s far more detail in a linotype word-map of New York City.  The silkscreened map plays with the legibility with which maps use words to arrange space by surrounding Manhattan island with big, looming, isolated blocked fonts–inserting recognizable neighborhoods and cultural monuments in an what seems a more improvised mish-mosh of fonts from a printer’s tray, rather than from a pull-down menu, arranging the text to replicate what might better correspond to the place of regions within our mental geography, all the while emphasizing the extremeley crowded nature of inhabited space in New York boroughs:

 

New_york1

 

Sensitive as always to the particularity of place, Marc Webber’s quirkily detailed ‘word-map’ of Paris is more elegantly artisanal in how it fills the surface of the map, exploiting a range of fonts to arrange historical layers and tiers of class and style from the staid if impressive Opera to the lounging letters of Montparnasse, moving rangily down large streets.

Paris map by Mark Webber

The written city is more demanding of a mastery of fonts, to be sure, since it also depends on the arts of assemblage; the word maps sold in the Bay Area provide a nice counterpart since its patchwork of its complicated topography is so impressively dense, and the only area of uniformity seem the Presidio or the landfill regions of Bayview:

SF Word Map GREEN

An alternative to this sort of mapping, illuminating the micro level of street-names, graces the design of one of Upper Playground’s t-shirts, suggesting the relative size of individual streets by their prominence in a list of names, that lends currency to the idea of the wearable “map”:

Upper Playground Tees SF name map

The diversity and unity of nearby Oakland is aptly captured in this patchwork roughly-hewn word map by Oakland native Ozan Berke of its 146 neighborhoods:  the jumbled density is almost rendered illegible by crowding, but with such dexterity that the artist/mapmaker uses to capture its diversity.  The density of some neighborhoods balance the urban intensity of some areas with the far more light settlement of the hills (Montclair, Sequoia; Claremont Hills; Skyline; Joaquin Miller):

Oakland Word Map

dD_Oakland_26x18-PR_2

 

Writing the unity of the city in a sequence of place-names reconstitute the whole in a new form, as if by magical transmutation or an alchemy of type: this artist adroitly resolves the absence of the seceded largely ‘white’ village Piedmont from the city with the contribution that this town-within-a-city continues to make, writing its “name” as a neighborhood in mirror-writing, the “OMD” among the largest and most eye-catching in the map.

The declarative blending of words with place resonate with the politics of remapping popularized in the urgent signs displayed in the recent Occupy Movement outside Oakland’s downtown City Hall in Frank Ogawa Plaza to the iconography of the protest movement–mapping the helicopters that whirled overhead, but minimalizing their police surveillance to the upper corner of the map, and giving prominence to the placards that protesters held in front of City Hall–the scene at which these maps were sold:

 

Hella Occupy System Sucks

It is fitting to contrast the map to the elegance of San Francisco should be captured in the distinct media of a paper-cutting map, adapting the Chinese art of  Jianzhi (剪纸):

Paper Cut Out SF

The remove that all place cartographical practice from digital media or design is central, I would argue:  the artist reclaims their own synthesis of a unified whole as the subject of the map.  All evoke the late Saul Steinberg’s over-reproduced map of New York, famous as a poster and originally a New Yorker cover, used to suggest the limited global perspectives of its residents or the centrality of the city in a mental map of the world.  That map has its response in the recent satire of Mad magazine’s “Slimeball” mismapping mediated by and poking fun at the recent failures of Apple Maps.  The revision of the classic Steinberg view of the New Yorker’s View of the World  plays with the spate of failures that app by calling attention to the radical disconnect between even a familair place and digitally mediated map, as if to suggest the depths at which we’ve been had!

 

MAD-Magazine-NewYorker-View2-2012

 

The growth of such a range of hand-drawn maps seems to me a reclaiming of place–as well as of mapping skills–that has come to gain a special niche of its own in the craft economy.  We are discontent with the proliferation of maps from which we are increasingly alienated–and which abstract information in ways confined to, say, only three viewing preferences.

There is still a possibility of changing less the digitized reconstruction of space than the notion of what Google defines as information, of course:   and perhaps the range of hand-drawn maps suggests some ways that this might be done.  The above view of New York, or rather its prototype, makes me wonder about maps that reprioritize the structure of information imposed on the templates of Google Maps:  a map, say, that would not note the Russian Tea Room or Trump Center and Empire State, but create historical layers of Automats, bodegas, Chock Full o’ Nuts, and 5-and-10 stores or the shifting confines of invisible ethnic neighborhoods in the city, and the impact of waves of migration.  This falls back on a map of memories.  And then, after all, it probably wouldn’t be hand drawn any more.

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Filed under Aura, Charles Sanders Pierce, digitized maps, hand-drawn maps, Jenny Sparks, Jianzhi, linotype map, Marc Webber, Oliver Sacks, Saul Steinberg, Shawn Watts, Stephen Wiltshire, Street View, Walter Benjamin