Climate change is happening right now – in 2022, heat waves struck large parts of Europe. Under such circumstances, we appreciate the shadow provided by trees, especially in cities. But while the tree canopy is protecting us from the burning sun, trees in forests and cities are suffering from the combination of extreme weather conditions and soil and air pollution.
Legislation meets Science & Art
Environmental lawyers want to give rights to trees and ecosystems to be able to stand up against these environmental threats; scientists study the interaction between tree growth and environment to assess the impact of climate extremes on trees and the resilience of ecosystems and artists can bridge these contrasting disciplines to cross an important message to the broad public: action is needed!
"By combining scientific, creative, and legal skills, we aim to alert citizens on the actual and future impact of human-induced stress on the vitality of city trees"
Our project - “Trees in the Amstelpark tell their story”- part of the Shadow Floriade, organised by international art institution Zone2Source runs from September 4 to October 16, 2022, in Amsterdam. By combining scientific, creative, and legal skills, we aim to alert citizens on the actual and future impact of human-induced stress on the vitality of city trees. The context is provided by the initiative of environmental lawyers to provide trees with the status of legal entities, with the consequence that they will be able to sue parties who are responsible for destruction of their/our living environment. Scientists contribute by giving the trees a voice through tree-ring research.
The Amstelpark was established on the occasion of the Floriade 1972. After 50 years it has become an oasis where stressed citizens stroll around in a labyrinth of pathways, shaded by trees of more than 300 species. But also here, the past dry summers literally left traces in the trees (fig. 1). The effect of past heatwaves and drought is imprinted in the tree rings of many Amstelpark trees.
Trees get a voice in the LivingLab
Together with artist Elmo Vermijs and Zone2Source, the Amstelpark Orangery is transformed into a Tree-ring Laboratory, where research done by Wageningen University on Amstelpark trees is coming to life (fig. 2). Tree rings not only indicate the age of the tree, they also tell us about good and bad times the trees experienced during their lifetime. Tree-ring research was applied to six tree species, growing in the Amstelpark. Some declining fir trees share their story on the impact of the 2018-2020 drought (fig. 3). In addition, an oak will tell the story of how it perceived the hot summer of 2022. Its stem movement was monitored with sensors (dendrometers) with hourly resolution, to capture the impact of dry and hot days on the oaks' growth. Local park visitors, park managers, policy makers, but also school children and other interested people are welcome from September 4 to October 16 in the Orangery of the Amstel park to visit the exhibition, guided by scientists and students, and the interactive presentations, guided by the project partners.
Grand finale: The Parliament of Trees
What if the trees in the Amstelpark could speak for themselves as a legal entity, and, for example, sue parties who are endangering their rights to live, exist and thrive? Rivers, forests, and all sorts of natural entities all over the world have a legal status. Dutch jurist Jessica den Outer and lawyer Jan van de Venis, both advocates for Rights of Nature, together with four artistic pleas, demonstrate possibilities in a speculative trial in which the Amstelpark trees can speak for themselves. Several judges, including former member of the House of Representatives of the Netherlands, Marianne Thieme, will listen and judge. The trial is organised in a special setting in the Amstelpark, built from 46 logs of trees originating from the park itself. It is a meeting point for discussions, and organised during the Shadow Floriade and the speculative trial, where different parties are heard and park visitors can contribute.
Artists, lawyers & scientists – an odd combination?
Not at all! The approach of the topic “Climate change and pollution on city trees – impact & solutions” with contrasting expertise broadened the perspective of the project partners on the various aspects.
Lawyers realised the relevance and added value, but also the limitations of collecting scientific evidence to support claims. This includes, for instance, the problem of assigning environmental damage complexly caused by multiple factors to specific - even local - polluters. Scientists understand the wish of lawyers and artists for a convincing, straight, and appealing story to be derived from research results – but have to deal with partly non-significant results, due to the complexity of influences on tree performance and health. Artists question the principles our society is built on and speculate on new relationships with the non-human world by imagination, and feel tempered by the exactness of lawyers and scientists.
Yet, the relevance and actuality of the subject, the added value of integration of disciplines, and, above all, the expected large impact on awareness, involvement, and action potential of the broad public, park managers, and policy makers formed a large motivation to make this project work.
"Science, art, and legislation can contribute with solutions separately, but even stronger in unity!"
Our main message
Our main message is expressed by our object for the DDW, a dead Norway spruce (Fig. 4). When listening to the story of trees, we learn that action is needed to create forests and cities which are resilient to future climate change. Science, art, and legislation can contribute with solutions separately, but even stronger in unity!
We were supported by: Marieke Nooren (dramaturgy), Marianne Thieme (Former political leader Animal Party NL), Eva Rovers (Citizens' councils expert), Mert Kumru (World court for climate expert), Hannah Prins (Human rights lawyer), Kenzo Kusuda (dancer), Gershwin Bonevacia (poet), and Thijs van Vuure (musician)
Sanne Bloemink (essayist), Jeppe van Pruisen (film producer) and Stan Heerkens (photographer) helped with promotion and exposure of our project.
Willemijn Mulder, Paul Copini, Ellen Wilderink and WUR students were active in the DendroLab and LivingLab. Arno Heemskerk, Nico Hoogland, Nadine Schiller, Quirijn Verhoog, Ron van Soest, Hans Kaljee, Jitze Copinga provided background information on the trees in the Amstelpark and made sampling possible.