Tag Archives: San Francisco

Green Cities: Nature in the City?

The West begins where the pavement ends” might have 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 is an urgency of mapping the relations between open spaces and paved lands, even 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?

The selective foregrounding of the relations between an increasingly ever-present ground surface impermeability, covering not only the 4.1 million miles of paved highways in the United States, and 8.3 million lane miles, affecting corridors within miles of the roads, but an expansion of impervious surfaces and land cover change that suggest a massive expansion–just under 65,000 square miles of coastal regions between 2996-2010, or an area the size of the state of Florida, including 13% of the Gulf of Mexico and 15% of the southeastern United States, based on the Coastal Change Analysis Program (C-CAP).

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 downtow–

 

land cover SF.png

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

 

The complex constellation reveals a mosaic of high intensity and medium intensity development, where developed open space and some stretches of bare land and forest contained in pockets of a landscape of development.  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 calls a “habitat for cars,” the illustration of the survival of habitat is ethically important.

The increasingly limitless maps that pan across the city, including an exhaustive array of different sorts of landcover, or allowing one to pan, zoom out, and zoom in across landcover, relaying satellite imagery to local servers, seem in fact startlingly limited to assess the level of land cover change, and not only because of the single and uniform sort of cartographical literacy they encourage:  the illusion of a complete record from map tiles that arrive on our devices suggest a false comprehensiveness that may restrain us from interacting with th every environments that they describe.  Only by combining LiDar, orthoimagery and detailed observation of the ground can we ask how a “habitat for cars” continues to dominate the landscape, constraining other habitats and lived space, and use open data to open up the spaces of the built city, and move beyond the limits of apparently limitless data, to drill beneath its overlays.

Indeed, the point of shaping big data not only in overlays, but in an integrated mosaic that reveals relations that we can explore by making our own ties within the maps, using them as instruments to think about place, as much as tools for navigating the grey uniformity of space, are especially appealing as a way of shifting our relation to place in an age where overdevelopment threatens increasing homogeneity.   Can we make a map that will allow us to be our own Thoreau, to wander on the shores and open spaces of the city, as opposed to follow its roads in enclosed vehicles, and excavate the landscapes where we still live?  For the Nature in the City map of San Francisco is an effort begun by Joel Barstow and now in its third edition, it suggests more than anything that we adopt a position like Thoreau, despite the level of intense local development, by using a deep dive into spatial data,  to direct attention not to its built environment, but spiders, sea birds, migrating whales, blossoming plants, sand dollars and even sea lions along its coasts–investing the map with a new sense of tactile bounty and direct consciousness not only to its present, but to the remaining, past, and future habitats in the built city, finding a resilient nature in its construction.

The two maps that were released of the city in April 2018 react to the increased availability of open data, but offer an invitation to the new ways maps might make cognitive claims in fun ways–as if to escape the hegemony of our our dependence on the tyranny of navigating by hand-held screens.  Claims about “where the pavement ends” today seem foreign to overbuilt landscapes, but call for orienting us to the huge changes in the overbuilt areas of urban space and environments:   indeed, maps of open data struggle to create an ethical relation to place, as the growth of over 43,000 square miles of impervious ground cover that existed in the United States compels a different relation to nature.  And if encomiastic views of cities created a visual relation to bird’s-eye views of place–that most our maps of location and navigation fail to provide–we are using maps to excavate a lost local deep history that the superficial rendering of much open data neglects, recreating a relation to space and anew view of the urban community that recall the tactile nature of bird’s-eye views that invite us to explore their space by the position of hilltop observers who at leisure survey the town to learn about their surroundings.

 

San Francisco 1862

 

This post examines–and, yes, celebrates–how two maps of San Francisco incorporate open data to orient viewers to San Francisco as a place through mashed up maps–on the screen, and the superimposition of older photographic images and new maps to collapse time that the screen-experience creates, in the recent image of at-risk buildings in the growing skyscrapers of downtown San Francisco that have come to transcend 650 feet in height, or by rehabilitating the paper map in how Nature in the City used data-rich detail to invite us to explore the vitality of the biotic niches of San Francisco in deeply biophilic ways.  In an age of big data and data flows, both seem to recoup the cognitive benefits of orientation to place that is particularly gripping and meaningful, for how they force us to engage selective content that reflects the frustrating superficial nature of maps that privilege geolocation on the virtual–and increasingly pixellated–space of a grid, and recuperate a new relation to place by offering new abilities to read place.

At the same time as we lose a sense of place in many regions of the west–and not only there–not due to a surplus of data, but due to the difficulty of mapping data onto place in a way that we can process, we need to attend to how we give concrete rendering to an urban ecology not focussed on built space.  Indeed, both he retrospective view of the rebuilding of downtown San Francisco on the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake and the fostering of spaces for habitat alongside the built environment offer new tools of engaging landscape, moving within place, and using cartographical tools to reevaluate our relation to urban space.  By inviting us into the city if one map produced on Earth Day invited us to explore–albeit in a static format–local nature in the urban space, as if to find the remaining encouragement of vibrant natural ecosystems in an unknown landscape, to reveal a hidden habitat lying before us at all time, the other map, produced on the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake, used data to question if towers are compatible with the history of place by invoking a landscape of earthquakes known too well.  The maps use data to incarnate two distinct views of urban memory–one celebrating habitats revealed in the seas, land, and fossil record; one the memory of nature’s destruction at the edge of a continental plate–and two versions of encomiastic views–one praising not the built but unbuilt spaces of the city; the other, inverting an iconographic tradition that celebrated feats of human building. Indeed, if the Nature in the City map inverts an elegant if simple terrain map to show the green spaces–from parks, urban forests, and street trees to shores–in which thirteen species dwell, rather than the street plan and built environment, buildings dominate the view of the city as mapped on the anniversary of the earthquake as a built environment confronted by imminent collapse.

There is almost the sense that the map of open spaces and ecosystems beckon us to look at the urban ground plan we know so well from the point of view of the animals that live there, and inhabit its open corridors, while the datasets that the Times collected is used to orient us to the professional view of the urban engineer through the return of the repressed, in which forces of nature that have so recently shocked us–in hurricanes, tsunami, lava-spewing earthquakes, flash coastal flooding, fires and extreme weather events–are implicitly juxtaposed with the impending disaster of an earthquake on what we had imagined was a stable built environment.  Each map presents a different nature-culture hybrid, but reveals how our notions of nature are not located only where pavement ends, but are now necessarily increasingly hybridized, if coexisting–despite the contrast between the warm palette of the first map and the harsh danger signs of impending disaster of its built environment, which recede in the warm inviting hues of the Nature in the City.  (The map also suggests how seismic activity shaped the environment, but is  far less apocalyptic.)

 

hidden habitat.pngNature in the City

imageThe New York Times, April 17 (2018)

 

We are perhaps starting to learn, in an age of increased data availability, how to attend to the importance of graphic tools to record place, and get a better orientation on the dynamics of place.  As we have an overabundance of mapped data and mapped cities now, each one of his holding our own multi-scale urban map in our pockets, the scalable urban streetscapes we are addicted to mapping our locations may only serve to distract us from the deeper relation to the environment–and indeed, the ecosystem–that is not included in so many of the maps we use to gain bearings.  As we use maps that we find only limit our sense of place, and constrain it in ways that increasingly correspond to the limits of the data used to create our maps, the importance of turning to maps to gain orientation to the built environment–in a time when “the west is where the pavement ends” is .drained of any inspirational value–even in a bar in the open spaces of the Black Rock Desert, after a long, sweaty highway drive, when it still seems ironic.  For if most of the west is not only paved, but increasingly standing to lose lose even the memory of open lands, as increasing extra-urban areas are paved and accelerated land cover shifts proceed at a greater rate than ever before.

The growth of open urban data provides a new way to look at the survival of open spaces and the engagement with paved space in American cities.  The range of dynamic maps like that of Nature in the City in the header to this post.  The map that the local non-profit assembled suggests the excitement of the ground cover combination in the city by drawing our eyes to the remaining spaces of habitat within paved land cover.  The question of a need for orienting ourselves to greater landcover change only grows as we see the difficulty of gaining purchase on the built environment and as our confidence in our mapping skills grows.  And as we are increasingly sensitive–and compelled to react to if not search for meaning in data on new environmental disasters and environmental change–the ability to take stock of place and our relation to it is ever more pressing in what might be called the growing ethics of data visualizations and the compelling ways that open data can be rendered to define and refine our spatial relation to place.

 

1.   My own intensely reactive confrontation with two visualizations of San Francisco that appeared within one week created.  Both created a new assemblage of the city’s surroundings, that seek to orient us as viewers to its nature:  one pointing to the ecosystem of signs of nature–animals, flowers, fossils, birds, and insects–in the city we think of as built by humans, the other one pointing to the complexities of building with abandon on its shaky ground, hidden liquefaction zones, and proximity to fault lines.  If one is mapped against historical habitats still present in the city, the other is mapped against the ruinous earthquake of 1906.  Rather than being only a passive register of data, however, both maps use their data-richness to orient viewers to the city’s space, either by involving viewers in its ecosystem or the image of expanding buildings in a landscape permeated by risk, by inviting us to drill, as it were, underground, into the open data on the urban foundations of the downtown.

Both orient us to a landscape that we are not well served by onscreen maps that locate us primarily within a built environment.  The map by Nature in the City featured in the header to this post aspires to the power of an activist mapping, through a deep familiarity with place, to surprise residents who often use maps and apps to navigate San Francisco to enjoy a new relation to place–in the direct manner of stating that the pavement ends.  Its ethics are to compel us to look outside the over-mapped space of the built city. Indeed, the rich surface–counterintuitively dotted in a pointillist array of light green with larger multicolored puddlings of darker green, suggests the limits of paved surfaces in San Francisco, and creates a wonderfully textured image to investigate the relations between local and dispersed ecosystems.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under data visualization, eco literacy, mapping fault lines, open data, San Francisco

Re-Mapping San Francisco

The late, great outlaw historian of cartography, J. B. Jackson, founder of Landscape and a Lone Ranger of the Berkeley hills, argued that the geography of the freeway was a dominant but rarely appreciated subject of academic study.  For Jackson argued that despite much study of maps and topography, cars coursing through space provided a new experience of space itself, and one that was poised to become the dominant way we experience the landscape.  Contrasting the space of the highway to the space of Mexica adobes, Jackson believed he identified the problem of writing about the experience of national space in the twentieth century, explored in a series of essays on the shifting perception of geography and highways, and the mapping of the new settlement of space.

Rebecca Solnit published a lovely article that might be seen as an expansion of some of Jackson’s points, but which takes a map as emblematic of the ways that commute routes suggest the dangers of such a shifting of the inhabitation of San Francisco’s public space.  For Solnit, the 2012 map that has been called “The City from the Valley” reflects the precipitous housing market of San Francisco as it makes evident the “invisible” network of a series of unmarked bus stops that ferry workers not to freedom, but to work.  The maps mark what Solnit describes as the arrival of “Google Invaders” in the city, and she sees it as concretizing the menace that an influx of new cash from Silicon Valley workers that has flooded the San Francisco real estate market, and effectively placing many of its current residents–focussing on the artists who have made the city their own–not only at a disadvantage, but as the apartments were they lived become targets of eviction.  As apartment buildings they lived in are converted from rental units to feed the insatiable demand for housing, the rising market prices of housing are met by an audience which uses a separate transit system–and renders unoriginal whatever organic community and economy Jane Jacobs saw as the basis for the American city.

The “shadow” transit network of private busses that ferry workers to extra urban employers who pay low taxes–and none to the city–tells us much about the way the Valley feeds the city, and the ways the city stands in relation to the Valley.  The mapping of transit contrasts, for example, to the apparent organic unity of the city’s transit system plotted from OpenStreetMaps, whose individually colored lines ferry workers and tourists within what seems its discreet organism:

SF TRANSIT

Solnit has recently immersed  herself in the problems of mapping San Francisco, and her piece brings together some of the familiarity with San Francisco as a residential city with an eery foreboding that San Francisco has come to symbolize a lifestyle with appeal among a breed of commuters to behemoths of Silicon Valley, who she characterizes as faceless sorts, ferried by dark-windowed private buses operated by each employer, as if Storm Troopers in suits.  The possibility of buying real estate in this city faces a squeeze generated by hugely wealthy potential residents who work outside the city, contribute minimally to its quality of life, and rely on corporate subsidized commuter buses that undermine the prospect of public transportation–and adopt a new means to use the urban infrastructure for tech workers to travel to their jobs in Silicon Valley not sharing revenues with the city.

bus trips research

Solnit included with her complex and more multi-faceted argument is captured a single map of the new private transport routes that have been introduced, as a shadow system of urban transit, by Google, Apple, and EBay:  Geoffrey A. Fowler crowed  that “A San Francisco design firm has literally drawn a map showing how the city and Silicon Valley are growing closer together through a network of private corporate buses” in The Wall Street Journal, heralding the growth of a new archipelago insulated by new commute routes that linked monied preserves.  Calling the network “the future of transit,” the routes are designated for corporate workers, rather than urban residents, and ferries them along special corridors from residences to places of work, severing connections to the places where they live without using municipal transport or brining benefits through local highway tolls.  The transit system that serves this new population of inhabitants working in the Valley reveals a sort of parallel existence of a financial network that has vampyrically sucked or absorbed the housing market, and daily moves to work at a remove from the city’s space on multiple peninsula shuttles whose opaque windows move folks to their work away from home, and funnel every increasing salaries into the housing market:  or, to reverse metaphors, the map that shows movement to and from the Valley might be seen as mapping not only the routes of busses that were not known publicly before the publication might be taken as emblematic of the influx of Silicon Valley money that increasingly feeds San Francisco’s population.

While such lines are private, and the sites of stops secret, the Stamen group used Field Papers to do an ethnographic mapping of private bus routes based on first-hand observation in order to create an alternate “atlas” from data traced by hand, and then scanned back and retraced in GIS systems like QGIS or OpenStreetMap.  The result is to publish the shadow routes that the private bus lines use to ferry workers from San Francisco to Silicon Valley.  Its designers devised the routes that these large busses with wifi and dark glass windows take to provide an elite mode of conveyance to work to contrast it to the existing transportation networks that serve the city, based on careful observations and plotting of such private bus routes based on close observations of the pathways that the buses actually take, using Field Notes to sketch the routes then assembled into a synthetic coherent system.  And they have called it “The City and The Valley” to highlight the unique relation of a city where residents increasingly go to the suburbs to work, and money from the Valley enters the city to inflate its astronomically ascendant rents.

stamen-bus-fieldpapers2

By plotting and publishing a rendering of the network of private busses against an OpenStreetMaps base-map, the exclusive commuter system could be charted in winking reference to a famous public transit system–Massimo Vignelli’s 1972 MTA map of the New York Subway, whose comprehensive Graphics Standard Manual invested something like modernity to the public transit system of New York City–that highlighted the exclusive clientele that the buses were created to attract, but imagining one would be able to similarly move between their lines in a nice conceit.

Private Bus Lines in San Francisco

The map provides a basis to define the corridors of transit for those who are looking where to buy their houses that will guarantee access to the restaurants, theater, clubs, cafes or aura of their new chosen city of residence, San Francisco, in which they have arrive, and was indeed drafted by a small design firm most of whose workers live in the Mission–and have seen the busses rather than ever taken them.  Solnit argues that the network of private busses effectively created a snare for its current inhabitants by forcing up real estate prices to unreasonable rates:  the map addresses those bus riders who work for Google, Ebay, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo and Electronic Arts, and has itself already even been used by over-eager developers in Bernal Heights to show the convenience of location to these corporate buses, and promote the ease of access to private bus lines that their neighborhood allows.

The adoption of iconography from the familiar image of its public transport, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, is telling.  Urban routes of transportation are mapped but dwarfed by the major corridors of the bright yellow stream of Google commuters,––– overflowing the commute from Lombard and Filmore to Van Ness, accompanied by a strong bright blue line of Apple workers.

The colors reference the Vignelli map, but also seem to replace or revise the familiar image of BART routes, while appropriating the schema of primary colors that designate the Colma, Richmond, Pittsburg/Bay Point, Dublin/Pleasanton and Fremont routes.  The subtle shifting of colors from the solid green, red, orange, yellow, and deep blue of BART lines seems undeniable:  the day glo colors of the Private Bus Lines map are both more hip, squeaky clean and somehow more oblivious to their urban surroundings.

system-map

Jackson theorized freeway views created a relation to space that deserved to be acknowledged, and called for buildings to respond to its landscape.  The darkened windows of private buses obliterate any relation to the landscape serve as pods that ferry highly paid workers from home to work, so that they needn’t be harried by the urban space that ostensibly surrounds them.  They are less interested in a relation to space, or the navigation of lived space, than the preparation of a speedy route of commute.

Leave a comment

Filed under BART, Private Transit Busses, Rebecca Solnit, San Francisco, Stamen design