Innovative Green Spaces or the Commodification of Nature?

A bobbing forest was installed in the harbour of Rijnhaven to celebrate national tree day in 2014. By overcoming spatial constraints to invent a creative space for greenery in the city, Jeroen Evaraert intended to draw attention to sustainability in the city and the importance of greenery for city dwellers. The trees penetrate the monotony of the harbour with green space and look something like this:

Screen Shot 2017-11-17 at 9.20.02 PMScreen Shot 2017-11-17 at 7.28.35 PM

The installation consisted 20 elms planted on metal buoys recycled and repurposed from the North Sea. The buoy holds a basin with 500 litres of water that is slowly released to the elms and has to be replenished 3 – 4 times a year. The salty water was an initial problem for the floating forest but was overcome by the development of a proper irrigation system for the trees.

This project provides an innovative reinvention of the idea of green spaces in the city. While it is commonplace for trees to be constantly moved, stored and replanted in different places and innovative ways in cities, the investment, effort and media attention devoted to planting 20 floating elms raises important questions: Does the 1000km of car-driving in CO2 emissions that these trees compensate for annually even remotely justify the cost of planting them? Are they truly a sustainable future model for future parks and green spaces?

Urban forests are by no means naturally occurring and the production of urban forests is a deeply social process embedded in multifaceted power relations.

‘It is on the terrain of the urban that the accelerating metabolic transformation of nature becomes most visible, both in its physical form and its socioecological consequences.’ (Swyngedouw and Heynen, 2003: 907)

Cities have become centres for the production, exchange and consumption of natural environments as commodities (Lefebvre, 1991). Urban forests are marketised and commoditised (Harvey, 1989) because of their plethora of benefits and positive externalities to urban residents (Landry and Chakraborty, 2009), summarised in the picture below:

infographic-trees.png

(obtained from https://www.npower.com/home/about-npower/in-the-environment/)

Marx (1990) explains that commodification of nature occurs when urban trees derive use-value because abstracted human labour is materialised in it. These urban trees are embodiments of abstracted human labour, as they are sedulously produced, engineered and managed to be planted within the urban built environment through extensive labour, knowledge and economic resources.

With its capability to improve urban quality of life, urban trees tend to be put in specific environments that deserve greater consideration. Where urban trees are allowed to grow and where they are carefully maintained or unwittingly neglected, is contingent on uneven processes of political economy instead of forest ecology (Heynen, 2003). For these elms, artists, designers, engineers and botanists control where they are planted and how they are grown and they continue to exist through consumption by other elite groups such as like-minded designers, contemporary environmental artists and tourists. While the ecological innovativeness and distinctive aesthetic of the elms is incontrovertible, they are symptomatic of uneven urban political processes that play out through the built environment.

P.S. My first thought when I saw the trees was that they appeared more like an unsettling and ominous predilection of global warming. Does anyone feel the same?

 

Some articles I thought you guys would find useful:

Harvey, D. (1989) The Urban Experience, Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.

Heynen, N. (2003) ‘The Scalar Production of Injustice within the Urban Forest’, Antipode, Vol. 35, No. 5, 980 – 998.

Landry, S. and Chakraborty, J. (2009) ‘Street trees and equity: evaluating the spatial distribution of an urban amenity’, Environment and Planning, Vol. 41, 2651 – 2670.

Lefebvre, H (1991) The production of space, Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Marx, K. (1990) Capital, Vol. 1, London: Penguin Books.

Swyngedouw, E., and Heynen, N. (2003) ‘Urban political ecology, justice and the politics of scale’, Antipode, Vol. 35, 898 – 918.

(504 words)

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2 thoughts on “Innovative Green Spaces or the Commodification of Nature?”

  1. Hi Beatriz, that’s a really interesting post you have there!

    I think it’s the first time I have come across ‘floating forests’ as green spaces in cities – many cities are looking into ‘vertical greening’ instead where green spaces are constructed on the roof tops of high-rise buildings (e.g. Singapore)! This allows for a particular plot of land to be used multiple times, understood along the concept of ‘verticality’ in urban studies. Exploring the water bodies as potential sides for greening is certainly interesting!

    I have the same questions as you regarding the sustainability of such green spaces as well – acknowledging the cost and expertise required to maintain such greenery. Particularly, I wonder if there has been further developments regarding sustainability developments in the city or was such ‘pop-ups’ only a one-off thing, merely a ‘performance’ to celebrate National Tree Day?

    It is sad to see that nature has become commoditised where only its extrinsic value is appreciated when it comes to consideration in its preservation. As cities become more urbanised, I wonder if we will be so bogged down with utilitarian practicalities that we overlook the conservation ideals and intrinsic value of nature (Callicott, 1991) – that will truly be saddening ):

    Like

  2. Hello Beatriz,

    This ‘floating tree’ concept you have pointed out here shows that sometimes the ‘innovation’ by the Dutch in new ways of presented nature gets a little too much to say the least! What I consider interesting is how the notion of a floating tree does exemplify the interlinked flows between the materials that form urban metabolic flows.

    However, I certainly agree with Yiming in questioning whether the environmental costs of planting and creating such buoys is worth it considering the minimal effectiveness it does in serving its purposes in the city, especially if it needs maintenance up to 3/4 times a year. In this regard, the project definitely reminds me of an exhibit more than anything else.

    PS: Would it not hinder the busy boats that use the Rhine???

    Like

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