With Osama bin Laden at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, Viktor Bout in an Illinois penitentiary, Kim Jong-un busy with a new lady friend and Ugg boots finally on the way out, can you name the world’s biggest public enemy?
Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock… Do you need a hint? No, he’s not resident in Tehran. And no, it’s not something mundane like the flu. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock… In fact, the potential threat posed is so serious that many governments have set up special teams tasked with targeting, hunting down and destroying this menace. While I’ve had my suspicions for some time that a clandestine war is being waged in urban centres around the world (and authorities have been going out of their way to play down the scale of this conflict), a walk around London last Sunday revealed the scale of the operations being deployed against this public threat and how violent the situation has become. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock… Any guesses? If you’re thinking armed gangs of hoodlums from Albania, hordes of drug dealers in hoodies from the suburbs or radical Islamists from the Maghreb are in the crosshairs of security services from Whitehall or Quantico – all of these are far too exotic. The real enemy of the state, dear reader, is that tree rustling beyond your front window.
As absurd as this might sound, one only has to do a quick scan around their city (pretty much any one will do) to see how much government and their agents hate trees. For a few decades now we’ve been given the sense that we’re all going green and pretty much every company with a responsible approach to the environment has employees volunteering to plant little maples at the weekends but it’s rather the opposite. Just as well intentioned hordes go out with tiny saplings and shrubs to prettify roadsides and parks, many more people armed with lethal Husqvarna chainsaws and Komatsu diggers set out to hack, shred and uproot unsuspecting birches and magnolias. To many at city hall or in the planning departments of large development firms, trees are evil because they’re high maintenance, dirty, dangerous and above all – expensive.
My weekend tour around London revealed just how dire the situation has become for both the deciduous and coniferous families alike. Unfortunately, trees seem to have fallen out of favour in most cities.
For all the talk about sustainable place-making (a dreadful term if ever there was one) and greener communities, trees are a luxury left off most business plans. In the heart of London one would have thought that the Crown Estate’s high ticket redevelopment of the streets behind Piccadilly Circus might have involved some cherry trees being moved from their land and transported to Glasshouse Street to create a welcoming boulevard for walking under the blossoms in spring or festive illuminations at this time of year. No such luck. Instead, a once grotty street that smelled of piss is now a bald, bland wind-tunnel that still smells of piss only now the urine trickles and collects on a more expensive surface and there’s not a shrub or a stretch of greenery to soak it up. How any planning department looked at such a scheme and allowed it to move forward without the planting of mature trees is more than a mystery. Then again, one must consider the dark forces of the health and safety and bean-counting brigades who have considerably more authority than anyone charged with creating healthier, more beautiful cities.
One can hear the protests against helpless elms and chestnuts in city chambers and boardrooms and the sound of fat markers crossing them off planning documents. “Oh no, no, no. We can’t be having trees here. Think of the leaves and public liability. People might slip you know,” would be the view from the lady in the high-vis vest. “Yes and then there’s the expense – all that trimming and pruning and the cost of cleaning. No, no, no. Trees are not in the budget,” would be the view of the little man in the greying easy-iron white shirt fingering a Texas Instruments calculator.
PR teams in the employment of public sector agencies and private sector firms might be talking a good game about green roofs and meadows for children to frolic in but don’t buy a word of it. Take a spin around all the new developments happening near London’s King’s Cross and you’re unlikely to see any flat-beds queued with 80-foot (25-metre) trees waiting to be planted. Even the impressive new home for Central Saint Martin’s (one of London’s hubs for creative higher education) is free from trees or greenery – just a wide-open forecourt with neither shade nor shelter. Further east it’s the same story at the Westfield development at London’s Olympic Park and keep going and the same story plays out in new projects in Poland, Sweden, China, Australia, the US, Canada – all the way back to London.
Trees are not the public enemy. It’s miserly developers and short-sighted public officials that need to be the target of a campaign to restore foliage as part of the urban fabric and save us from dead, cityscapes that lack texture, beauty and humanity.