Hidden Nature SF seeks to uncover the natural history of San Francisco’s past landscape. At the heart of the project is the field of historical ecology, which uses interdisciplinary science and visualization techniques to synthesize historical archival data into a completely new perspective on the familiar city. Drawing on hundreds of old maps, photographs, and textual documents, we are reconstructing and mapping the ecosystems and waterways that existed in San Francisco prior to Spanish colonization.

The initial phase of the research (completed in 2021) mapped the historical landscape of the northern portion of the San Francisco peninsula, and subsequent phases will extend the mapping south to remaining portions of the city. Explore the interactive web map to take your own journey through the unique ecosystems that existed here before urban development, or click the following links to learn about:

The historical ecology process

San Francisco’s historical landscape

San Francisco’s First Peoples, the Yelamu Ohlone

San Francisco’s native wildlife

Our goal is to inspire a vision for a healthier, more biodiverse city where both people and nature can thrive. While San Francisco has been transformed into an urban center, complex networks of “hidden” nature still weave through the city. Hidden Nature SF invites you to engage with San Francisco’s ecological past and present and to reimagine its future potential.

The science-based reconstruction of San Francisco’s past landscape provides a foundation for restoring native ecosystems and building ecological resilience. The research presented here is a resource to support and inspire urban greening efforts at all scales, from backyards to public open spaces, from living schoolyards to rooftop gardens. Grounded in historical ecology, the collective impacts of these actions will shape the ecological future of San Francisco.

The Team

The San Francisco Estuary Institute is a recognized leader in the translation of complex science into accessible tools for public policy and engagement. SFEI’s award-winning historical ecology work has been featured by the New York Times and NPR, while their work on urban ecological resilience is being applied by local cities, Google, and NGOs.

The Exploratorium is an inquiry-based science museum in San Francisco dedicated to the exploration of science, art, and human perception. The Exploratorium’s unique Fisher Bay Observatory allows the public to uncover the stories embedded in a place by directly observing the geography, history, and ecology of the San Francisco Bay region.

The Wildlife Conservation Society conducts science, global conservation, education, and the management of the world’s largest system of urban wildlife parks. WCS developed the Mannahatta and Weilikia Projects, which revealed the original ecology of Manhattan and beyond and resulted in the bestselling book Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City.

The Presidio Trust, in partnership with the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and at no cost to taxpayers, brings alive the unique historic, natural, and recreational assets of the Presidio for the inspiration, education, health, and enjoyment of all people.

This project is sponsored by Science Sandbox, an initiative of the Simons Foundation. Science Sandbox is an initiative dedicated to inspiring a deeper interest in science, especially among those who don’t think of themselves as science enthusiasts. They support and collaborate with programs that unlock scientific thinking. Their projects and partnerships reinforce a powerful notion: You don’t have to be a scientist to think like a scientist.

Additional funding for Hidden Nature SF was provided by the Seed Fund and the Google Ecology Program.


Hidden Nature SF was made possible through the support and assistance of numerous partners and collaborators, including:

Susan Schwartzenberg and Emma Greenbaum, Exploratorium

Eric Sanderson and Kim Fisher, Wildlife Conservation Society

Lew Stringer and Damien Raffa, Presidio Trust

Dr. Peter Baye

Dr. Erin Beller, Google

Peter Brastow, San Francisco Department of Environment

Ali Sant, Studio for Urban Projects

Joel Pomerantz, Seep City

Jonathan Cordero and Gregg Castro, Association of Ramaytush Ohlone

Shari Gardner

Greg Gaar

Loren McClenachan, Colby College

Hidden Nature San Francisco was led by staff at the San Francisco Estuary Institute, including Sean Baumgarten, Lauren Stoneburner, Robin Grossinger, Sam Safran, Kelly Iknayan, Micaela Bazo, Matt Benjamin, Lawrence Sim, Sam Shaw, and Emily Clark. Assistance was provided by several interns, including Jacob Kuppermann and David Ludeke from the Stanford University Bill Lane Center for the American West, Anna Costanza from San Francisco State University, and Tessa Houston from Colby College.


There are many great resources available to learn more about San Francisco’s natural and cultural history, including:

Seep City: San Francisco Water History Atlas

Nature in the City

Wild in the City

San Francisco's Buried History

Western Neighborhoods Project

Association of Ramaytush Ohlone