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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 exasperated disdain of a man of the midwest, in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, before offering the zinger on the city-dweller: “His parks are potted plants.” We have all felt that way. It is not acid. But it is a blast of icy midwestern indignation that chills the bone.

Long before politicians railed against cities, and Donald Trump asked where the heart of the nation’s heart lay, Gass voiced a blast that rather cuttingly summoned all his American identity to scoff in a put-down that dismissed the American urban with acumen as mere versions of nature that were poor replacements for the nature world. We bristle in San Francisco at the dismissal of our built environment, or the urban assets that verticality bestow. From the seat of the significant greenspace that long defined San Francisco and the East Bay–as well as nearby less urbanized areas–we 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. Gass and his “heart” couldn’t get it, how much the heartbeats of waves pounding the shores of the city offer the beat of urban life, as much as the buildings that crowd out the green. And all his careful narrative engineering of a perspective on the bone-chilling coldness of rural isolation cannot downplay the company that the other inhabitants of the urban space prevent the symptoms of urban dysphoria that we associate with the disaffection or isolation of urban environments, more deeply psychologically rooted and threatening than even local threats of seismic disturbances or sea-level rise.

If environmental dysphoria might be assisted by the pleasure of maps, as San Francisco has gained a skyline of something like skyscrapers–

–the place of nature in the city in San Francisco, rather than on its outer bonds or beyond its walls, even before recent construction of a towering 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.

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, San Francisco, San Francisco Bay