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Advice To The Builders Of The World... First, Plant A Tree!

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Sitting in a hot hall awaiting the start of a conference last year, the Sri Lankan architect Ashley de Vos told me about the ‘gossip tree’ that is at the heart of traditional villages in the island. 

It’s an image that has echoes in many cultures and places, though increasingly rarely in an urbanised world. Two things stand out as contrasts with contemporary society: the centrality of the natural environment (and the tree is a symbol loaded with significance in most civilisations) and the value placed on time and conversation. 

My own city of Sheffield is rich in trees. Stand at any vantage point in any season and the trees will impress themselves on your view. And as the designers of many of the city’s public spaces understood, the presence of trees creates places for conversation. When the conversation begins, the city starts to belong to its people.

The urban tree becomes not only a means of mitigating the harsher effects of the built environment or adding value to property development, but an emblem of a different set of values and priorities.

As pressure on land becomes more intense and the demands to realise commercial benefit more insistent, the urban tree becomes not only a means of mitigating the harsher effects of the built environment or adding value to property development, but an emblem of a different set of values and priorities. 

At an event a couple of months ago in Sheffield Harry Bowell, assistant director of operations for National Trust in the midlands, described what he called a typology of special places – ‘where I live’ or ‘an afternoon out’ or ‘a special place in my mind’.

By being mindful about the special nature of places that often appear ordinary to an outsider, and places with natural features in particular – a tree, a stream, a park or a hill – we ascribe to them a value that is inalienable. Such value can be shared and thus passed on to and imbibed by others, but to ‘enhance’ it in commercial terms by putting a price on it, calculating what can be gained by developing or reselling it, and removing it from the public domain, is actually to diminish the benefits it offers. The special place either ceases to be special or has to be reclaimed (sometimes though dramatic actions, such as the Kinder Scout mass trespass).

Being mindful about places contrasts with the mindlessness of much that passes for contemporary city building. To take just one example, consider Bridgewater Place in Leeds, one of many supposedly iconic developments that are entirely lacking in a sense of context or rootedness.

These are not places designed so that human beings can flourish. Bridgewater Place represents design failure: it creates a wind tunnel so severe that one man was killed when a gust of wind overturned a passing lorry in 2011, and where the supposed solution is to close the nearby roads to the public when strong winds are forecast. Whatever this development was designed for, improving the local quality of life was not on the agenda. It is as if our notions of value have become so warped that decision-makers will happily accept environments that are damaging to human life in the belief that they will bring prosperity. 

In an age where economic growth is now considered sufficient justification to excuse all manner of erosions of what makes life worthwhile, designers and planners need the courage to ask not what makes a scheme acceptable but what can make it special: how will we preserve and create places and spaces that will be significant and meaningful for future generations? That could begin with the principles of the gossip tree: a shared space, one rooted in the context of earth and environment and locality, and where the significance is created by all who use and enjoy it, not by rentiers and bean counters. 

Imagine how different our towns and cities might be if every new development began with the planting of a gossip tree.

Originally posted here.