What’s Wrong With Plastic Trees?

Isolating oneself from the natural environment is a strong statement but seems to lead to failed spaces. Even with energy savings, extra square footage, etc, why go to all this trouble for dead materials and spaces. There are too many buzzwords within the architecture field, such as ‘sustainability,’ ‘green,’ ‘biomimicry’ and ‘LEED,’ that generally don’t push the envelope far enough.

Recently there have been a number of architectural and landscape competitions and movements devoted to solving the problem sustaining trees within the urban environment, including Boston Treepod 2011, MillionTreesNYC, Boston Tree Party, and the New Urban Tree Competition. Statistics have shown that trees within downtown areas generally cannot survive for more than 10 years due to the lack of space for root growth, pollution and chemicals.

In the city, trees enhance the climate, attract birds and other wildlife, convert carbon dioxide emissions into oxygen, lower air conditioning costs, reduce erosion costs and generally raise property value. A single tree can turn 260 pounds of carbon dioxide into oxygen in one year.

They provide shelter from sun and precipitation, and a filter for wind. Deciduous trees produce leaves in the fall that serve to insulate the ground and can be recycled into mulch. They are perfectly designed to allow sun into buildings in the winter and block solar heat gain in summer. Natural spaces encourage gathering and can be pleasing to all the senses, unlike plastic, concrete, etc.

Recently, I received a poorly written overgrown landscape violation notice for a beautiful blooming tree in my yard. It stated that the branches could not hang over the roadway lower than 10 feet. I figured this must be due to the fact of protecting the finish of cars, and when I thought about it, it seems a completely backwards concern. Cars are responsible for deteriorating the environment. Why do we care so much about how they look? And trees and greenery are a much more desirable groundcover than asphalt, since they temper the environment and reduce the urban heat island effect that plagues cities. The next day, I received a compliment on the tree by a passerby, stating that he has never seen such a lush freely growing tree.

In some respects, architects have taken biomimicry too far and create systems that are less effective than nature. Why do we need to build new machines for functions that automatically occur in nature. With the Boston Treepods winner, in particular, why waste the time and resources needed to produce these artificial structures when we could use trees or plants that would build themselves over time. Wouldn’t it be more desirable and interesting to create a system of modular plant holders with drought tolerant plants that could be easily replaced.

Do we really want to bury ourselves in plastic? I have to wonder, is it really desirable in any way to live in places that are so dense and polluted that trees have trouble surviving.




About Meghan Dufresne

Meghan R. Dufresne, LEED AP is an architectural designer and writer based in Boston. Interests include sustainability, gardens, art, sound, touch, experience, and merging buildings with the surrounding landscape.
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