Tag Archives: urban wildlife

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 an exasperation of the midwest, in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, before moving to zing the city-dweller: “His parks are potted plants.” Awareness of the biophilic needs of urban inhabitants for contact with urban greenspace, that has prompted active redesign urban environments in an overpaved world, responding to evidence greenspace reduce stress and mental illness, mapping the presence of nature in the city can hardly be reduced to parks.

Long before politicians railed against cities, asking where the heart of the nation’s heart lay, this icy put-down summoned the identity of the interior to dismiss the paltriness of urban parks as poor replacements for the nature world. But the if the built centers of San Francisco have grown in recent years–both in its downtown skyline and neighboring Oakland–as any departing airplane can see–the maps we make of our changing cities demand we attend to how they invite us to explore and navigate urban space in all its dimensions–including the role of the city as an ecosystem.

San Francisco from the Air, 2020/Shmuel Thaler/Instagram

We bristle in San Francisco at the dismissal of our built environment, or the urban assets of verticality as a measure of cosmopolitan urbanism. From the seat of the departing plane, one might forget that the city not only borders significant greenspace across the Bay, but that San Francisco and the East Bay are living habitats.

We who live in the city are more accustomed to see a unique sort of habitat, and a confluence of not exactly rural but open space and green corridors in an urban environment. Even as vertical crowding may eclipse its green, the urban ecosystems they nourish prevent the symptoms of urban dysphoria associated with built environments, and notwithstanding threats of seismic disturbance or sea-level rise. Gass’s rather bone-chilling evocation of the coldness of rural isolation eclipses the real work of nurturing deep ties to a abundant ecosystems in San Francisco’s built space. And in an age when trees, and urban greenspace, face threats of car pollution, extreme weather, and the uprooting of trees to make way for construction sites or trim branches for urban safety or interference in above-ground power lines in many Bay Area cities, the value of absorbing CO2 and preventing floods by absorbing water have created a virtual boom of greening urban space.

Increasingly, we are attendant to the urban habitat they offer, beyond the cult of verticality as a metric of urbanity. Trees have been increasingly seen as presenting a basis for the future flourishing of cities and sustainability of urban space, with the growth of greening projects across the developed world: since 2007, an active New York City overseen by Bloomberg rooted over a million trees in urban space, and have taken root in London, where Mayor Sadiq Khan aims to make it the first “National Park City” while Paris is building four inner-city urban forests by 2020. While building heights provided a measure of a metropolis in the twentieth century, projects of urban greening have led to a search for more climate-tolerant trees–including “resilient” non-natives, like the three-toothed maple, even if urban planners are wary of invasive non-natives: Ireland’s commitment to plant 440 million trees by 2040, and hopes in Ethiopia to plant five billion seedlings in a year suggested a positive project of greening before the coronavirus pandemic, and an optimistic foot-forward re-engineering of the urban biome of unprecedented scale.

1. It was not always that way, and the spate of overbuilding in San Francisco has led it to aspire to a vertical landscape, as if out of envy of urban skylines of the east coast. If environmental dysphoria might be countered by planting of trees, San Francisco has gained a skyline of something like skyscrapers–as if in spite of its seismic risks–

–while the place of nature in the city in San Francisco, rather than on its outer bonds or beyond its walls, even before construction of a looming Salesforce Tower, we seek still to see as a site for outdoor recreation–

–if we may, as in a recent encomia to the city’s often beleaguered transit authority, bracket its impact as a building by reducing its size, and presence on our skyline, by continuing to render its towers as roughly equal to the TransAmerica Tower familiar as a point of reference that once dominated it in the past, as if its skyline remained roughly uniform.

The transformation of overpaving urban space has led to city maps that are more reliant on a strictly automobilistic perspective, as Google Maps and Bing are drawn from the perspectives of a space that is inhabited by cars, more tan the wildlife of the city: the perspective of the walker in the city is less easy to approach, in maps that are biased by their exclusion of open space that is so important to one’s mental health and sense of place: if the American West was once defined by its open spaces, “where the pavement ends,” the pavement that spreads out from cities to the burgeoning Bay Area makes it a sort of transportation hub, where cars move along its freeways and downtown, often clogging Market Street, increasing a market for new navigational tools of traffic flow, rather than the open spaces that drivers might even neglect if they did not also wander the neighborhoods off the beaten path: the decal of urban wildlife associated with the car’s perspective is, unsurprisingly, marked the pigeon as an urban inhabitant of peaking into this automobilistic world as if from an Archimedian point–

–whose cocked beaks and blank eyes emerge from the car door’s gleam to note the increased compromising of a biophilic relation to urban space.

And if we may still sense the city is present in nature, overlapping with bodies of water in ways one can still smell in its oxygenated ocean air, one want to map its relation to its environment, and find environments of living species that coexist in and with it, from raven nests or occasional hawks and odd coyote, or the pleasures of the butterfly, cormorant, and heron–that we too often fail to notice and to see, as if to cut off aspects of urban livability to create the environmental dysphoria we seek to avoid.

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. But the clear and unmistakable sense of being on the water, or lying close to it on three sides–defines a sense of what it is like to move in its micro-climates, and indeed the rewriting of its shores, while expanded by landfill, have resisted the possible dramatic change of an elevated freeway that bound its edges. If one can look back wistfully at the redefining of its relation to land and sea, there is a sense that even if some of the shorelines around the Embarcadero have clear breakfronts, and that undersea rivers, underground shipwrecks, and some bays are overpaved–

–that the older pre-1854 exists in the ocean air that enters its shores, if the coast is fixed. For if the low structures around the shoreline reflect in large part seismic risk, there is will to remain a model urban area, unique and exemplary even in an age of globalization and climate change, not entirely low-lying, but facing significant threats from sea-level rise. The overlapping of ocean and land environments are nicely captured in the species, from shorebirds to insects to thistle to prehistoric radiolarian, that populate the surface of San Francisco in the elegantly dynamic, if static, full-color map from Nature in the City, which presses web-sources and online data into a new illustrated paper form.

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

Mapping Each and Every Tree

How to call attention to the variety of trees that have come to fill that unpredictable planned greenspace of Central Park? Central Park is glorified as modeling the abundance of urban nature.  We map the space of the park, whose green provides a pause and respite from the grey concrete facades of buildings, as well as a site for strolling, by a flat lime-green interruption of the urban grid in the public maps of the city park, as if the repose offered by the park was an abrupt interruption of the tan city blocks, cool blue ponds creating a shared space of reflection in a landscape dominated by private property and expensive residences.

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The subway map affirms, in a weird remove from the rider who is traveling underground, a removed oasis of sorts, ringed by a tan frame of muted buildings–as if a place to experience wilderness, or a curated sort of wildness.

Created in the parks movement that redesigned urban space removed from unsavory elements and moral lassitude, and restored as a reprieve from the pace of urban life, the rebirth of the parks as open green-space has recently occasioned the first complete census of individual trees, those often uncounted inhabitants of Manhattan island. And each tree has been mapped, in recent years, to allow one to voyage through the space of planned trees, migrants, and recent arrivals of conifers and other volunteers, joining the staid oaks, elm, and London Plane tree.

The trees have been counted in Central Park, unpacking this light green space in an enumeration or ‘green census’ cartographers Ken Chaya and Edward Sibley Barnard created.  The result is a deeply ethical way of directing our attention to urban space, in a comprehensive map of the tree space often rendered as a stretch of undifferentiated lime green.  Indeed, the counting of large-trunked oaks, maples, individual pines, and sturdy sycamores in all their varieties offers a detailed abundance that is rarely evident in the parks maps that adopt a single cool shade of idyllic green, and offer a sort of palimpsest that will reward map-readers to pause over, examine, and explore–and indeed pore over, with the botanical level of detail and connoisseurship that the earliest planners of the park might well have appreciated and enjoyed–if not expected of city-dwellers.

Who wouldn’t have expected as much from urban sophisticates?

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Map of Central Park: printed for the Department of Public Parks, 1873 (detail)

Yet today, the often-internalized map of the park of light green, far more familiar to all city-dwellers, may risk perpetuating an alienation from its dynamic urban forest, and obscuring the careful level of its botanical detail, or the accumulated palimpsest of urban habitats of its biodiversity. The vivid light green of most maps of Central Park may be muted, but seem rendered almost life-like in the rain–even if green is a generic “greenspace” it is one to be valued, and walked around on its circuitous paths, a space that is a distinct interruption of the equirectangular grid of the built city, and a respite from its straight lines and sheer heights.  One can see not urban canyons, but the sky.

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In part, the duality of Central Park as rural and urban captures the hybrid identity as an urban park.  Even though the park seems to lie somewhat incongruously at the very center of Manhattan, as if the apparent preserve of trees and urban wildlife is defined by its porous relation to the urbanized setting of the park.  If Central Park was designed in the movement of urban greening and public space, as a site of health and interruption of urban life, the park is increasingly more of a heterotypic combination of urban activity, designed built spaces, and manicured wooded areas, a refuge where Manhattan is in a sense perpetually present, not only bur urban sounds, traffic, and lifestyles, in a dyadic relationship that seems captured by the fact that it offers not only the sole open space to inscribe the toponym of the island in subway maps.

In such maps of urban transit, it may be that Central Park acts less as a park, than it serves as a totem of urban space; the park holds the bold-faced word “MANHATTAN” that identifies the city, its flat green spaces and clear light blue lakes crossed by ribbons of white roads, indicating its nicely settled position as secure in an urban grid, as if fastened by crosstown routes, yet readily available to urbanites at multiple entrances as a site of repose.  The image of the interruption of urban space we encounter on subway cars with regularity reminds us of the existence of open greenspace which we can access, even while we ride in eardrum shattering rumbles of subway cars coursing on old tracks while winding one’s way downtown to one’s destination.  Is it an important reassuring reminder of the existence of open spaces that are in fact accessible, even while we may not feel it, nearby?

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The combination of nature and skyscrapers was a unitary construction, several ecopoets have observed, a conundrum or urban nature explored by ecopoets who take up the gauntlet that the urban spaces throw down.   When the poet Gary Snyder described his arrival in New York City, he evoked an ecosystem blending nature and culture that began form its trees and moved settle throughout the island’s sidewalks, streets and skyscrapers, even as it clung to the edges of its shores.  

John Bachmann, “Greewood Cemetery, near New York” (1854), and detail

If the winding paths of the park were built as a space of democracy, modeled after the popular Garden Cemetery Movement of such exemplary success in the creation of Greenwood Cemetery as a preeminent public space of trees, winding roads, lakes, and monumental graves in Brooklyn–the trees and wooded regions central to its appeal.

The sense of the showcasing the green space of the park had declined considerably, of course, by the 1980s, when Gary Snyder admired by the crowded built environment of New York as an ecosytem–or rather as a “deep ecology”–in “Walking the New York Bedrock,” careful attending to the juxtaposition of its trees in the steel skyscrapers of its overbuilt financial hub. The ecosystem was vibrant, but removed from wildness, if oddly emulating it in its crowded urban density upon its paved grid and steel and glass towers; helicopters like insects “trading pollen,” above skyscrapers competing for photosynthetic abilities, sirens coursing through its valleys and paths of subways like lichen rooted underfund. Snyder sung the collective recreation of a lived connection to living landscapes, the Central Park Conservancy was in its early years. The dolomite and schist that provide the basis for the actual “bedrock”–the basis for the rich growth of foliage across the island, and support offered its ecosystem–resting atop a thick bedrock of metamorphic Hudson Schist, marble, and dolomite.

Frederick Merrill, USGS (1902)/Texas A&M Library

Snyder has meditated on the human relation to the built as a retraction from the wild in The Practice of the Wild (1990), which flippantly denies the vital sense of the wild in human life. Snyder wrote about the built the connection to the lived landscape that Snyder located in its wildness that remains in many natural environments was increasingly restored and retained in New York, where, as Snyder noted “there is nothing unnatural about New York City, or toxic wastes, or atomic energy…,” the trees which introduced and whose presence punctuate the poem were foregrounded in Central Park in the very years that Synder wrote and following decades. The Conservancy has done much to call attention to the range of foliage of 20,000 trees whose foliage–Red Maple; Hickory; Sugar Maple; Scarlet Oak; Red Oak; Dogwod; Star Magnolia;–it keyed with sschematic precision–

Map and key of fall foliage via Central Park Conservancy

–to bring the space into crisper detail for us, and to attract us into its surrogate of the wild.

An abbreviated catalogue of a parade of urban trees–“”Maple, oak, polar, gingko/New Leaves, “new green” on a rock ledge“–are the starting points for Snyder’s urban walk on the. bedrock in Walking the New York City Bedrock (1987) that capture their dissonance with the “gridlock of structures,/ Vibrating with helicopters,” in an ecosystem populated by businessmen or by “Cadres of educated youth in chic costume,” coursing in the subways and paved surfaces under which run subways, the lichen or spiderwebs of the urban ecycosystem. But the restoration of the wild within the built environment of the city are celebrated in the recent atlas of the parks trees. For they have been allowed to congregate as an interruption of the built enviornment, but also as an ecosystem in it.

The “park” was long promoted as the primary shared greenspace in the city–and a space where city-dwellers retreat, at times, to smoke some green stuff in a meadow or on a hill, the definition of the park as a set of individual trees has rarely been mapped in detail, examining the arboreal space that inheres within this interruption of the built environment–if only to excavate and explore its complex past.  For Central Park was built as a site of public promenades, a planned space akin to the popularity of the mid-nineteenth century Garden Cemetery movement that had led to the landscaping of urban areas as tranquil grounds of rest, designed within the city as sites of visitation and at a contrast from its commerce. Walt Whitman, as a newspaperman, wrote often of the pleasures of knolls, rivers, and trees in the rural recreation of the Greenwood Cemetery that provided the illustration of Garden Cemetery in New York City by 1854, whose paths provided a sense of prospect over the harbor and winding paths, lakes, and hills among its monuments, that he inimitably exhorted all to visit, a combination of cultivated plants and open space John Bachmann crafted a perspective view in a tinted lithograph, inviting viewers to survey its planted trees and cutltivated plants, as well as plains of grass and planted fields–

htJohn Bachmann, “Bird’s Ey View of Greenwood Cenetery, near New York” (1852)/
Library of Congress

–that encouraged the viewer to detect the cultivated scenery of trees and plants as if to recall the praise of Virgil’s Georgics to agricultural cultivation of a bucolic preserve where “in the woods the almond/Lavishly blooms so that her boughs bend low,/Fragrant with blossom,” beside where “the crops will be/Lavishly rich as well, with the great heat/Of the great exultant threshing following on.” Amidst trees burgeoning with leaves, “and therefore over-copiously shady,” the park as the cemetery would offer a place of rest, as much as work, where “Among the cultivated plants/Darnel and tares and sterile oat-grass thrive,” the overgrowth cut back with pruning knife to nurture and reveal a well-tended oak tree, juniper, cypress, spruce, willow, Linden, beech, almond, following proper precepts of cultivation to reap the benefits of sewn seeds in the properly tended imperial landscape.

If Virgil’s paeon to the benefits of agricultural labors of planting, binding, threshing, plowing, and tending are recapitulated in the precepts of harvesting and care for the land to present a rich visual landscape in which the reader is immersed to enjoy its benefits, the range of trees, both planted and arriving by chance, have since created a landscape to be decoded by the map of each tree that the park currently contained. Drawn by hand in laborious attention to each detail, but now available as an app for easy assistance in navigating the park, the green monochrome of many maps springs to life in lists and individual detail, so that one is able to pan and zoom close-up on trees while one is navigating it. The range of trees that now fill Central Park have been mapped by Ken Chaya and Edward Sibley Barnard in Central Park Entire, a detailed poetic catalogue that itself presses thresholds of cartographic creativity, individuating tangled ecosystems of planted trees, forested areas, native plants, evergreens and new arrivals that are mixed within its landscape, moving easily to a “tree list” that provides an easy way of orienting oneself to the multiple species inhabiting Central Park, allowing users to scroll, pinch, and zoom into individual regions and, when geolocation is enabled, to be oriented to wherever you are. Users can find the names of each of the 20,000 trees in the Park, based on Ken Chaya’s two years of surveying each tree in the park’s hundred and seventy arboreal species.

Even if the landscape was built on granite and was defined by concrete and brick, the trees defined its space, however paradoxically, in ways that capture the serendipitous presence of the arboreal variety in the city  “Maple, oak, poplar, gingko,” ecopoet Gary Snyder mapped New York’s trees in syllabic feet, “New leaves, “new green” on a rock ledge,” taking the arboreal collage on Manhattan’s bedrock as a metaphorical ecosystem, an artificial reef of the human scheme of the “Sea of Information” filled with streams of “keen-eyed people,” “cadres of educated youth,” howling sirens, and squirrels, that peregrines sail above, whose gridlock opens like a sea anemone of which wind sends a shudder that “shakes the limbs on the/planted trees” beside “Glass, aluminum, aggregate gravel,/Iron. Stainless steel.” The poetics of these long lists of urban inhabitants survey an ecosystem in a new form of rhapsodic evocation of their heterogeneous admixture of natural and artificial between paved concrete urban spaces. If Virgil praised farmers, Snyder celebrates the varieties of urban trees and pavement encountered in “Walking the New York Bedrock in the Sea of Information” (1987)–an island whose gods are capitalists, where the lavish overgrowth of plate glass windows shine beside the gleams of white birch leaves, a new built and natural congery.

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