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During the 2019 UK General Election, the Labour Party put the issue of tree planting at the top of its agenda. The media response showed how important it is to educate the public about tree planting.

During last year’s UK general election, the Labour Party manifesto committed the party to planting two billion trees over two decades if it were to be elected to government. Since they lost the election, we’ll never get to see this striking policy proposal unfold. Which is unfortunate, because forest restoration is currently one of the most promising methods for combatting climate change (indeed, it was recently confirmed in a study from Prof. Thomas Crowther at ETH Zurich as the “most effective solution to climate change available today”).

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One thing we did learn from this election is how much resistance there might be from the mainstream media to policy solutions which effectively grapple with the scale of the threat we face from the climate crisis.

Dubious Fact Checking

To give a flavour of what went down after Labour announced its tree-planting policy, the most common response across UK news outlets was to conduct highly misleading “Fact Checks”, breaking down how many trees would need to be planted every minute over the next twenty years to achieve that 2bn figure. For instance, an article by The Sun entitled “FACT CHECK Labour says it will plant 2 billion trees by 2040 – almost 200 a minute – but is this possible?” wrote that “Experts have raised eyebrows over Mr Corbyn’s wild promises, suggesting the Labour leader can’t see the wood for the trees.” Interestingly, the experts they’re referring actually amount to a single “forestry expert”, one Richard Schondelmeier, whose forestry expertise is dubious to say the least (this didn’t stop the Adam Smith Institute from giving him a platform to write a spurious fact check of his own, which lacked any independent verification).

A more important source of the backlash against Labour’s pledge came from BBC political correspondent Chris Mason, who wrote a tweet citing essentially the same figures as The Sun, albeit in the neutral-seeming tone characteristic of a BBC reporter. Yet while Mason indeed made no judgement on the policy’s feasibility, the heavy implication from his decidedly selective breakdown was that this was an unimaginably high number. This was certainly how his tweet was interpreted when it was picked up by other news outlets, including the Daily Express who opened an article on Mason’s tweet by describing the 2bn figure as “astonishing”.

False Equivalence

The negative affect of this tweet was also reinforced by Mason’s colleague Emily Maitlis, presenter of the BBC’s flagship news show Newsnight. Making a more general point about spurious policy pledges, Maitlis tweeted that “We may come to dub this ‘the Election of 2 billion trees and 50 thousand nurses’ – where numbers and accountability became meaningless. That’s a scary legacy.” As Guardian journalist Owen Jones pointed out in a response to the tweet, “We know that Labour’s mass tree planting policy can be done, because it’s been done in several countries” whereas, he continued, the Conservative Party’s nurses pledge is “objectively bogus” (since it involved retaining thousands of existing nurses).

All this bad faith fact checking seemed to rely on readers not giving much thought to the numbers, and perhaps vaguely assuming that they alone might be being expected to plant 200 trees a minute for 20 years. But as several people were quick to point out, the figure was also equivalent to each UK citizen planting two to three trees per year.

The Policy was eminently feasible

On that note, Friends of the Earth (FoE) wrote a useful blog during the election, in which they reminded people to look past the seemingly high figures Labour committed to, and accept that “the world of trees is dominated by huge numbers”. They also highlighted that the Labour proposal to essentially double UK tree cover from 13% to 26% (in line with FoE’s own recommendations) would still be relatively modest. As they say, “the current EU average woodland cover is 38%”.

This points to another common counter-argument, hinted at by Jones, which highlighted various countries that had achieved far greater tree planting feats in the past few years. Ethiopia, for instance, committed to planting 4bn trees in 2019 and managed to plant 350m seedlings in a single day, a remarkable feat which the BBC itself reported on.

What this media backlash illustrates is the essential importance of educating the public about tree planting, spelling out in clear terms what is possible, what needs to be done and where, and also why it is important. In this instance, mainstream journalists manifestly abandoned their stated role to inform the public, in favour of hammering a seemingly fanciful policy which was actually quite modest, either for narrow political ends, or merely out of wilful ignorance. Which all suggests grassroots climate protest movements should probably stop relying on mainstream channels and start educating people themselves.

During hot summer days, the sealed environment of a city raises the temperature. Especially asphalt-paved areas reinforce that effect. In Montreal, the Arcadia Studio designed “La Vague”, a project which converts five parking lots into a refreshing public space for relaxing and socialising. 74 wooden frames are arranged around the urban hideout, creating the illusion of a wave hitting the pavement.

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Temporarily “Placottoir”

The designers were inspired by two sources: The first one is the invention of the Parklet in San Francisco. A very small park, which usually turns expendable parking lots into places with seating and planting. The parklets improve the sojourn quality of its urban environment and encourages socialisation and relaxation between the people. In Montreal, these areas are known as “Placottoir” – a place to chat. The second inspiration came from Europe and has not yet established itself on the American continent: Misters. This device consists of small nozzles, which release steam, cooling down the surrounding air by approximately five degrees Celsius.

Energizing Passage

“La Vague”, the French word for “Wave”, is 22 metres long and two and a half metres wide. The 74 wooden frames are placed around the passage and are offset in a three-degree interval. Together with its turquoise painting, the twisted arrangement is a reminiscent of a wave. 45 nozzles are attached to the frames and release the refreshing steam into the sculpture. Within the wave, people can sit on benches and enjoy their time between planted anchors. “La Vague” adds a playful and social component to the dreary environment of a grey streetscape and generates an action-reaction effect on pedestrians.

In the series From the Edges, Alexander Gutzmer, editorial director of topos, comments on urban phenomena taking place in the growing metropolises outside the classic urban New York-London-Tokyo triad. In this episode, he talks about Google’s new plans to engage in city planning in Toronto:

“Don’t be evil” – is the famous original claim of technology brand Google. Sounded nice, was probably honestly felt – at least initially. And yet, nobody seems to believe it today. Many see Google as just that – evil. Scepticism is particularly high when it comes to the firm’s engagement with the urban realm. And now this: Google is planning a part of a city. Of Toronto, to be specific. The corporate spinoff Sidewalk Labs, run by former NYC deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff, will build from scratch an undeveloped 12-acre area called Quayside. The basic idea: Google will use its key resources – money and data – to develop an urban structure capable of finding optimal solutions regarding water use, air quality or transport. The prototypical smart city, if you will. Of course, criticism came swiftly. Commercial enterprises in charge of cities – a scary idea for many. The ridiculous case of Disney developing an American dream world called Celebration still serves as a horrid example. Ikea does it, too, and Londoners are far from amazed.


“Outstanding solutions as global role models”

And now, Google / Alphabet. The data behemoth. Susan Crawford, professor at Harvard Law School, writes in Wired: “Details of the arrangement are not public, the planning process is being paid for by Google, and Google won’t continue funding that process unless government authorities promise they’ll reach a final agreement that aligns with Google’s interests.” So far so problematic. Or not? Here’s the thing: I’m not sure that criticism sticks. True, a company that is so much involved as Google is with transparency should be willing to make public its strategies and contractual arrangements with Toronto. But the fact that the company wants to acquire knowledge with this? Of course it does. This is how companies work. And let’s be clear – this is also how cities work, and increasingly so. There are more and more networks of cities around the world in search of globally distributable best practices. Take the C40 initiative. The idea is always to look for outstanding solutions and use those as global role models.

“The deal is simple”

And the fact that Google will create a place based on data? This is the very essence of the concept known as “Smart City”. As of this day, this “smartness” tends to be a vague promise, as I argue in my book Urban Innovation Networks (Springer Gabler 2016). And yet, if the smart city promises are to be tested, then this should happen in the urban sphere. The deal is simple: If Google can create an urban experience substantially better than elsewhere, people will move in. If not, we will know the limits of data-based urban redevelopment. Hence my suggestion: Let us observe, let us be critical – but let them go ahead and try!

“An aspect that disappoints”

There is, however, one aspect I find disappointing: Why did it have to be Toronto? Why a cozy city in a developed country? Presumably, the potential of such involvement could be bigger in the metropolises beyond the traditional “tec city networks”; in the urban centres “on the edges”. There are three reasons for this: Firstly, money is scarcer. Secondly, the governmental institutions are often weaker. Thirdly, the level of understanding those institutions have about how these cities function is lower. Hence, the resources Google has might prove more valuable in Rio or Bogotá than in Toronto.

This column can be found in topos 103.

Read also the columns of the past issues:
In topos 102 Alexander Gutzmer wrote about “Crossing Borders in El Paso” and in topos 101 about “Shaking Ground in Mexico City”.

Time never stands still. It proceeds, unstoppably, second after second, drawing people with it in its wake. Taking a moment to pause seems impossible. You can feel this rush most of all in the urban space of big cities. But what happens if someone decides to take a break anyway, stands still, becomes attuned to the surrounding? The artwork created by André Lemmens achieves this and shows how valuable deceleration is. It comprises snapshots of urban life that seem frozen in time. They allow viewers to experience and relive their everyday surrounding in all its particularity.

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Less is more

The artist creates an impression of depth by computer-based separation of photographic information. He first prints color information on one plexiglass panel and then black-and-white information on another panel before putting them together. Viewed at an angle, this creates an impression of spatial depth, with colors in the background and black silhouettes in the foreground. „I create an abstraction of the urban situation“, André Lemmens explains. „Reality is different from what I show in my work: In a real-life situation, people are often in the background. However, I draw them to the foreground by placing the black-and-white panel on top.”

One of his compositions, titled „Hamburg Hafen City“, shows how the configuration and delineation of architectural objects structures space. A group of five individuals is situated in the lower center of the image. They are represented as silhouettes, similar to the surrounding space. Through this act of reduction, Lemmens retraces the structure of the city. All of a sudden, parallels, symmetries and grids emerge in the viewer’s field of vision – design elements that are often overlooked in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. André Lemmens’ interest in urban space isn’t accidental. The artist, 51 years of age, is actually an architect. „The whole art thing developed back when I studied architecture“, Lemmens explains. He owns an office in Kleve and studied at the Düsseldorf University of Applied Sciences. The design-oriented courses there awakened a passion for art, and as a result, André Lemmens sees himself as both: architect and artist. In his case, one cannot exist without the other. He states that „there are parallels between my images and my work as an architect. What I do as an artist finds a way into my architecture: A certain feeling, spirit and depth that can be found in my art is also visible in my buildings. I’m sure of that.“

Hitting the pause button

He never intended to create photographs in a classical sense, they merely serve as the basis for the development of art. Even mobile phone pictures are sufficient for this approach. Should an appealing urban situation appear on TV, André Lemmens simply hits the pause button and takes a picture of the scene. „Hitting the pause button“ aptly paraphrases his artwork. It represents vibrant cities that suddenly stand still. Background sounds fade into silence, only static noise can be heard. This noise conveys the actual image by use of blur as a stylistic device. In some of his works Lemmens increases the impression of vagueness by covering the panels with a layer of white emulsion.

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Social criticism, in a low voice

Lemmens emphasizes architectural structures and characteristics of urban space, for instance a significant element of a building, horizontal and vertical lines or colored surfaces. „The realistic image is often merely gray and ugly. By reducing it the way I do, something new and beautiful can emerge.“ Lemmens refrains from criticizing particular urban spaces. Rather, his point of view is: „I want to capture places at a particular moment in time. Places that people pass through every day without actually taking notice of them.“ By capturing these places, a situation receives a new meaning: „I assume a critical perspective in my work only indirectly.
People have such a short attention span, they hardly hold on to something – and hardly reflect on cities, places or architecture.“

Lemmens’ photographic work shows abstracted places and situations in New York as well as German cities such as Frankfurt, Munich, Stuttgart, Augsburg or Bremen. As Lemmens says, „along the way I developed a keen sense for particular situations or architecture, for diagonal lines, for surfaces, and for people.“ His photographic work matured in a way similar to his architecture: „with time, one’s work becomes richer in terms of density and experience. The houses that we are currently building are more mature than ten, twenty years ago.“ They appear more self-aware, possess a less ambiguous canon of forms, and have a signature quality.

Good things come to those who wait

Lemmens’ art develops within a process. Sometimes a project remains in a digital folder for a number of years, gains patina, until Lemmens blows away the dust and rediscovers something, sees something that he hadn’t noticed earlier. He quickly develops a feeling for an interesting aspect of a photo – not so much regarding the composition of the image, but rather how the photo changes over the course of time. Lemmens wasn’t always as confident about his work as he is today. “In the first fifteen years of creating art I worked myself to death. I never arrived at a point where I could have stopped searching for something, over and over again.” But this work in itself eventually became a source of tranquility. As the architect admits, “it relaxes my mind.” Without effort, observers can feel this sense of calm, making them pause for a moment. André Lemmens creates worthwhile moments of deceleration in turbulent times.

From May 10th to 13th the Kleve-based architect/artist’s works will be on display in Munich at the upcoming ARTMUC art fair.