Tag Archives: open data

Mapping Nature in the City

What’s left out of most maps of cities is often the most important, and the most difficult to measure–but most vital to note.  While most maps note clear edges, sharp borders, and crisp divisions to ensure their legibility, the enterprise with which the local non-profit Nature in the City dedicated itself to remapping San Francisco suggests a new relation to how data lies in relation to the viewer, or how the viewer of the map lies to its surface:  for rather than offer a form of way-finding, the map invites viewers to explore the rich palette of its surface to investigate a complexly textured relation to water, estuaries and changing shores.  The recently printed map from Nature in the City attends to mutable boundaries and surface of urban space–viewed less as a settled landscape–no buildings, streets, or even roads and highways are noted here, but as an elastic surface, extending across a deep history of time, as the recent static map made to suggest the seismic risks inherent in the San Francisco landscape printed to commemorate the 1906 earthquake offers a similar deep history–if one that is focussed on the risk of vertical building.   The editors of the Nature in the City that map staked out the fluidity of its “endless forms”-adopting the evocative phrasing by which  Darwin coined to appreciate the extended temporal space of the evolution of animal life to chart the space that exists outside its paved space, to evoke the multiple layers of habitation that unfold in any place.

The result is to extend the pedagogical function of the map as a project of public education, and learning, by shifting the relation at which data lies in the map in relation to the viewer, as much as to place a premium on its legibility:  we are invited to engage the data in a delightfully embodied way, resisting the disembodied data deposited in the overlays of most web-based maps.  The exultant result is quite data-rich, but not at all data-centric:  untethered from the constraints of data, and the pointillist authority of the pixel, we appreciate the detail of the pictorial map evoked in its surface, over which we are invited to pour with keen attention and attentiveness.  And although when the New York Times adopted the new set of USGS data on liquefaction zones that stretch across most of downtown San Francisco to map recent ambitions of vertical building in an area of sever seismic risk, the striking end-product that projected three-dimensional extrusions of each buildings, situating them as lone witnesses standing like holographic sentinels over an aerial photograph of the ruins of the 1906 earthquake, similarly suggests a temporally deep space,  if one focussed on one single incident in somewhat glibly simplified terms, to ask bluntly if the site of the earthquake has somehow forgotten the event that shaped the evolution of its urban space in permitting the violation of local building codes.

There may be a need to excavate this sense of deep space, given the limits of memory in most data-centric maps.  The richness of “deep space” in the “nature” map captures enriched perspective on place it offers viewers–orienting them to the space of its waterways, springs, watersheds, and shoreline, with an eye to how each layer of geomorphology redefined and will continued to redefine its habitats in ways that open some deep continuities over time.  The density of detail that suggests an appreciation of place as an ecosystem, rather than a point, recalls the relation to place cultivated in Rebeca Solnit’s marvelous atlases of urban sites, which as much as presenting way finding guides compile the layered human habitation of place that treat the map as a form of exploration.  As Solnit’s maps exult in the possibilities of cartographical legibility which are increasingly limited in the standardized and somewhat sanitized formats of our own servers and data maps, uniting and adapting maps, overlays, illustration and ortho-imagery of aerial photography in a particularly sensitive synthetic register of place from several perspectives, uniting terrain, watersheds, and bathymetric readings in a broad and deeply textured record of habitats.

The Nature in the City map is a site of reorientation to place, loosening its vital forms from the abstract point-based readings of GPS.   The city is mapped through a sense of perpetual movement of rocks, animals, birds, flowering plants, and insects across space in Nature in the City‘s new map of San Francisco, which ably shifts our attention from the built environment the focus of most city maps to the harder to map edges of the city, both in space and in time–extending to the past and into the future, tracing the shared space of organisms where what we see as a city exists as an ecosystem.  And the edges of San Francisco make it an especially opportune target for mapping–both from it shifting shoreline, to the fossils of deep-sea radiolaria that can be found in its rocky peaks of chert, and the more recently arrived plants or species that have been attracted by human habitats, as seal, to the migration paths of the salmon that have long swum up its streams and whales that have foraged in the kelp forests on its coasts, to the urban forests and hidden streams and waterways in the city that distinguish it from the bedrock schist of  many other metropoles.  The seismic risks we often associate with the place are not so clearly referenced as the deep history of its evolution.

The stimulating counter-cartography is both pictorially abundant and solidly based on current datasets, that allow us to discover unbuilt spaces of the city that are usually ignored in the anthropocentric maps of built spaces that are largely or entirely paved.  Most maps have great difficulty in recording what goes on at the city’s margins, and a-historically represent the city as a timeless complex of buildings, frozen in time, as if to deny their historicity, and glorify the construction of place as a human achievement.  The mapping of San Francisco is often no different in its sense of local encomia that meld the built and unbuilt as in printed Renaissance maps that champion the built environment as the true human achievement of a sanctified space–


Jacopo_de'_Barbari_-_Plan_of_Venice_-_WGA01270Jacobo de’ Barbari, VENETIE MD (1500)


–that both draw wealth from arriving ships as a mercantile center, but was also elegantly isolated from the waters that surround it, even if nourished and fed by the ships at its edges.  Even in most recent OSM maps of cities, the mapping of building heights by extrusions suggest a built panorama that displaces the natural surroundings, or presents the city dotted with bits of light flat green, with only limited attention to the non-built setting.


NYC ext.pngOpenStreetMap, Three-Dimensional Map of New York City (2015)


The new maps of San Francisco depart from the fixed hierarchical perspective on place that geographical maps afford–and the ability to survey relations from an elevated perspective, by using that data to place the viewer in far closer relation to the “nature” of place that the aerial or perspectival view defines as subject to human vision.  The disruption of this fiction of visual supremacy and coherence is what joins both the Nature in the City  maps and the image of earthquake vulnerability that were recently printed in the cutting edge visualizations by which the New York Times invited the nation to orient itself to San Francisco’s newly built vertical downtown to commemorate the 1906 eartquake.  If the supremacy of the aerial view is questioned in each, they do so in very different visual strategies of inviting viewers to explore the situating the relation of place to the natural world that such maps deprivilege in their celebration of built space.  All maps are selective, but the selection of built environment alone impoverishes our sense of place in ways both maps seem in different ways–and to different ends–to address.


1,  The maps of the built constructions of the city leave out what are often the most important things that move in its structures, lie on the edges of the urban environment, or create new edges, breaks, and interruptions within the asphalted pavement of streets–the cracks of urban topography, that’s where the light shines in.  The attention tot he far richer intersections between the open spaces that exist on the margins of buildings and in the interstices of the built environment offer a far more ethical and ethically enriched experience.

As metropoles shrink, new possibilities of creating green spaces in the city are increasingly entertained, and have brought us to see the city in new ways:  in part, the increased remove of the city from “nature,” and the exclusive focus in maps on the built environment, has led us to become aware of how much is excluded from an image of .  But the dichotomy between “nature” and “city” is perhaps preventing us from attending to how green spaces can be cultivated at the same time as periods of intense urban growth, even when cities face problems of accommodating new residents.  San Francisco has hardly shrunk–in fact, the reverse is true, with rising pressures on many neighborhoods to accommodate residents in an era of ever escalating rents, increasing numbers of evictions, as the scissors of a real estate market create a far more populated place that few can afford.  But the over-building of its downtown was suggested in a striking data-rich pictorial visualization of increase seismic risks that was printed to invited readers on the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake, in a map focussed on dangers of the density of the downtown’s vertical expansion,

Two roughly contemporaneous approaches of rendering such data–both in the recent map of vertical buildings in downtown San Francisco that commemorated the 1906 earthquake in The New York Times  and the more detailed, on the ground maps of the cultivation of existing urban habitat in San Francisco’s open spaces focus our attention on urban growth in new and provocative ways, focussing on the man-made coasts of the city to draw attention to the rich habitat it still manages to offer native species–


north beachNature in the City (2018)


–or the stretch of towers that have recently redefined its skyline–creating a new vertical expansion stretching from the Salesforce Tower to the Transamerica pyramid–whose pronounced peaks and valleys rest on what was long recognized as unstable ground.  The mash-up of a past view of the destroyed landscape flattened by offshore tremors over a hundred years ago against the current crop of skyscrapers pose the related question of how anthropocentric our sense of the possibilities of urban building reflect an almost inexplicable alienation from place, and from the seismic threats that building in a recognized liquefaction zone poses, but sees “nature” as posing a perpetual threat to the city’s built environment, rather than optimistically suggest the benefits of appreciating their complementarity.


Towers: Sales Force to TransamericaNew York Times, April 17 (2018)


Both maps attempt to sift through the vast amounts of open data to offer new forms and formats of urban engagement in concretely visual form, exploiting the vast image banks and data that are increasingly available to compose a detailed image of place in an era that demands increased environmental awareness.  If the first warns of the dangers of vertical construction in a region whose proximity to fault lines cannot be forgotten, the second tilts viewers attention from the human-built to the unbuilt spaces of San Francisco which stand, even in an age of what seems overbuilding, as a biodiversity hotspot, where then restoration as sites of animal and plant habitat coexist in the built city.  Both turn from the questions of urban growth alone, in other words, to focus our attention on the compatibility of urban growth with the place of nature that has often gone unmapped in plans for expanding a built environment.  Nature lies less the specter of fault-lines, however, in the map in the header to this post, than in the islands of open spaces that preserve corridors of wildlife whose restoration offers viable habitat within the city we so often see only as built.  

As massive amounts of open data are increasingly available about cities, the need to offer such a deep perspective on the temporal axis seems critically important in cartographic ethics, and the richness of both maps suggests the limits of using a slider bar.  For time is a crucial element omitted from the hope that data will provide a means to measure the impact of the growth of urban buildings but offer  a site for transforming civic space–both by fostering engagement in civic space, and awareness of urban ecosystems–are increasingly explored.  And what better way to do so than through elegantly designed maps?  While we’ve long drawn lines between the city and the outdoors, as cities grow to mega-regions, and loadspace overwhelms open space, the notion of such a division makes less sense.

The West begins where the pavement ends” once defined a counter-geography of open lands in the western United States.  But as paved space spreads across the nation, the ubiquity of paved ground makes it impossible to see such land cover as antithetical to nature, there seems an urgency to mapping relations between open spaces and paved lands, and to move out of a clear division between the garden and the city, if only to gain some bearings of where we stand:  is the absence of assessing the impact of paving is to some extent hampered by the training of our eyes to look at paved space on maps, which have the dangerous effect of deeply diminishing our sense of eco-literacy or ecological change?


2.  The mapping an abundance of nature in the city of San Francisco may not be inherently surprising.  But it shocks the viewer in its outsized proportions, that run against the basic decorum of the map.  Surely the surprise of a city able to contain and even cultivate the green lands–and even nurturing plants and wildlife–seems sharply removed from the rush of urban environments, the noise of cars, freeways, and rush of urban life.  For in selecting the abundance of habitats possible in an urban space, the “Nature in the City” project invites one’s eyes rest on the map–without feeling overwhelmed by the intensity of the urban environment, from the coast lines of the city, circled by pelicans, whales, salmon, harbor seals, sand dollars, shorebirds as avocets, and, within its terrain, to coyote and butterflies situates the city not only as built space, but as a geographical nexus of lived habitats that intersect–




–as a living locus of migration,–rather than orient viewers to its built space.

Pealing back the composition of this map, the confluence of backing, data sources, and support reveal the congregation of non-profits dedicated to the conservation and protection of open spaces in San Francisco, and an activist environmental tradition dedicated to documenting and preserving local “bioregions” beside its built space:  if Peter Barstow founded the non-profit in 2005, to inspire a conservation movement, the momentum of the Parks Department, Presidio trust, California Academy of Sciences, Exploratorium and San Francisco Foundation have helped promote the project of connecting map readers to the city, as the Nature Conservancy long supported drawing our attention to the relation of nature and the high rises of urban space.

Indeed, considering cities not as sequestered from nature by blankets of urban smog and limits, but sites whose carbon footprints can be reduced starts from actively fostering habitat at time when half the world’s population lives in urban or urbanized environments, which cover only 3% of the world’s surface.  The broader crisis of urban ecology led me to be immediately attracted to the sensitive condensation of wisdom and engagement of the environment in a set of pictorial maps of San Francisco.  The map’s poetics–not limited to point data, despite its relative richness, rests in shifting the readers attention toward its open spaces, appealing to a sensory reading of the environment akin to taking a walk in wilderness–as Henry David Thoreau–and inviting them to notice insects, birdcalls, or windblown trees–the very sensory characteristics often absent from a map of paved space, which privilege routes above wondering, and a rectilinear organization of space, rather than the specificities of a lived place that our maps often ignore or overlook.

The warmly colored static map reflects a deep desire to remap the city in different ways than mapping softwares allow, or the tyranny of the grid, and engage the engaging ways that they use open data to render place in distinctive ways that could be more easily inhabited.  The rich existence of habitats–and the deep view of sites of nature in space, making us look back to the rich ecosystems of what were once tidal wetlands in the very area that is now overpaved.  To be sure, the map doesn’t suggest quite the historical depth of a landscape whose grassy lands were once populated by roaming camels, zebras, and wooly mammoths, but by excavating the rich habitat suggested in the nutrient-rich lands of tidal wetlands, long reconfigured since 1850, it suggests continuities in wild lands, as much as among wildlife.




Selective foregrounding of the relations between ground surface impermeability, which in the country covers not only 4.1 million miles of paved highways–or 8.3 million lane miles–but corridors extending within miles of the roads, but land cover change that suggest a massive urban expansion, affecting 65,000 sq mi of coastal regions between 1996-2010, an area the size of the state of Florida, and 13% of the Gulf of Mexico or 15% of the southeastern United States, per the Coastal Change Analysis Program (C-CAP).  If viewers can explore the levels of ground cover change across the coastal regions–regions where landcover change has produced huge consequences of runoff in data maps, to assess the potential impact of ground cover change on coastal communities, the local attempts to balance such massive land cover change suggest ways of keeping in touch with local habitat.


3.  The question of local landcover that has restricted increasing islands of green is even apparent in the city of San Francisco, surrounded by more vital habitat most other American cities, if not nearly as green as Vancouver BC.    The massive effects of overpaving has created a habitat for cars, and its greyed out urban growth makes the land cover shifts over the century of the city’s once largely sandy terrain even if most of the development is only at low or medium intensity, save the paved downtown–

land cover SF.png

forest:high intensity:med intensiy.pngNOAA C-Cap Land Cover Classifications/ESRI

–but presents a deeply engaging surface of habitat, as much as pure pixelated space, from the casting as the shoreline as active habitat, often overlooked in records of its built space–


north beach


–to the detailed depiction of the city as a palimpsest that overflows with undetected nature, not only poppies and thistles, but underwater crustaceans (oysters–the vestige of a once thriving oyster colony in the bay, shorebirds, and fossils of invertebrates, in ways that invite us not only to remap the urban environment but to try to explore its wealth.

Centerpiece NITCNature in the City


The complex constellation of wetlands, green space, coastal currents and bathymetric lines reveals a mosaic that is nested in both high intensity and medium intensity development.  In San Francisco, open space and some stretches of bare land and forest contained in pockets of a landscape of development, that have allowed many to preserve not only remnants of five hundred indigenous plant varieties, but helped continue to nourish an ecosystem still particular to it in contrast to other cities.  If paved and cover in cities is estimated at 30-40%–35% on average for California’s capital; 30% in Portland and 24% of New York City– the increasing availability of open data and urban orthoimagery allow us to drill into the local data, and resolve questions of our relation to the built environment.

And even as impervious pavement covers a growing portion of the country, providing what the Center for Watershed Protection coyly called a “habitat for cars,” of streets, parking lots, and highways, the illustration of the survival of habitat in creeks, lakes, and open spaces, is not only ethically important.  The layers of habitat revealed in the Nature in the City –a title that reverses the privileging of paved space in most of our navigational maps–suggests the deep history of natural habitats that are only now being recovered by endangered species, and that long distinguished the unique contact with nature in the city on the Pacific.

Is it possible that the maps of paved space we rely on prevent us from wandering, and actively engaging the world with our minds?    This map allows the abilities of the saturation of sensory stimulation of the solitary walker, who,  removed from conscious acts of spatial measurement, responds to the non-built world as a tranquil space; it invites its user to discover the hidden Isle de St. Pierre that is lying in the city’s paved neighborhoods–not only Golden Gate Park, but the Presidio; Mission Bay; Bernal Heights; Inner Richmond; even Civic Center and the Western Addition–that are so often rendered as grey space on our iPhones as we move in urban space, glued to their screens, or the voices that remind us how to navigate its streets, rather than to the native flora and fauna that whose abundance are so unique to define a place.


image.pngFremontodentron/James Gaither


The paths it suggest aren’t human–if it does allow one to follow the trails marked in orange on its surface, as if to urge one to explore off the road and on foot the rich habitat that remains.  The reveries of walking are not guided itineraries, but invite us to wander in mapped space to discover how its non-built spaces afford somewhat hidden habitats, if it is not so strikingly evident an intersection between mountains, lakes, streams, and forest.


image.pngFormer monastery in St. Pierre island, Switzerland where Jean-Jacques Rousseau lived from September to December 1765, when he wrote Reveries of the Solitary Walker


As Rousseau had described the considerable enjoyment that he took on his walks in enumerating and describing the plants in flower that he saw, and moving from these detailed observations of the natural world around him in St. Pierre to what he called the “complete picture,” the images of thistles, a detailed image of urban ecology, watersheds, the range of rare breeds of magnolia, among the greatest selection of which in America live in San Francisco, California poppies, and coastal scrub and other native plants like huckleberry and California Sage encountered in the city.  But unlike Rousseau’s solitary walker who wanders in nature, the map offers a point far less rooted in the human observer.  Rather, it offers a point of departure for the ecosystem of a mosaic of over five hundred plants in the peninsula, that attract a broad range of insects, birds, and animals, extending back to a prehistoric ancient ecosystem, of significant biodiversity–and here recalls Darwin’s notion of an open and endless cartographic form to do so.  For who are the inhabitants of place anthat actually have long defined it, the maps so gently asks of its readers, humans or the longstanding trees, plants, and complex habitat that we might do well toa ctually attend to, experience, and observe?


image.pngCalifornia poppy (Eschscholzia california); tidy tips (Layia platyglossa); Gillia tricolor; Phacelia campanularia/Don Mahoney


As we use increasingly limitless maps that pan across the city, saturated with data we can never process, that allow us to pan, zoom in, zoom out, we have internalized a sense of a virtual “zooms cape” as much as a landscape, that links an array of different sorts of land cover in pixellated form.  The grid relaying satellite imagery to local servers offers limited reference points by which to assess the land cover change, as we need to to so most; the uniformity of our cartographical literacy tends to wipe out records that are rich with the past in their illusion of a completeness.

The focus on the paved areas of San Francisco are often seen as making the city a biodiversity hotspot–if one separates the ancient biodiversity of its wild past to the paved present, and contrast the contrast between the “nature” of the indigenous landscape of the peninsula against the built out urban grid, where are condemned to live on paved streets.  But the dominance of the grid in the aerial view erases the ecosystems that continue to thrive, or the ability to move from inspiration in the particular to broader reflection on the universal questions of the city’s future as a site for urban organisms.

But rather than indulge in a “before” and “after” sort of fantasy, that seems deeply historical, despite the contrast between the pre-1750 image that reveals a bucolic San Francisco’s open spaces, streams and estuaries, with the overpaved city which defined its bearing on a grid–


image.pngWild Equity Institute/Nancy Morita


—the map invites us in, to the ecological richness of a sense of deep time in the city, across the remolding of the coasts that were defined by landfill, less in terms of a fall from a state of nature–an ahistorical narrative–than an appreciation of the arrival of new plants–who can deny the pleasures of Campbell’s Magnolia, or Saucer Magnolia, the oysters introduced in the bay, or coyote that  followed humans to the city, to enjoy and appreciate the actual palimpsest of the city as it exists, not only with rich manzanita, and even palms and eucalypts, beside more native plants that offer a deep view of the mobility of nature across space, as well as the indigenous habitat, taking the abundance of “endless forms” in San Francisco more seriously scientifically.



image.pngNature in the City: Spring in San Francisco


Despite the power of the “compare and contrast” parallel images–recalling the parallel projection of pairs of slides in so many art history courses given in lecture halls that has created the DNA of many art historical arguments–the broader purchase of the expansive sort of habitat that maps onto the city in ways we rarely chart.   Instead of viewing nature in a monolithic “now you see it, now you don’t!” fashion, the constant motion of the lived city is what the pictorial map tries to bring to the surface from its built environment, offering a rich historical appreciation of place that seems particularly indebted not only to environmental thought but to Solnit’s intentional enrichment of our cartographic imagination, in constantly innovative atlases of urban space orient us to their heterogeneity, shifting compositions, and layered morphologies.  For rather than positing a “dot” that exists in one site or has strict boundaries.  Part of the beauty of the Nature in the City map is the similar sense of engagement it plays with the bounds of San Francisco county–noted on the map–that notes the way we bound space and the constant motion of life that is in it, and that maps have such a hard time calling to the fore.

The comprehensive abilities of map tiles that arrive on our devices in our pockets imply a false comprehensiveness that the Nature in the City map challenges.  If hand-holds may restrain us from interacting with the every environments they describe, and the circumscription of bound “rest areas” and parks, the combination of LiDar readings of street trees provides a detailed record of the landscape we have built, and with which animals interact, as if to restore our agency to an ecosystem by rendering details that foster what one can only call augmented eco literacy.  By integrating different data-based forms of LiDar, orthoimagery and detailed observation of the ground of a region we thought well-mapped, it shifts attention from a “habitat for cars” that continues to dominate so much of our landscape, constraining other habitats and lived space, and use open data toward open spaces within the built city, and drill beneath the overlays of the data-rich maps we are used to consult day to day.

If the mapping of the edges of built space, and the margins of man-made landscapes on which we focus and replicate in most maps, makes it hard to see the complex relations between the broader ecosystem and the built city, or the city’s constructions and its nearby faults, both maps bring us to move, mentally, to map a broader web of inter-connections and associations, one through close attention to the individual poppy, standing erect at the base of the map, as if emblematic of the fragile but persistent place of nature in the city, and the urban ecosystem, or tracing more shocking lines between the sandy soil that has made built structures more vulnerable to seismic shocks and the recent spate of vertical buildings whose rebar cores barely reach the bedrock.  Only in making such connections can we really come to think, after all, about the future of built space, and do so in less starkly oppositional terms between the grayness of the built environment and the natural world it tends to exclude.

These maps provide helpful tools for thinking about the future of cities.


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Filed under landcover change, map design, mapping nature, San Francisco, urban ecology

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