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:
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:
(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.