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It’s hard to put a value to what trees give city-dwellers: shade and color, a sign of the seasons, a reminder of life beyond the concrete canyon. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. Launched in 2007 alongside the One Million Trees for NYC initiative, the NYC Tree Map has calculated the ecological benefits of each of New York City’s 694,249 street trees with exacting precision. Storm water capture, pollutant removal, CO2 removal, and energy conservation: all these “environmental services” can be assigned a dollar value, and then banked by developers to fulfill environmental impact mitigation requirements.
What’s lost when the value of trees is so reduced? Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe, the duo behind London-based practice Cooking Sections, have set out to probe this question through “Offsetted,” initially a lecture and performance at Performa 17, and now an exhibition on view at Columbia GSAPP’s Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery. By focusing on specific trees that have played important roles in New York City’s history, “Offsetted” insists on our arboreal neighbors as individual, and invaluable. Below, a selection of case studies from the exhibition points the way to giving our trees the respect they deserve.
A London plane tree at 728 Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn reduces $13.55 of carbon dioxide annually. In Manhattan, a thornless honey locust at 320 East 42nd Street conserves $194.14 of energy. An ailanthus at 95 Astoria Boulevard in Queens intercepts $46.16 worth of stormwater. In total, 694,249 street trees in New York City currently provide $109,842,256.23 in “environmental services” to the city every year. These services correlate to a tree’s biological functions, which are calculated in dollars—a mitigation scheme that positions trees as instruments to offset man-made ecological degradation. Rather than address the actual source of emissions, wastewater, or energy over-expenditure, the quantification of the performance of trees into tradable assets implicitly accepts the continuous production of waste and pollutants.
Since the 1980s, environmental preservation efforts have increasingly deployed such economic frameworks. Though the environment as a concept remains an abstract entity of seemingly priceless value within the cultural imagination, its habitats are nevertheless mined as an economic resource to serve humans and have been unequivocally transformed into global financial investments.
“Offsetted” examines the emergence of this valuation of nature, questioning the underlying logic and mechanisms of environmental protection. Focusing on New York City, the exhibition assembles histories of individual trees presenting episodes from the evolution of its urban environment when trees have played an active role in “serving the city.”
From colonial settlements to community protests against gentrification to recent green renewal projects such as MillionTreesNYC, trees have been mobilized to negotiate the permanence and disappearance of the built environment and have been used to both displace people and secure their rights to occupancy. The case studies in “Offsetted” uncover the political and economic interests behind planting trees in the city.
From the scale of a city tree to an ecological reserve, the environment has been assigned financial value. What are the stakes of de-financializing the environment? What could de-financialization mean for environmental justice? Rather than obliging trees to perform as speculative assets and environmental mitigators, could we recognize the rights of trees not to serve as carbon offsets, and allow them to just be trees?
Tulip (Liriodendron tulipifera)
According to legend, in 1626 Peter Minuit, director-general of New Netherland, “purchased” the island of Manhattan from the Lenape people in exchange for trinkets and beads. Some historical accounts indicate that this sale took place under the “Tree of Peace,” a tulip tree located in what is today Inwood Hill Park—formerly known as Shora-Kap-Kok and once dotted with caves and burial mounds that marked the site of what is arguably New York’s most infamous real estate deal. At the beginning of the 20th century, this place became the home of Marie Noemi Boulerease Constantine Kennedy and her son, both of Cherokee descent. They lived in a cottage next to the tree, working as caretakers of the site and also teaching ceramics to tourists. As the tulip tree—at nearly seventeen stories tall, the remnant of a once dense forest—began to decay, various attempts were made to save it by filling its rotting, hollow parts with cement and wood. In 1930 the Parks Department removed the old cement in the cavity (first installed in 1902) and replaced it with one ton of cement, sand, and gravel. As part of the surgery job, five hundred feet of rods were also added to reinforce and cable the large limbs. By the time Kennedy and another six hundred Native American people started to organize themselves in an effort to reclaim the park as reservation land, they were evicted by then Parks Commissioner Robert Moses as part of his 1938 redevelopment plan. That same year, the tulip tree was felled by a hurricane, chopped down, and later replaced with a boulder and a memorial plaque.
Frasier fir (Abies fraseri)
While the monotheistic beliefs of Judeo-Christians fueled antagonism towards pagan animism and cosmologies based on the natural world, it is also perhaps not a coincidence that Judeo-Christian accounts of creation are anthropocentric, depicting nature at the service of humans. A known case of antagonism towards the pagan worship of nature, and the understanding of trees as kinship symbols, is the felling of the sacred Donar’s Oak. The tree was venerated by Germanic pagans until the 8th century, when Anglo-Saxon missionary Saint Boniface removed it to build a church in its place. Indeed, scholars have speculated that the modern custom of cutting Christmas trees may derive from Christian rejection of tree-worshipping cultures. Conversely, today Christmas trees have acquired a value that seems to compete with the religious significance that they are meant to commemorate. In New York City, pines, spruces, and firs from as far as Virginia and Alaska flood the city in advance of Christmas. In addition, competitive bidding on stalls for Christmas tree sales has caused rental fees to spike each year. A stall in SoHo Square cost $56,005 in rent in 2016, while a stall in Washington Market Park in TriBeCa cost $31,400 in 2017.
The way offsetting mechanisms work can be explained by looking at one of the most iconic corporate atria in New York City: the Ford Foundation Garden designed by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates and landscape architect Dan Kiley in 1967 (and recently renovated by Raymond Jungles). Produced in response to fears of the city’s endemic pollution, its protected environment consolidated the first corporate atrium that cultivated indoor trees in New York and introduced a move in Midtown Manhattan towards the planting of climatically stable “nature.” The 200,000-cubic-foot volume of skylighted, air-conditioned space intended to make more than 20,000 temperate plants survive in the neutral climate of an office interior. The air conditioning system relied on the toxic external atmosphere that the corporate garden was aiming to avoid. By 1970, the indoor plants showed the same levels of decay as their outdoor counterparts and dying trees were frequently replaced. The challenge of growing trees in an enclosed office environment symbolizes the Ford Foundation’s aim to make soil hyper-fertile, whether in its own headquarters or in “developing” countries. Sponsoring US economic growth by promoting democracy worldwide, the Foundation’s focus shifted during the 1950s from the reconstruction of Europe to boosting the so-called Green Revolution in the global South—efforts that ultimately fostered dependence on US fertilizers and pesticides for farming-based economies. The atrium’s vegetation displayed how corporations could care about cultivating urban nature, privileging floor area inside the building for a garden rather than usable office space in order to gain a greener reputation.
Stuyvesant Williams’ Bon Crétien Pear Tree (Pyrus communis)
A Stuyvesant Pear Tree located on the corner of 13th Street and 3rd Avenue in downtown Manhattan survived for almost 200 years. The Manhattan Plan of 1811 introduced a sweeping reorganization of Manhattan streets into a grid system of rectangular blocks. Through the power of eminent domain, the plan erased farms and homesteads and reordered the natural and man-made environment. As it happened, the Stuyvesant Pear Tree on the estate of Dutch Director-General of New York City Peter Stuyvesant stood on one corner of the forthcoming grid, sparing it from urban development. The tree managed to survive the implementation of the urban grid but not the new traffic system that came with it. Despite the iron guard protection that enclosed it, the pear tree was felled after a wagon crashed into it in February 1867. It was eventually chopped into pieces, ranging from collectable slices to a manufactured wooden cane. In 2003, a new tree was planted in the same location as the original.
Borough of Manhattan, Department of Parks, Annual Report (New York: Department of Parks, 1930), 13-14.
Yvonne Wakim Dennis, Arlene Hirschfelder, and Shannon Rothenberger Flynn, Native American Almanac: More Than 50,000 Years of the Cultures and Histories of Indigenous Peoples (Canton, MI: Visible Ink Press, 2016), 1654.
Lynn White Jr., “The Historical Roots of our ecological crisis,” Science 155, no. 3767 (March 1967): 1203-1207; Roderick Frazier Nash, The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 88-89.
Nash, The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics, 91; Matthew Hall, Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany (New York: SUNY Press, 2011), 120.
David Gissen, Manhattan Atmospheres: Architecture, the Interior Environment, and Urban Crisis (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 67.
Gissen, Manhattan Atmospheres, 77.
Gissen, Manhattan Atmospheres, 79.
Felicity D. Scott, Outlaw Territories: Environments of Insecurity/Architectures of Counterinsurgency (New York: Zone Books, 2016), 41-4.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.