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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.” But self-measurement is increasingly difficult to gauge in an age of global warming, and increased catastrophic weather. We are with less of a rudder than in the past. When Gass wrote, two thirds of the way through the last century, he was describing cities on the east coast of the United States with the wry bitter logic of a longtime midwesterner.

But the nature of San Francisco is particularly striking, and has long been tried to be mapped. If measurement has been outsourced to numerous devices–from not only height and weight, but caloric intake, income, carbon footprint, and racial identity, the mapping of the proximity between nature and the city in the Bay Area is concentrated in San Francisco, bound by beaches, hills, and habitat. As a Midwesterner, Gass was aghast at the notion of nature in the city, and of the reduced relation to nature in urban life: “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 specificity, winding up to the final punch: “His parks are potted plants.” The reservoirs of alleged rurality and green that interrupt the urban footprint of San Francisco are often overlooked. But the revaluation of the new relations of urban and rural that have animated many west coast cities has created a demand to reconsider and to remap relations of “urban” and “rural” that were once clear dichotomies, pushed by the increased absence of open spaces that once surrounded cities like Portland, Seattle, or San Francisco. Indeed, if the Golden Gate Natural Recreational Area, a Marin-based park that hosts two thousand plant and animal species over nineteen distinct ecosystems shares the largest boundary with an urban environment of any national park, the focus on conservation that brought together what has been heralded as a “new urban park” was created by cobbling together public and private lands that redefined the value and relation of the constellation of interconnected parks to urban space that presents a compelling model for a new urban park” outside of the growing city, and a new relation of nature to the city than Gass experienced.

Awareness of the biophilic needs of urban inhabitants for contact with urban greenspace, that has prompted active redesign urban environments in an overpaved world, responding to evidence greenspace reduce stress and mental illness, mapping the presence of nature in the city cannot be reduced to parks. As our contact with nature and the natural is endangered or at risk of deterioration, the perspectives that open space around San Francisco offer on the ravines of built space make the case for remapping urban space and open space a Nature in the City has worked to do, focussing not on human settlement of built space, but privileging the inversion of how habitats intermingle with the built environment of a city like San Francisco, shifting a tacit prioritization implicit in all maps. San Francisco is, of course, the beneficiary of the huge area of the nearby Delta, through which over 40% of run-off from the Sierras have long flown, bringing with them sediment from the mountains that flows to the sea, creating alluvial deposits that have made it a nexus for fifty mammal and fish species, from salmon to striped bass to sturgeon to steelhead trout and endangered smelt, and a stop on the Pacific flyaway from Canadian geese to sandhill cranes, and a habitat for over two hundred bird species, twenty reptiles and amphibians, attracted by sediment-rich marshes of the watershed’s historic wetlands and open lands. Can we map their presence in the city nearby? Or do we not have to do so better than in the past?

1. In ways that invite the recession of the “city”–just barely visible as a skyline a full three quarters across the view form Loma Alta Open space, in Marin–the Nature in the City map inverts the equation, by asking us to view the city in its relation to surrounding habitat that still presents a living ecosystem that enters the city’s paved streets.

San Rafael Bridge and San Francisco Skyline Seen from Loma Alta Open Space, Marin CA

Long before politicians railed against cities, asking where the heart of the nation’s heart lay, this icy put-down summoned the identity of the interior to dismiss the paltriness of urban parks as poor replacements for the nature world. But the if the built centers of San Francisco have grown in recent years–both in its downtown skyline and neighboring Oakland–as any departing airplane can see–the maps we make of our changing cities demand we attend to how they invite us to explore and navigate urban space in all its dimensions–including the role of the city as an ecosystem, as much as a built structure.

We bristle in San Francisco at the dismissal of our built environment, or verticality as a measure of cosmopolitan urbanism. From the seat of the departing plane, one might forget that the city not only borders significant greenspace across the Bay, but that San Francisco and the East Bay are living habitats–an area we who live there are more sensitive as a site of potential loss, whose greenspace demands preservation as an ecology that many city dwellers often fail to note. As more mindful outfits like the Nature Conservancy seek to preserve a public consciousness of the need to mitigate incursions of urban areas into the urban greenspace, we might ask not only how to convince public planners and developers to be more conscious of such incursions–and the serious problems that they create for fire, as well as compromising ecology and habitat. While the most rigorous conservation plan. based on the Bay Area “Greenprint”–a model soon to be expanded to all California–suggests the proximity of critiical ecosystems in need of protection in their “Mitigation Wizard” that takes a base map of sensitive species’ habitat–

–the intersection it creates between habitat and potential extra-urban growth is designed to better help us negotiate the futures that the Bay Area might meet. Tracking the density of species in critical ecosystems lying in proximity to the Bay Area’s urban agglomeration, different levels or criteria of conservation can be entered against current natural science observations of sensitive habitats of up to one hundred species around San Francisco’s wetlands, forests, and grasslands that can create a dialogue between areas ecological sensitivity in close proximity to urban growth. The hope is to offer a baseline for mitigating the effects of urban growth–and to elevate those concerns to a level comparable to the attention to property that is increasingly seen as vulnerable to sea-level rise, the aridity, fire risk or soil subsidence as consequences of warming and temperature rise, acknowledging local ecosystem integrity as consequences of anthropogenic change.

2. There is a need for pictorial maps to inspire us to orient ourselves to habitat in urban space. We who live in the city are more accustomed to see a unique sort of habitat, and a confluence of not exactly rural but open space and green corridors in an urban environment. Even as vertical crowding may eclipse its green, the urban ecosystems they nourish prevent the symptoms of urban dysphoria associated with built environments, and notwithstanding threats of seismic disturbance or sea-level rise. Novelist William Gass’s rather bone-chilling evocation of the coldness of rural isolation eclipses the real work of nurturing deep ties to a abundant ecosystems in San Francisco’s built space. And in an age when trees, and urban greenspace, face threats of car pollution, extreme weather, and the uprooting of trees to make way for construction sites or trim branches for urban safety or interference in above-ground power lines in many Bay Area cities, the value of absorbing CO2 and preventing floods by absorbing water have created a virtual boom of greening urban space.

Increasingly, we are attendant to the urban habitat they offer, beyond the cult of verticality as a metric of urbanity. Trees have been increasingly seen as presenting a basis for the future flourishing of cities and sustainability of urban space, with the growth of greening projects across the developed world: since 2007, an active New York City overseen by Bloomberg rooted over a million trees in urban space, and have taken root in London, where Mayor Sadiq Khan aims to make it the first “National Park City” while Paris is building four inner-city urban forests by 2020. While building heights provided a measure of a metropolis in the twentieth century, projects of urban greening have led to a search for more climate-tolerant trees–including “resilient” non-natives, like the three-toothed maple, even if urban planners are wary of invasive non-natives: Ireland’s commitment to plant 440 million trees by 2040, and hopes in Ethiopia to plant five billion seedlings in a year suggested a positive project of greening before the coronavirus pandemic, and an optimistic foot-forward re-engineering of the urban biome of unprecedented scale.

1. It was not always that way, and the spate of overbuilding in San Francisco has led it to aspire to a vertical landscape, as if out of envy of urban skylines of the east coast. If environmental dysphoria might be countered by planting of trees, San Francisco has gained a skyline of something like skyscrapers–as if in spite of its seismic risks–

–while the place of nature in the city in San Francisco, rather than on its outer bonds or beyond its walls, even before construction of a looming Salesforce Tower, we seek still to see as a site for outdoor recreation–

–if we may, as in a recent encomia to the city’s often beleaguered transit authority, bracket its impact as a building by reducing its size, and presence on our skyline, by continuing to render its towers as roughly equal to the TransAmerica Tower familiar as a point of reference that once dominated it in the past, as if its skyline remained roughly uniform.

The transformation of overpaving urban space has led to city maps that are more reliant on a strictly automobilistic perspective, as Google Maps and Bing are drawn from the perspectives of a space that is inhabited by cars, more tan the wildlife of the city: the perspective of the walker in the city is less easy to approach, in maps that are biased by their exclusion of open space that is so important to one’s mental health and sense of place: if the American West was once defined by its open spaces, “where the pavement ends,” the pavement that spreads out from cities to the burgeoning Bay Area makes it a sort of transportation hub, where cars move along its freeways and downtown, often clogging Market Street, increasing a market for new navigational tools of traffic flow, rather than the open spaces that drivers might even neglect if they did not also wander the neighborhoods off the beaten path: the decal of urban wildlife associated with the car’s perspective is, unsurprisingly, marked the pigeon as an urban inhabitant of peaking into this automobilistic world as if from an Archimedian point–

–whose cocked beaks and blank eyes emerge from the car door’s gleam to note the increased compromising of a biophilic relation to urban space.

And if we may still sense the city is present in nature, overlapping with bodies of water in ways one can still smell in its oxygenated ocean air, one want to map its relation to its environment, and find environments of living species that coexist in and with it, from raven nests or occasional hawks and odd coyote, or the pleasures of the butterfly, cormorant, and heron–that we too often fail to notice and to see, as if to cut off aspects of urban livability to create the environmental dysphoria we seek to avoid.

The sense of San Francisco as surrounded by the Pacific and freshwater basins, and a confluence of saltwater and freshwater, and a terrain whose sandiness and lack of bedrock has limited its urban growth. But the clear and unmistakable sense of being on the water, or lying close to it on three sides–defines a sense of what it is like to move in its micro-climates, and indeed the rewriting of its shores, while expanded by landfill, have resisted the possible dramatic change of an elevated freeway that bound its edges. If one can look back wistfully at the redefining of its relation to land and sea, there is a sense that even if some of the shorelines around the Embarcadero have clear breakfronts, and that undersea rivers, underground shipwrecks, and some bays are overpaved–

–that the older pre-1854 exists in the ocean air that enters its shores, if the coast is fixed. For if the low structures around the shoreline reflect in large part seismic risk, there is will to remain a model urban area, unique and exemplary even in an age of globalization and climate change, not entirely low-lying, but facing significant threats from sea-level rise. The overlapping of ocean and land environments are nicely captured in the species, from shorebirds to insects to thistle to prehistoric radiolarian, that populate the surface of San Francisco in the elegantly dynamic, if static, full-color map from Nature in the City, which presses web-sources and online data into a new illustrated paper form.

3. Fostering of a changed relation to urban habitat has left the Bay Area and city far less insularly defined in relation to nature than most other places in the United States: Rebecca Solnit rightly observed the old geographers were wrong only in one–if one significant–way in describing California as an island, which extends to San Francisco. In California, one finds, still, significant surviving greenspace, cultivable land, and open space, that while under threat, in proportion to much of the eastern seaboard 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 in its urbanized space.

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 mobility of “urban” life.  

But we often fail to orient ourselves to the extent of urban environments in most maps–especially as we privilege the images of the city seen from the air, as if on landing and take-off, rather than on the ground. 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–

–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.

And if San Francisco was long haunted by the devastating downtown fire that spread through the city with the earthquake of 190 destroyed a good section of the inhabited city, as if it is burned into public memory. The recent shift in rebuilding of elevated buildings allowed to be constructed in the downtown region half almost reflexively prompted the worries or concern of a “seismic trap” in which recurrent seismic tremors threaten the city, and an incursion of nature of underground plate tectonics might even more consequentl disrupt the urban plant once again.

Are the danger of such seismic shocks a different image of the sudden entrance of nature into the city?

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Filed under data visualization, ecology, environmental geography, San Francisco, urban ecology

Mapping Feline Itineraries

Among crowd-sourced mapping projects, Cat Tracker is something of an innovation:  rather than map a human environment, it is dedicated to mapping the motions of specific outdoor cats–their individual, day-by-day itineraries–rather than create something like a comprehensive map of a region, such as the HOT (Humanitarian Open Street Map Team) mapping of West Africa to track cases of Ebola.  But the mechanics of mapping are strikingly similar, if perhaps not destined for a larger audience.  While the HOT team uses the Bing imagery to trace a set of shape-files on different quadrants of Liberia or Sierra Leone, high-accuracy GPS sensors attached to the harnesses of individual cats provide the overlay for maps of cities to which they are resident, so one can imagine the regular radius of their strolls.

Cat Migration

User experience designer Alex Lee took the time to track his own cat’s motion by an attachable GPS sensor, tracing his motion around a London neighborhood over a few days to track her explorations around his home.


Where Kitty might go might be quite restricted, and be ompholocentrically concentrated about where she can count on being fed.  Researchers had earlier argued in 2011 that the meanderings of domestic cats are far more spatially restricted or circumspect than the zones of feral cats, one of whom roamed over 1,350 acres in rural areas–the domesticated cat only roamed in the area designated yellow, or usually less than two acres:


The issues of the rise of feral cats, and the danger of zoonotic transmission of protozoal diseases like toxoplasmosis is a serious issue that is only increased by the considerable breadth of their geographic wanderings.

The availability of sensor-laden harnesses to fit domestic cats with accurate GPS sensors has most rapidly expanded, however, and provoked a parsing of feline itineraries that might strike some as just TMI–although they carry the promise to provide a better sense of how cats interact with their urban environments, and engagement with urban wildlife.  While the initial tracking of cats might map as something like noise–

crittercam restricted

an image of itineraries over several days might distinguish paths or even register that one time that the cat’s owners were out of town, and their pet made an itinerary to their old house in the hope of finding food when it could not locate them otherwise, traveling unerringly for almost a full mile.

Big Feline Excursion

Creating a more complicated overlay distinguishing different days allows one to trace a clear record of the cat’s relation to its environment–and the potential incursions cats make into the wooded areas around towns such as Raleigh, NC, where  Cat Tracker has posted feline itineraries mapped with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and an online database dedicated to tracking animal movement, Movebank.


Tallulah K seems to have been attracted by a variety of surrounding rural prey or targets, but avoided most major roads:

Talllulah K

Sometimes cat travels seem to record instances driven by car, as a record of feline meanderings over multiple days shown below.  (It is unlikely, if possible, that cat space and human space were so completely congruent.)


Cat Tracker

Similar results of GPS tracking, perhaps especially entertaining to cat-owners who let their felines  out of doors and wonder about their whereabouts, might provide a composite map of cats from different houses in a single neighborhood, in an attempt to find out what cat-roaming was about, or if it followed any particular logic at all–or what their relations might be called one another’s routes.


Royal Veterinary College, Structure & Motion Lab

The maps tracked by the Royal Veterinary College offer a basis to answer questions of how cat space maps onto human space, as much as to merely document feline itineraries.

Mapping cats in Surrey may seem like a bizarre surveillance of the domesticated:


Despite the sense that the signs tracking cats have limited legibility, do they signify a premonition of things to come?  On the one hand, this seems an extension of our own expectations for tracking and searching geographic locations.  Mapping seems to have its own logic here, providing the very terms by which we can undertake the variety of projects that technology allows.  Perhaps we’re experimentally using our technologies on our allegedly domesticated animals, as we affix ankle-bracelets with GPS trackers onto sex offenders, and map their residence and whereabouts, at the same as we get used to being tracked ourselves.

That is not to say that the same technology does not have other benefits, or that it should be demonized: but it suggests a fear of wandering, and a potentially intrusive sense of helicopter parenting, if one in which we bring our pets into our surveillance world. But we can look at the other side of the coin as easily, through the attempts to control the ravages that our highways or marine travels perpetuate on wild species. A recent project of GreenInfo Network, with the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority, near the city of San Jose, suggested as much. The client wanted to ensure that Highway 101, a well-trafficked artery, could be mitigated in its effects of cutting across an active habitat corridor of wildlife, and specifically how bobcat roadkill could be reduced, and a series of recommendations about the roadway made to the Peninsula Open Space Trust, Since the road runs through a habitat connector, and there is little chance of moving it, the map provider used telemetry data of bobcats’ movements to make recommendations about problematic areas of bobcat’s motions, in the hopes of making recommendations on underground tunnels and alternative transit routes; the image of bobcat itineraries, if echoing to some extent that of domestic cats, was revealed a dense tangle of crossings–

Greeninfo Netowrk
Bobcat Itineraries near 101, Santa Clara Valley

–of feline wanderings and itineraries around the busy road that, in this case, ran through the habitats where bobcats had long lived.

The result was rather astonishing in context: rather than tracking the cat as a possession, the routes were tracked to be tried to be protected, as interested parties and stake-holders were interested to do, and the pathways of feline travel could be preserved in the sense of an on-road onslaught from humans who the bobcats had no clear idea why they were driving across the land they had long wandered.

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Filed under cats, GPS, GPS Sensors, GPS tracking, OpenStreetMap