Thursday, 28 January 2010

The Woodcutter and the Trees

The wrong time
The wrong place
The wrong generation

This post follows on from a post I recently wrote about the plans to build a civic square over the top of Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen and the "I Heart UTG" campaign to stop it.

Last summer I returned home one day to find some workmen uprooting the trees outside my studio window. I live in a tenement building and my groundfloor neighbour decided to emulate his friends, who live in neighbouring buildings, by having his front garden paved over. The trees, which were the only trees on the entire street, were partially obscuring the light from his windows, and the garden was beginning to be difficult for him to manage in his old age. I was very disappointed that such well established trees were being destroyed for no good reason, but not being the owner of the land, I didn't feel able to make any real objection and certainly not in time to make any difference.

Yesterday I attended a consultation meeting about the plans for the City Square Project in Aberdeen. Sir Ian Wood and two of his high-power cronies were there to present their vision for the scheme. The presentations trotted out all the usual buzzwords, smiling faces and sunny 3-D visuals to support their case, complete with images of multi-million dollar squares in Melbourne, Chicago, Houston etc. They also made all the predictable emotionally laden rhetorical points about drunks in the city centre and Union Terrace Gardens being what they strategically termed a "chasm" supposedly designed to face the north of the city, and they even had the gall to suggest that they intended to "raise" the iconic gardens to street level (raze them to the ground more-like and then replace them with an undernourished and under-supported simulacrum).

When asked about how their plans for the square would deal with the problem of drunks in the city centre, Wood raised his hands (or should I say rinsed his hands) to indicate that the project made no promises to solve the problem - nonetheless, I think everyone in the audience picked up on the cynicism with which he was happy to use the spectre of "drunks" to punt his hollow plans.

Another of the many sad facts about his intractable position on the whole issue is that he's clearly under the misguided delusion that the only public resistance is due to the competing project for Peacock Visual Arts’ new Art Centre. This is certainly a major point of contention but meanwhile there's a majestic gem of a park nestled in the heart of the city silently awaiting its fate. Yes, this is also emotive language, but then trees, as mature and unyielding as they seem, easily buckle under chain saws and JCBs without uttering a single word in protest.

During the consultation meeting, the question was raised about the possibility of only building over the carriageway and railtrack's which adjoin Union Terrace Gardens leaving the gardens themselves unaffected. It was immediately obvious from the expressions on the three faces of Wood etc that they wouldn't even countenance such an idea. Once again we heard the mantra of the "chasm" and Wood stating that such a solution would be "just plain ugly". Considering his clear lack of vision so far, one wonders how he could know this so categorically? Genuine Vision has the sense to recognise that with imagination, ingenuity and common purpose, solutions can be found for all kinds of problems. It’s now patently clear that Wood's only conception of a solution to any problem is either to wash his hands of it or to cover it over. That’s a vision Aberdeen could do without no matter how many millions are attached to it.

In these times, in this place and for this generation - and no doubt for future generations also - the outmoded idea that you can transform a city by wiping part of it clean away and replacing it with paving slabs (no matter how expensive or artistic) runs distinctly counter to prevailing ideas about the need to retain and champion green space. You only need to watch a pulp movie like Avatar to see that the tide is turning, particularly for young people. Wood's idea is simply old-fashioned but let me present you with an alternative vision which may illustrate exactly how this is so.

With the £40 million Wood is offering (under certain conditions of course) Aberdeen could buy and plant 200,000 trees in and around the city. That’s two hundred thousand trees, which is no wood but a veritable forest – a forest which would transform Aberdeen from a grey granite city into a verdant arboreal treasure, the envy of every city in the world and a green flame in the torch of ecological progress. If Wood truly wishes to leave Aberdeen a cherished and enduring legacy in the heart of the city then this is just one vision which he could easily sell overnight and by it his name would literally live not just in the hearts, but in the minds and streets of Aberdonians for generations: “The Wood Project”. After all, it would seem fitting that the project were created from trees: the very things that formed the oil upon which Wood’s and Aberdeen’s prosperity has been built in recent times. In fact, there would be no need for time consuming consultations or expensive promotional materials because such a project would be welcomed by the people of Aberdeen. Some ideas, some times, some places and some generations are simply right. Others are distinctly not.

If I'd had any power to stop my neighbour destroying the trees which stood before my window last summer I'd certainly have raised more than my voice in protest. As it is, I now have a neat but entirely soulless expanse of cheap paving on my doorstep and a constant reminder and regret that I did too little to stop it.


AK said...

Thanks Jim

Very fair summation of a truly complex and unbelievably trumped-up concept. And it's all for a commercial shopping mall/ car park type project! Cmon!

I'm backing the Wood Forest idea though-that could work.
Where do I sign up?

Must say reminds me of the powerful story of the 'Lorax' who struggles to save the last of the Truffula Trees. These, once abundant, multi coloured plants wre being harvested for profit by the 'Onceler' transforming their beautiful foliage into 'thneeds'
"Everybody needs a Thneed".

Theodor Seuss Geisel (2 March 1904 – 24 September 1991), better known by his pen name, Dr. Seuss

An Interesting entry in wiki


The Lorax has sparked significant controversy. In 1988, a small school district in California kept the book on a reading list for second graders, though some in the town claimed the book was unfair to the logging industry.[1] Several timber industry groups sponsored the creation of a book called The Truax,[2] offering a logging-friendly perspective to an anthropomorphic tree known as the Guardbark. Just as in The Lorax, the book consists of an argument between two people. The logging industry representative emphasizes their efficiency and re-seeding efforts whereas the Guardbark, a personification of the environmentalist movement much as the Once-ler is for big business, at first refuses to listen and lashes out. However, he is eventually convinced on the logger's arguments.
The line "I hear things are just as bad up in Lake Erie" was removed more than fourteen years after the story was published after two research associates from the Ohio Sea Grant Program wrote to Seuss about the clean-up of Lake Erie.[3] The line remains in the DVD release of the special.

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