For three years I worked with a big inter-agency and multiple institutional team to make a new map of San Francisco called Nature in the City. The official launch is this Wednesday at the Fisher Bay Observatory at the Exploratorium. All are welcome – you have to RSVP. The press release for the map notes that our team was motivated to inspire stewardship and lasting engagement with the environment among city dwellers. We also did it to support the nonprofit Nature in the City, which works to restore habitat for native species right here among the pavement and the buildings. For me there was more. I wanted to learn how to make a map. I’m a writer usually bound by the constraints of one sentence after another unfurling in straight line after straight line. I wanted to stretch myself into the world of spatially-explicit visualization where it is also possible to capture the dimension of time.
One reason to make a map of nature is that we seem to be living by flat narratives that do not convey the full effects of nature's beauty and necessity. Nature is multi-valent, operating at many time scales, whirling on in microcosms and in macrocosms. Written narratives can approximate this – Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce take a crack at it, but these mega works are essentially about language and recent human history. And if there is one thing the Anthropocene is teaching us, its that something much bigger is unfolding here, having to do with geological time and involving all life forms. Now we see the theater we are playing in is large beyond our ken yet at the same time delicate, and vulnerable to our easy degradations. We are revising our sense of what it means to be human -- where we belong, how we belong.
From our Mission Statement:
The name of our map is “nature in the city,” but could more accurately be described as “the city in nature.” The city, after all, is a human-built structure that occurs within a larger, much older, and unfolding world. Wildflower blooms, emerging butterflies, racoon and coyote pups issue from the nature within which we are embedded in ongoing cycles. Fledgling hawks migrate across the Golden Gate every fall and have done so for more than 10,000 years.
GET AT MULTIPLE SCALES
GLOBAL IMPERATIVE TO CHERISH OUR LOCAL ECOSYSTEMS AND UNDERSTAND THEM AS PART OF REGIONAL, CONTINENTAL, AND GLOBAL FRAMEWORKS
A MAP IS AN ORIENTATION
PUT THE INDIVIDUAL HUMAN AND AGGREGATE SOCIAL GROUPS "IN PLACE"
A MAP IS A HYBRID OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE AND DESIRE
So I’m the writer of the map. What that means is that first of all, I had to aggregate all the dimensions of nature and knowledge of places and species that our team of experts identified as important to depict on the map. But you can’t just show every piece of information on a map. You have to be selective, to consolidate, and to express the unfolding of time, you have to tell stories. Below is a day in the life of me as I grappled with information and how to shape it.
This is Alison Young’s elegant doodling from one meeting.
Probably the biggest creative moment for me came when I thought: aha! Let’s have one big map on the front, and four explanatory maps on the back, which can trace a historical trajectory of species evolution and human impacts. Ironically I basically made a four-part linear narrative which could actually serve as the outline of a book. I learned that a map isn’t SUCH a different beast after all.
The fact that these homely sketches eventually became our beautiful map is still kind of astounding. And so here’s what we’ve got. The front side of the map depicts a “big picture” and the back tells (true) stories about how we understand it: as a shaped city engineered by tectonic, ocean, and human forces; a gardened city planted to transform historic sand dunes into greenery; a creative city in which landscapes and species are restored and increased; and a connected city in which historic wildlife and water corridors intersect with contemporary movement pathways.
In addition to the Exploratorium event, we will be presenting at SFMOMA’s Public Knowledge program on June 28. Find out more about the map here: http://natureinthecity.org/map