Cities provide uniquely challenging conditions for trees. Pollution, heavily compacted growing media, vandalism, and maintenance requirements all complicate the plight of the urban tree and compromise its ability to survive to maturity and make a meaningful contribution to its environment. Yet, cities need trees — desperately — to help reduce pollution, crime and speeding and improve air quality, property values and general wellbeing.
The question of how to successfully grow mature trees in the built environment has troubled designers for decades. There are all kinds of ways that architects, landscape architects, and planners have tried to solve this problem, some of which are more successful than others.
Now the Boston Treepod Initiative, developed by Mario Caceres and Christian Canonico of Influx_Studio in partnership with ShiftBoston, have gone an entirely different route, by designing an artificial tree that uses a technology to extract CO2 from the air to help reduce levels in the urban environment.
I find this idea interesting but also disturbing. Perhaps that’s because I think there’s a lot more we can do — simple changes, really — that will allow us to actually grow trees to maturity in cities. It’s not actually complicated, it just requires a shift in the way we think about design and utilities. I don’t think we need to engineer our way out of the challenges related to urban tree growth, at least, not like this. These treepods are gorgeous and fantastic, but they belong in a Las Vegas lobby, or a theme park, or maybe an outdoor exhibition.
According to the ShiftBoston blog, this is the design philosophy: “By using biomimicry, or drawing inspiration from nature, Influx_Studio developed their tree-like structure to be powered by both solar and kinetic energy. Their artificial tree mimics what real trees do. It scrubs CO2 from the atmosphere and emits O2 and uses its own power to do so.”
The trees also power themselves, using solar panels on the canopy and by using kinetic energy derived from human interaction within each cluster of these structure themselves. They sound like they’re designed to create an almost park-like play experience.
These “trees” are gorgeous in their design. It’s terrific that they can power themselves. The shape (which is based on that of the dragons blood tree) is pleasing, and there is a lightness to them, at least in these schematics, that I think is very true to actual trees. Nonetheless, they are quite limited in their function compared to the real thing. They can’t act as wildlife habitat (and their glowing “canopies” contribute to light pollution, which is actually a very serious problem). They won’t rustle and sway or provide a calming psychological presence to people. Forget about managing stormwater or mitigating noise pollution, crime, or aiding traffic calming.
I’m not saying that there’s no place for something like the treepod. As a work of engineering and artistry I think they’re quite lovely. But they are no substitute for the real thing, and I hope they won’t discourage designers from utilizing simple, effective solutions to support truly long-term, successful urban tree growth.