Tag Archives: livability

The Natures of San Francisco

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.

New York Times/

The dangerous vulnerability of cities has paralleled an attempt to try to take better stock of urban space than the map servers we use provide. For as any server only foregrounds a selective level of local detail, replicating a dominant focus on roads, paved spaces, and buildings, to the exclusion of the constricted habitat that remains on the edges of a city’s built space?  The historical attempt to design a wooden model encompassing a “Huge San Francisco” in detailt, back in the 1930s’ era of public mapping and public art, to preserve a record of the lived city in a set of interlocking 3D pieces that served as a snapshot of the lived city suggests just how much of the city was long green and open to “natural space” in a way that contrasts sharply with the image of the changing built environment of the city to give us pause–

Huge San Francisco/David Ramsey Historical Map Collection
Piece J 4 and Adjoining Pieces, David Rumsey Map Collection

–and to take stock of the natures of San Francisco, and the benefits of different forms of mapping its urban environment in less melancholy ways, and indeed of the importance of taking new stock of a city’s remaining open space–or what that open space is, and how we might best interact with greenspace remaining in the city, and the importance of how we map the urban spaces we live.

While San Francisco was long a center for nature preservation, and indeed the preservation of the country in the city, as the perceptive Bay Area geographer Richard Walker put it so eloquently, the organization of tools to uncover and preserve the current relation between ecological niches, natural environments and the built city becomes the project of the recent Nature in the City map, now in its third edition, offers the symbolic tools built on data to explore the urban environment–absent in most street maps or apps that we use to navigate the city, and to revalue the critical importance of native habitat in the open spaces existing within the city’s built environment, and offers an engaging and timely injunction to attend to and help cultivate it.

The suggestion of the city’s integration with not only its bay and shoreline, here shown as a thin strip of brown that borders on the Pacific, tied to historic estuaries, rivers, creeks, and current parks, presents an image of the city as an integrated whole, in which the blocks and streets foregrounded in GoogleMaps are far less prominent than the deeper continuities that create unique habitats, which are finally presented to the reader. We don’t see the Great Highway, for example, but the sand dollars and , and in Hunters Point find oysters and shorebirds–and in place of navigating a grid of grey, explore a region of butterflies, poppies, and jackrabbits, as well as a coyote, and even, out in the Pacific, the image–in the selection below just a glimpse–of a whale’s tail. The plentiful creatures within the vivid map, which breaks the barrier between cartography and art, reveals a far more engaging, and ethically challenging, question of what it is to map a city and to attend to the built space of a city as a place.

green edges, waters, habitat
Nature in the City map of San Francisco
Google Map of San Francisco from Great Highway

For rather than compile a survey of the built environment, and orient the river to streets, main highways and the neighborhoods we give to urban space, the static map offers an engaging relation to the habitability of a city so often bemoaned as increasingly unhabitable due to skyrocketing rents, gentrification, and evictions.

The quite distinct base-map that folks at Nature in the City organization adopted to invite us to view San Francisco helps to shift that set of associations, and to open up hidden spaces within the city to viewers in ways they might never have had access, putting the place of San Francisco as a part of the thin line of green coast and as a potentially rich set of open spaces, habitat and green.

The rent revisioning of the greenspaces that distinguish San Francisco displace the rush of commuting and explosion of jobs and rents for which the Bay Area may be increasingly known–

–and effectively invite viewers to navigate, and explore, a city where rents have withdrawn most of our attentions from the lived environment. The base map rich with data sets of the multiple green spaces in the city, from parks to all street trees and gardens, as if they and the surrounding waters afforded a palette–which if pictorial in nature, offers a synthesis of public data on open space.

And the data helps to situate the existing habitat that the non-profit has dedicated its energies to encourage, inviting viewers–and residents–to shift their attention from the city streets and built spaces to the conscious cultivation of the wild. The result is to re-focus attention on the habitats of specific animals, birds, fish, and plants across its urban space, in a static map that is made for an audience familiar with interactive mapping forms, and the coding of a rich natural space, extending to imagining its lost estuaries, underground rivers and watersheds, and even the historical shorelines of San Francisco before the addition of landfill.

Nature in the City 2018 (detail)

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