Tag Archives: open data

The Natures of a City

Although they are the most living areas of cities, often hidden from view on city maps are the ecosystems beyond built landscape or paved roads.  But do we fail to orient ourselves to the extent of urban environments in ways that compromise our demand for livable space, by relying on maps’ abbreviated conventions?  For doesn’t any server only foreground a selective level of local detail, in ways that we have created to increase our dominant focus on roads, paved spaces, and buildings, to the exclusion of the constricted habitat that remains on the edges or borders of built space?

What would it look like, asked the folks at Nature in the City, a San Francisco-based non-profit, to create a map that foregrounded the habitat that has managed to flourish–and even be nourished–within an urbanized space, and in so doing to orient readers to  a counter-map of the built city, which might foreground the spaces of habitat that the group has encouraged across San Francisco and that exists on its streets?  The new model of urban exploration in the map that is used in the header of this post is based less on navigating the urban space we know, than exploding the nature/urban dichotomy, and pointing us to the cites where nature has taken shape in the urban environment.

The result is a reorientation to the urban map.  A long and storied tradition of urban maps that celebrates the built environment as evidence of the city’s vital form:  but recent debates about the prospects for urban livability have returned attention to the vital pathways and streams of live that undergird the city’s space; and in the case of San Francisco, perched between bay and ocean, and lying on multiple migratory routes of air and sea, the confluence between urban and natural spaces are perhaps especially salient to be of the moment as we try to remap urban space less in terms of buildings or built structures,–but rather to foreground those empty areas of  light green unfortunately rendered in rather generic flat light green hues in Google Maps, or any of the other map servers we use to navigate the congested streets of urban space.  As we are enjoined to “navigate our world faster and easier with Google Maps,” and believe in our abilities to do so, we too often tend to forget–or not see–ways that might orient ourselves to our surroundings or indeed what other sites in the world we might do well to pay attention to.  If there is a danger that we are at risk of loosing sight of places of nature in our mental geography of urban space, the data rich nature of the map of wildlife habitat compiled by Nature in the City don’t dominate the viewer with data, as strongly as some maps do–



–but help us to reorient ourselves to the dense population of the urban space by an understory that supports a rich variety of habitats, on which we can re-map our place in the city, less to an abillty to navigate our relations to urban space on its streets, but learn how other taxa live in the city, and use its space, in order to appreciate how we can be the best custodians of their habitat.  Indeed, the remove of any grey space from the map’s surface and open face–


SF bay clear shot Nature in the City.png


The intention is to invite us into urban space through -a new set of coordinates, so to speak, and ask us to orient ourselves to urban space by an expanded and enriched sense of  its habitation.

As we confront pressing questions of livability and the future of the long rhapsodized city of San Francisco, can maps better attune us to the changes of its urban space?  Perhaps the notion of how maps work to “civilize a space” and prepare it for our eyes has changed–or is trying to change.  The notion of cultivating and maintaining the order of a space seems better to respond to the exigencies and unknown future terrain that increasingly defined by global warming, climate change, sea-level rise, and a loss of species.  The sense of what such a civilization would portend–or how the space might be civilized–has been called into question as the role of manmade change in the environment has been questions, and maps struggle to wrestle with and process that change, taking stock of eventual effects of over-building, shifting shorelines, and planetary warming on where we–and not only we–live.  The problem of detaching the urban grid from the environment surrounding is addressed both by the image of San Francisco within migratory routes of birds, ocean mammals, and fish, and a living habitat for animal and plant life, and the increased awareness of dangers of overbuilding in a city framed by faults.

Given the complexity of the biosphere in an era when Presidential candidates proclaim their opposition to scientific consensus on climate change or Darwin’s evolutionary theory, the range of open data we have on the local biosphere provides a compelling way to place viewers in a complex ecosystem.  The value of open data to offer a range of yardsticks that can help ascertain the extent to which a bucolic city retains and map its relation to the natural world in the new map issued and designed by Nature in the City, a public interest environmental group whose work raises consciousness about urban greenspace.  While their map is not dependent on data alone, the map’s valuable text reorients us not to its streets, parks, or plazas, or its transit system, but instead to the levels of green cover in each neighborhood and the sort of ecosystems they afford–providing a new way to understand and explore its neighborhoods.

In contrast, a distinct view of natural forces and a quite contemporary sense of environmental vulnerability has been displaced onto the vulnerability of the recent spate of vertical building in the uncertain terrain of the liquefaction zone of San Francisco, in a recent visualization of the city’s downtown, within the new USGS maps of the shaky geological terrain of landfill on which much o the city is also built–and the questionable basis that sandy grounds to support ambitious skyscrapers in a city that has long lain close to the ground, unlike other metropoles.   Despite the risks of steel-frame buildings, the vulnerability of whose welded joints to seismic quakes may lead them to be inventoried as public risks  by the California State Legislature, the spate of skyscrapers in the past decade cast a shadow over an iconography of urban hope, journalist Thomas Fuller has shown in brilliantly illustrated articles for the New York Times.  Fuller’s outsider’s view of the instability of the city–and the limited safety that it allows to workers in the densely populated downtown, suggests the fears of fracturing of steel-frame condominiums and office buildings or paralysis of water-systems and electrical in upper stories of recent high-rises.  The fear was shown in a powerfully monitory map that suggests an alienation from of builders from the inland Hayward Fault or San Andreas fault lines, and set off alarms to anyone who read the article whose rapid online shares reflect its visceral conjuring of the arrival of the Big One much more concretely than earlier maps of the city’s sizable liquefaction zones.

Seismic Trap?





The disconnect between man-made and natural structures have almost been inverted by the energetic environmentalist activists who run “Nature in the City,” a local non-profit long attentive to the city’s open space–that seeks to direct our attention to the natural wealth above ground that make the city so livable.  The 2018 map they’ve produced invites attention to the complexity of its ecosystem all too often overlooked in its built space, and a far more detailed local view of the abundance of natural wealth that they same city contains–and indeed, if one scrutinizes the map, abounds.  For over thirty years, Nature in the City has raised consciousness by mapping San Francisco’s preservation of parks; the recent version more fully foregrounds the nourishing of a range of habitats, from its bayshore to its urban space, in a broader ecosystem.  The result is a counter-cartography to the city as an ecosystem for cars, unpacking non-grey spaces of the map and questioning the clear divide between greenspace and greyspvce on the surface of our maps.



As if in counterpoint to the concentration of online map servers that orient readers to paved urban space, the map tracks the presence of living forms in the city and directs viewers to vital pathways or corridors.  If such habitat areas are difficult to discern for inhabitants, as Thoreau and Emerson would remind us, they are important to attend to, to resist the longstanding dominance of mapping the city as a built space in ways extremely important.  And as we shift attention from mapping a human imprint on the world to taking stock of what environmental demons that imprint indeed includes–global warming, heat islands, and impermeable landcover–and strive to look for other forms to celebrate by looking at the overlooked within the urban grid, profiting from the observations and efforts of naturalists to remake ecosystems in the city’s urban space–and using their work to ask us to re-orient ourselves to the city.

A reference to Thoreau seems particularly appropriate, as the non-profit has worked to create a reflection on the ethics of mapping urban space and reading maps.  The ethics of reading maps is particularly needed today, and the sorts of deliberate and intensive reading that Thoreau championed–as well as attention to a range of natural forms–is demanded by the third edition of the paper map, whose text, content, and style were deliberated by a team over several years.  The non-human elements most often excluded from the built urban environment as transient and fleeting residents–trees, birds, animals, and insects–consciously gained amazing  visibility by foregrounding habitats and tree cover, uncovering corridors that raise questions about the livability of urban space–even if we rarely attend to them.  Even if the map is printed, it encourages the intensive observation of the world that its degree of local detail, depictions of lost streams and watersheds, as well as the local density of trees, lakes, and islands of urban forest demand, looking further into neighborhoods like the Castro and Noe Valley, but also the Financial District, Chinatown or the Outer Sunset, in ways that reflect its density of local data–



–in order to command a far greater degree of attention than we are usually used to pay to paper maps, or indeed to the neighborhoods we work or live.


haight.pngSan Francisco, Greencover in Golden Gate Park, Haight Ashbury, Buena Vista Park



San Francisco, Financial District green cover, with past shoreline marked grey and offshore bathymetry



San Francisco, Greencover in Chinatown, North Beach, and Telegraph Hill, with old shoreline and bay


San Francisco, Distribution of Trees, Shrubs, and Grass in Outer Sunset


1.  The most pressing questions both maps pose of the future of the city may pale before the different views they present of the place of nature in the city–ad the arguments they make about urban space.  For in questioning the city as a built structure, Nature in the City  focusses readers’ attention on a complex of lived environments apart from built structures, from which residents benefit.  The exclusive focus on paved physical plant of cities in most mapping tools leave us guilty of treating the limited descriptive parameters of map servers as if they constituted urban reality.

And in this sense, the map has arrived at an opportune time to shift attention from the hulking monoliths which San Francisco residents get their minds around, that seem destined to proliferate across a new skyline, in ways Fuller has repeatedly wrestled even as it has emerged in architetural renderings idealized for future buyers–


Future Skyline?.png


–as a real estate fantasy, dangerously out of touch with actual seismic risks.  And by inviting structural engineers to question the ethics of seismic responses in building codes, calling attention to their limited protection codes for urban residents in what is the most densely trafficked regions of the city, and most occupied by workers (if mostly white collar).  The interactive graphic of the appearance of such downtown mixed use buildings offered a chance to reflect on the effects of the 1906 earthquake and ask if such overbuilding inevitably suggested a sort of seismic trap.

The alarms that the built skyscrapers–without those planned–were cast clusters of danger signs in the scary prospective view of the city’s future ed buildings  of aassess the and an increasing debate over the final and future shape of urban space that invited readers to take stock of  an apparent rush to build on shaky grounds.

Seismic Trap?.pngfrom New York Times Interactive, April 17, 2018



The counter-cartography of the recent Nature in the City map offers a different lineage of mapping, shifting attention from the built structures to remind us that we risk filtering our actual experience of urban environments; for map servers, as much as lucre, also blind attention to an environment–or to spaces where we don’t drive–desensitizing ourselves to a delicate environmental balance, and masking the fluidity of habitats that cities include–the extent of open spaces in urban spaces that can nourish a broader ecosystem, even in a built space.  So much was revealed by increased attention to the embodiment of urban space in the recent map of San Francisco by the Nature in the City team, winner of a 2017 Livable Cities Livability award, that devoted increasing attention to finding and describing the parameters and metrics for the livability of a future urban space.  The emphasis on the encouragement of local habitats of native regional species in the city–and their dependence on the availability of water sources and green space–suggest a very different emphasis on the future of urban growth.

The future of urban space is surely rooted in its ability to be accommodate lived spaces that encourage habitat in the Nature in the City map.  By tracking local species, the distinctive nature of the city as an active ecosystem suggest a degree of civilization that respects the quite distinctive natural character of its terrain.  In ways as magical as movies as The Parrots of Telegraph Hill tracked the survival of a flock of exotic birds recently counted at three hundred, the map invites viewers to attend not to escaped pets or urban residents as raccoons, pigeons, or feral cats,



but the interwined tapestry of  ecosystems that map how San Francisco offers a complex space of “natural” habitats.  The inventive tools used to map its urban ecosystems incorporates a variety of mapping forms to remind us of deep currents in urban space, from the landfill or sandy grounds remaining under the downtown area to the unique habitat sandy beaches, green spaces, streets, urban forests, watersheds, and gardens, and recover a sense of its living corridors beyond what city parks allow.  The result is both a broad historical perspective on its living record, that allows readers to engage its situation in a broader ecosystem and as a habitat, but a new model for looking at cities and their livability.

The unique base-map serves to track living habitats across the city, using overlays to combine a variety of mapping forms usually seen in isolation. By employing LiDAR orthoimagery of trees, shrubs and grasses across the unpaved areas of San Francisco, as a guide to help us follow the habitats that the greening of a city allows, far beyond an exclusive focus on its parks as in earlier editions.  The revisionary nature of a base-map of urban vegetation help expose living habitats in the city by mapping forms, to show how the city as supports a diverse range of habitats we would rarely discover, but in which the living structures of the city might be best located and situated.  Even if we use our old mapping habits to approach the below map of greenspace in San Francisco–and try to locate where we stand, whose houses we’ve visited, or lived in, or where we remember meeting someone or had fun, as if to try to correlate that experience with the density of green cover, in exploring the actual map we try to “map” those greenspaces into the range of habitat that the city also preserves and includes.


LIdar Orthoimagery SFNature in the City basemap/LiDAR orthoimagery of San Francisco with added bathymetry


The density of the layers of open data that the map compressed–tracing the density of greenspace by its elevation and distribution, suggest an extremely sensitive register not only to situate but emplot animal and plant habitat in the city by the bay.   The availability of significant open datasets for San Francisco reveal an intersection between avian and mammalian taxa with its watery habitat so delicately to make one almost forget its place at the edge of the continental shelf, but to map its abundance.   The data rich nature of the map that almost is concealed in its pictorial elegance allows the readers to perform the sort of deep dive into localities that are foreign to most paper maps, indeed, and reflect the increasing skills of aggregating and distilling data in appealing visual forms, and indeed unpacking locality as a complexly variegated form.

The hope is to reorient ourselves to the city as a built environment, to think of it as a capacious space that makes room for the creatures that dwell around it–not urban animals, or foragers like raccoons, geese or pigeons, but historical dwellers of the land-sea continuum that San Francisco’s terrain was defined by, despite and notwithstanding the redefinition of the city as a space for building that was amplified by landfill.  The playwright Tony Kushner evoked the city as a bucolic terrain of a promised land during the mid-1980s in Angels in America—the “undulating landscape lying under the threat of seismic risk,” where danger only lay only in unexpected underground faults.  The conceit God abandoned the world left stage after the 1906 earthquake, due to the changes in human settlement of the globe, is almost returned to in the orchestration of a vast range of data on habitats and tree cover by folks at Nature in the City to create a map able that seems take stock of the deep patterns of urban environments still suggest its closest points of contact with the the divine.  Indeed, the deep reading of the terrain that the Nature in the City cartographer offers to situate the intersection of nature with its urban infrastructure provides a new model to examine the presence of nature in the built world.


2.  For while we are long trained to imagine as architectural landscapes as triumphal achievements, after the conceit of elevated prospective views that magnify the city as human achievement of God-like form–


Jacopo_de'_Barbari_-_Plan_of_Venice_-_WGA01270Jacobo de Barbari, Venetie MD (engraved woodcut perspective map of Venice, 1500)


–we risk perpetuating the urban myth of a space isolated from nature that erase the discovery that the living detail of urban habitats as something of the divine.  And in an age where the from of cities stands to change with global warming and sea-level rise, it’s incumbent to engage and re-examine the city as an environment, for in considering how the city functions as a habitat, less as detached from the world, we can help revise the mythology of the city as separated from the country, or from the variety of creatures, plants, and bugs that contribute to its livability.  And in an era when what a Secretary of the Environment should dedicate attention is still unclear, mapping an urban space that doesn’t account for the flows, currents, and fluid sense of urban space rooted in nature is unconscionable.  If pixelation can dissolve the harmony of the Barbari view,




the detail of the dive into the natural environment in the NITC map provides an opportunity to explore what exists outside, within and beside its built environment.  The availability of rich open datasets possessed by a city as San Francisco provide a counterpoint, allowing the foregrounding of deeper measures of urban change:  mapping such data can better help to embody urban space less reliant on the building blocks of squares, freeways, or paved space, but reveal an intersection of geography with native or indigenous habitat once again encouraged to develop.  Data maps can offer the opportunity and challenge to re-read the city and even to examine areas that foster wildness–and a range of indigenous wildlife–across beaches, urban forests, hills, and in its gardens, beyond parks.  A range of new visualizations of urban space reveal the new ways cities intersect with “natural” space.

The Nature in the City folks have shifted attention toward the many open spaces and gardens in the city, suggesting the forms of vitality San Francisco conserves, despite the challenges of many native inhabitants–from spotted owls to shorebirds like once-threatened snowy plover and the loss of redwoods, by focussing on the species in the city and the Western United States’ largest estuary.  Their map reminds us that as well as being a flyover spot for birds and shorebirds, San Francisco’s Bay is not the only  biodiversity hotspot for large numbers of endangered shorebirds; for the city’s open spaces provide crucial habitat that provides a model at a time of species die-offs and habitat loss–making the map a positive counter-model to such deeply disturbing trends.

Indeed, the city whose living currents they map apart from human life tell a far more positive story than the disappearance of regional watershed whose tidal marsh-lands have contracted by some 90% from 1800 to 2009, as the addition of landfill and diking transformed tidal marsh nineteen times the size of the current San Francisco by nine tenths, leaving much of its former vasst extent in the San Francisco Bay rather than the rich ecology of the delta.


90% decrease of of Bay Area Tidal Marshland, 1850-2009/California Wetlands


The ability to embody a range of open data can foreground and call visual attention to notice the huge diachronic changes in the local environment, or to focus on overlooked living aspects of the current city.


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

Mapping Our Shrinking Shores

Coasts have provided the primary cartographical invention to understand the risks that erosion pose to property:  the coast-line is the boundary of the known land, and determines the outer bound of the real estate.  But the coastal fixation of the landlubber privileges the illusion of the fixity of the shore.  More than ever, assumptions about the fixity of shorelines must fall away.  Perhaps the most haunting take away from the Surging Seas web-based map of global shorelines forces us to take into account the inevitable mutability that must be accepted with the rising of ocean-level associated with climate change.

The web-map presents itself as a set of tools of analysis, as much as cartographical techniques, by which the rise of sea-level that has already risen globally some eight inches since 1880 stands to accelerate–emphasizing the alternate scenarios that the acceleration of sea-level rise stands to bring over the next hundred years, introducing a new concept of risk due to coastal flooding.  The availability of accurate GPS images of the elevations of homes have provided the possibility of sketching scenarios of sea-level rise to create readily zoomable maps of elevated ocean levels that confront us with at least the image of the options which we still theoretically have.  The contrasting futures created in this cartographical comparison shocks viewers with a salutary sort of operational paranoia only increased as one fiddles with a slider bar to grant greater specificity to the disastrous local consequences of rising sea-levels world-wide.


In ways quite unlike the wonderfully detailed old NOAA Topographic Surveys which map shorelines at regular transects, or T-Sheets, recording the high waterline of tides across 95,000 coastal miles and 3.4 million square miles of open sea, the coastline is less the subject of these web maps than levels of potential inundation.  In a negative-mapping of possibilities of human habitation, blue hues invade the landscape in a monitory metric emphasizing the regions at risk of being underwater in a century.  Whereas scanned T-Sheets can now be viewed by a historical time-bar slider, the fixity of space or time are less relevant to the web maps than the gradients of possible sea-level rise caused by carbon emissions might force us to confront.

Surging Seas forces us to confront the possibilities of the future underwater world.  The infiltration of a deep shade of blue commands the eye by its intensity, deeper shades signifying greater depth, in ways that eerily underscore the deep connection that all land has to the sea that we are apt to turn our backs upon in most land maps, showing the extent to which a changing world will have to familiarize itself to water-level rise in the not-distant future.  It’s almost paradoxical that the national frontiers we have inscribed on maps has until recently effectually made impossible such a global view, but the attraction of imagining the somewhat apocalyptic possibility of sea-level rise seems almost to map a forbidden future we are not usually allowed to see, and has a weirdly pleasurable (if also terrifying) aspect of viewing the extensive consequences of what might be with a stunning level of specific and zoomable local detail we would not otherwise be able to imagine, in what almost seems a fantasia of the possibilities of mapping an otherwise unforeseen loss, not to speak of the apparent lack of coherence of a post-modern world.

For the variety of potential consequences of disastrous scenarios of sea-level rise posed can be readily compared with surprisingly effective and accurate degrees of precision, in maps that illustrate the depths at which specific regions stand to be submerged underwater should sea-level rise continue or accelerate:  zooming into neighborhoods one knows, or cities with which one is familiar, the rapid alteration of two to seven feet in sea-level can be imagined–as can the fates of the some 5 million people worldwide who live less than four feet above sea-level.  For if the shores have long been among the most crowded and popular sites of human habitation–from New York to London to Hong Kong to Mumbai to Jakarta to Venice–the increasing rapidity of polar melting due to climate change stands to produce up to a seven feet rise in sea-level if current rates of carbon emissions, and a mere four degree centigrade rise in global temperature stands to put the homes of over 450 million underwater, which even the most aggressive cutting in carbon emissions might lower to only 130 million, if rates of warming are limited to but 2°C.   (If things continues as they stand, the homes of some 145 million who currently dwell on land in China alone are threatened with inundation.)

The recent review of the disastrous consequences of a rise of two degrees Centigrade on the land-sea boundary of the United States led Climate Central to plot the effects of a-level rise of at least 20 feet on the country–and foreground those regions that were most at risk.   The webmap serves as something like a window into the possible futures of climate change, whose slider allows us to create elevations in sea-level that the ongoing melting of the polar ice-cap seems poised to create.  As much as offer compare and contrast catastrophes, the immediacy of recognizing the degree to which places of particular familiarity may soon stand to lie underwater performs a neat trick: for whereas a map might be said to bring closer the regions from which one is spatially removed or stands apart, making present the far-off by allowing one to navigate its spatial disposition in systematic fashion, the opacity of those light blue layers of rising seas obscures and subtracts potentially once-familiar site of settlement, effectively removing land from one’s ken as it is subtracted from the content of the map, and charting land losses as much as allowing its observation.

The result is dependably eery.  The encroachment of the oceans consequent to rising sea-level propose a future worthy of disaster films.  But the risks can be viewed in a more measured ways in the maps of sea-level on the shores of the United States calculated and mapped by Stamen design in the Surging Seas project that allows us to imagine different scenarios of sea-level rise on actual neighborhoods–the set of interactive maps, now aptly retitled Mapping Choices, will not only cause us to rethink different scenarios of shifting shorelines by revisiting our favorite low-lying regions, or allow us to create our own videos of Google Earth Flyovers of different areas of the world.  Mapping Choices provides a way to view the risks and vulnerabilities to climate change made particularly graphic in centers of population particularly low-lying, where they testify to the clarity with which web maps can create a vision of imagined experience as we imagine the actual losses that global warming is poised to create.  And although the recent expansion of the map to a global research report, allowing us to examine possible global futures that are otherwise difficult to comprehend or process the potential risks posed by the inundation of low-lying inhabited regions for a stretch of thirty meters, the potential risk of inundation is perhaps most metaphorically powerful for that region that one best knows, where the efficacy of a simple side-by-side juxtaposition of alternate potential realities has the unexpected effect of hitting one in one’s gut:  for debates about the possibilities of climate change suddenly gain a specificity that command a level of attention one can only wonder why one never before confronted as an actual reality.

Alternate Scenarios

Maps are rarely seen as surrogates for observation, and web maps often offer something like a set of directions, or way finding tools.  But the predicted scenarios of sea-levle rise allows one to grasp the local levels of inundation with a specificity that allow risk to be seen in terms of actual buildings–block by block–and wrestle with the risks that climate change portends.  The lack of defenses of populations in many regions are definitely also at great risk, but to envision the loss of property and known space seems oddly more affecting in such an iconic map of Manhattan–and somewhat more poetic as an illustration of the fungibility of its hypertrophied real estate and property values.

Of course, the data of Climate Change allows a terrifying view of the future of four degrees centigrade warming on low-lying Boston and the shores of the Charles, as the city is reduced to a rump of an archipelago–


or the disastrous scenarios for the populations in the lower lying areas of Jakarta–


or, indeed, in Mumbai–


Viewers are encouraged to imagine the risks of the possible alternate futures of just two degrees with an immediacy that worms into one’s mind.  The possibilities that GPS offers of instantaneous calculations of shoreline position and elevations allow one to view a potential reality where one can focus on individual streets with inspirational urgency.

But such scenarios seem somehow particularly graphic illustrations of risk for those regions where there has been a huge investment of human capital, as New York City, where it might seem credible enough to be mapped that they are poised to melt not into air but vanish beneath ocean waves.  For if Marx predicted with spirited apocalypticism at the very start of the Communist Manifesto that capitalism would destroy value to money as it expanded into future markets, as market forces abstracted all things into money–and “all that is solid melts into air”–the twentieth-century expansion of possibilities of environmental and human destruction have lent unprecedented urgency.  While for Marx the metaphor of melting of inherent value was the product of the capitalist system, the capitalist system bodes a strikingly similar image of sinking into the seas.  For huge expanses of the old industrial city–the piers and the old manufacturing zones, most all of the Jersey shore and area around Newark, Long Island City and the Gowanus canal seem sink apart from the shoreline in the future New York that Surging Seas creates, in ways that seem the consequence of industrial production and carbon surging far beyond 400 parts per million (ppm), with the addition of some 2 ppm per year, in ways that make it a challenge to return to the levels deemed healthy–let alone the levels of 275 ppm which the planet long held through the mid-eighteenth century.

That drought, hurricanes, disappearance of arctic ice (up to 80% in summertime) and rising sea levels are tied to the growth of greenhouse gasses hint how global capital might be closely linked to the sinking into the seas, and suggest the surpassing of a tipping point of climate change that is the counterpart to melting into air might be viewed, in New York City’s economic geography, as if to offer a poetic reflection of the migration of capital into the financial centers of the city downtown from its piers or areas of industry–


–although half-hearted joking references to Marxist maxims (or geographers) is hardly the topic of this post, and the island of high finance that would be created in downtown Manhattan would hardly have ever been planned as an island.

Lower Manhattan Island?

What one might someday see as the lopping off of much of lower Manhattan might be far better tied to the runaway markets of a free-trade economy, rather than rational planning, and has no clear correspondence to property values.

lopped off lower Manhattan

Indeed, the mapping of the prospective loss of those residential parts of the city “where poor people dwell” (as do minorities) is undeniable, if one looks at the 2010 American Community Survey, regarding either in the city’s distribution of ethnic groups or households earning below $30,000, who remain the most vulnerable to the danger of rising ocean levels.

ACS 2005?

Income under 30,000American Community Survey (2010)/New York Times

But the disappearance of the Eastern Parkway and the Jersey shore are a blunt reminder of the extreme vulnerability of the built environment that lies close to sea-level–

Eastern Parkway and Atlantic Avenue above the seas

–and an actually not-too-apocalyptic reminder, but the mapping of consequences of man-made change that goes under the rubric of anthropocene, and is most apparent in the increasing quotient of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the warming that this may bring.  For if it has been approximated that there has already been a rise of sea-levels by some eight inches since 1880, the unprecedented acceleration of that rate, which will increase the dangers of floods from storms and place many of the some three thousand coastal towns at risk, are likely to increase as the sea level may rise from two to over seven feet during the new century.


The distribution is by no means uniform, and more industrialized countries, like the United States, are producing far more particulate matter, although they have been recently overtaken by China from 2007, and have atmospheres above 380 ppm in the Spring, making them more responsible for rendering higher temperatures–although the lower-lying lands below the equator may be most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change.

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 8.20.11 PM

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 8.21.44 PMScreen Shot 2015-07-13 at 8.22.35 PMVox– A visual tour of the world’s CO2 emissions

The increasing levels of particulate matter are attempted to be more locally mapped in Surging Seas.

The changes extend, in a nice dramatic detail, into the Central Park Meer rejoining the East River with the predicted inundation of much of the posh residential area of Manhattan’s East Side, all the way to Fifth Avenue.

Truncated NJ and absent upper East side

It is difficult not to compare the scenarios sketched in Surging Seas maps to some of the maps of those future islands of New York that Map Box and others allowed Sarah Levine to create maps of the heights of buildings from open data after the pioneering maps of Bill Rankin’s 2006 “Building Heights.”   When Rankin remapped Manhattan by taking building height as an indirect index of land value, he saw the island as clustered in distinct islands of elevation above 600 feet:


Radical Cartography (2006)

Levine used similar data to chart the fruits of Mammon in buildings above sixty stories.  Maps of skyscrapers beside the gloom of Surging Seas suggest those towers able to withstand the rising seas brought by global temperatures jumping by just two degrees Centigrade.  If one moves from the map of the bulk of lowest sections of lower Manhattan–

Two Inches in Lower Manhattan

with reference to Levine’s brilliantly colored carmine mapping of the highest buildings in the Big Apple, above forty-seven or fifty-nine stories, which one imagines might provide the best vantage points that rise above the rising waves, especially when located on the island’s shores.

Mapping NYC by Sarah

Sarah Levine Maps Manhattan

There’s a mashup begging to be made, in which the tallest buildings of over fifty stories at the tip of the island peak up above the cresting waves, and the rump of buildings in lower Manhattan offer contrasting vistas of the city’s contracting shores.  The buildings that create the canyons of urban life, the buildings of elevation surpassing sixty stories might suggest the true islands of Manhattan’s future, as much as the points that punctuate its skyline.

Sarah's Lower Manhattan

The realization of this possible apocalypse of property made present in these maps offer the ability to visit impending disasters that await our shorelines and coasts, and imagine the consuming of property long considered the most valuable on the shore–as rising seas threaten to render a whispy shoreline of the past, lying under some six meters of rising seas.  The prospect of this curtailing of the ecumene, if it would bring an expansion of our nation’s estuaries, presents an image of the shrinking of the shores that suggests, with the authority of a map, just how far underwater we soon stand to be.

Eastern USASurging Seas: sea level rise after 2 degrees centigrade warming

All actual maps, including Levine’s, provide authoritative reporting of accurate measures with a promise of minimal distortions.  But visualizations such Surging Seas offer frightening windows into a future not yet arrived, using spatial modeling to predict the effects of a rise in sea-level of just five feet, and the potentially disastrous scale such a limited sea-level change would bring:  the coasts are accurate, but their inundation is a conservative guess, on the lower spectrum of possibilities.  For in a country in which 2.6 million homes are less than four feet above current sea-levels, the spectral outlines of chilly blue former coastlines peak at a future world are still terrifying and seem all too possible, as much as potential cautionary tale.  The concretization of likely scenarios of climate change remind us that however much we really don’t want to get there, how potentially destructive the possibility of a several degree rise in ocean temperatures would be.

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Filed under Climate Change, coastal flooding, data visualization, Global Warming