Tag Archives: urban planning

The Natures of San Francisco

“A man in the city,” wrote American novelist William Gass, “has no natural thing by which to measure himself.” Gass wrote, in two thirds of the way through the last century, thinking mostly of the cities on the east coast of the United States–but not only. Since then, the measurement of man has been outsourced to numerous devices–from not only height and weight, but calorry intake, income, carbon footprint, and racial identity–Gass was, as a resident of the Midwest, aghast at the notion of nature in the city, and of the reduced relation to natural habitat: “Nothing can live and remain free where he resides but the pigeon, starling, sparrow, spider, cockroach, mouse, moth, fly and weed, and he laments the existence of even these and makes his plans to poison them,” Gass writes with acid-tinged venom of exasperation of a man of the midwest, in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. Long before Donald Trump asked where the heart of the nation’s heart lay, and railed against cities Gass did quite cuttingly with far greater acumen of the versions of nature accessible to city-dwellers, as images that replaced the nature world: “His parks are potted plants.” But the significant greenspace that long defined San Francisco and the East Bay–as well as nearby less urbanized areas–suggested both a unique sort of habitat, and a confluence of not exactly rural but open space and green corridors in an urban environment.

The sense of San Francisco as surrounded by the Pacific and freshwater basins, and a confluence of saltwater and freshwater, and a terrain whose sandiness and lack of bedrock has limited its urban growth–not to mention its greater seismic risk–have created a somewhat model urban area, unique and exemplary even in an age of globalization and climate changes, when San Francisco, if not exactly low-lying, faces significant threats from sea-level rise. But the fostering of a new relation to urban habitat has left the Bay Area and city far less insularly defined in relation to nature: if Rebecca Solnit rightly observed that the old geographers were wrong only in one–if one significant–way in describing California as an island, the significant surviving greenspace, cultivable land, and open space in the state, while under threat, extends to San Francisco and much of northern California, and significant parts of the southern coast. If the state is known for giant redwood forests and sequoia groves, strikingly significant habitats enter San Francisco’s own natural ecology.

The recalibration of the place of nature to which San Francisco has been long open has long been measured as something that is threatened and endangered in its scarcity, as paving of asphalt and concrete have dramatically changed its landcover, toward a shift to appreciate and embrace its nature, and indeed embrace the benefits of cultivating not only plants, but rather ecophilia. The celebration of an urban environment far often reduced to being mapped for seismic peril and proximity to fault-lines offers a deep picture of the specific formation and sustainment of a rather unique coastal habitat, both based on accurate data and pushing the boundaries of data visualization to excavate a rich record of–and promote a wonderfully tactile relationship to–broad concerns of ecology and environmental history.

The engaging design of the 2018 map commissioned by Nature in the City begins from a datapoint of each and every tree and green space the city offers, but fosters a productive way of looking at the urban environment, different in that it focusses far less on the pests we often seek to eliminate from our homes with urban fastidiousness, than to appreciate the range of species beside which city dwellers live, despite their frequent focus on roads of paved concrete: in a map that embraces the city at the end of the peninsula from bay to sea, the living cornucopia of habitat that spans the urban environment offers a new way to understand this urban space.

Nature in the City/2018

Although ecosystems are the most living areas of cities, they remain hidden from view on city maps of the built landscape or paved roads that define the mobilty of “urban” life.  But we often fail to orient ourselves to the extent of urban environments in most maps. And the changing vulnerability of cites to climate change and extreme weather has directed increased attention to the vulnerability and instability of urban space, in ways we are still taking stock through maps, the question of what maps best orient us to the future of the city have provoked increased attention from maps of sea-level change, to maps of vulnerability to earthquakes and seismic risks. No city has been more subject to such demands for recalibrating its lived space, perhaps, than San Francisco, the city that is most conspicuously built on several fault lines–so much that the expansive recent downtown rebuilding is cast as a “seismic trap” or a disasters waiting to happen–showing the spate of high-rise construction–

New York Times/“San Francisco’s Seismic Gamble” (April 17, 2018)

–against the backdrop of the widespread urban devastation of the 1906 earthquake on its hundred and twelfth anniversary, as if to suggest that the memory of that devastating event has receded into the past of public memory.

The grim image of a dangerous and unruly world of seismic shocks and faultiness is a contrast to the cornucopia of habitats and biodiversity of a city like San Francisco sustains. The power of the image of devastation asks incredulously how San Francisco has allowed the construction of large downtown buildings on such shaky terrain, as if the lessons of the past weren’t ever learned, lest the fears of fault-lines be forgotten, and the dangers of devastation that led to longstanding opposition to skyscrapers that have rampantly transformed New York City’s skyline be introduced.

To cast this change as local–or the charge of a local correspondent who arrived in San Francisco–is a projection of the parochial. The changes in urban skylines are nothing if not global, and the concession to building of skyline allowed the risk posed by underground fault-lines to be forgotten by the extent to which realtors have persuaded the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection to undertake a building boom despite seismic risk. The disturbing fantasia of the city destroyed by nature is no doubt an echo of the increased natural risks posed by climate change, risks of sea-level rise, and surging seas. The unharmonious relation to a world out of joint seems brilliantly condensed in the nightmarish image of urban apocalypse, echoing the struggles for global survival in early 1970s flicks like Earthquake! or 1998’s Armageddon, the benefits of cultivating a harmonious relation to nature, in response to the distance from nature in the shadows high rises cast on litter-strewn paved streets.

William Wordsworth was worried about psychically degrading nature on man of the “outrageous stimulation” city-dwellers sought–as if urban life provoked a change in the nervous constitution. A better example of the stimulation of the urban imaginary cannot be found than in the transformation of the skyline by vertical building,–even if the creation of urban canyons wasn’t what Wordsworth meant–the fear that a quest for excesses of sensory stimulation would fail to meet an “inborn inextinguishable thirst/Of rural scenes,” the question of how to compensate the losses that Wordsworth saw as the primary casualties of the build environment has found a new source of nourishment in the marriage of art and cartography that the Nature in the City project, inspired by the unique natures within San Francisco; lush parks contain live oaks, man-made lakes, sprawling botanical gardens, and mountainous natural preserves, and of integrating their mosaic of green that the ambitious 2-D project filled in of a green urban environment, using cutting-edge LiDAR technologies of tree density and canopy height to recast paved landscapes as something more like a living habitat, rather than the zoos that Gass described most city-dwellers use to be spectators of great cats from behind bars, as if to confirm their remove from a living habitat they are condemned to eroticize and confine to leisure time.

Nature in the City/2018

By placing this image of nature within the urban setting, against an image of the historical shoreline of a city whose modernization accommodated piers along its bay-facing waterfront, dramatically extended by landfill, to invite the viewer to peel back the earlier contours of its coast, as if to bring the nature of the city back into balance with its built space.

Nature in the City/2018

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