What can one person do?
That’s the doubtful question that so often jumps to mind when considering the environmental issues of today. Climate change, plastic pollution, deforestation, species extinction – it’s just all so damn exhausting, right? Add extreme inequality and political polarisation into the mix and things feel even more hopeless.
When we do feel positive about what we can contribute, it’s usually by doing something that has collective power when lots of people do it together – like buying organic veg or voting for an environmentally progressive candidate. When you do it, nothing changes – when you do it along with loads of other people – it adds up.
And those kind of actions are really important – they’re the bread and butter of social change. It’s a gradual collective process that you can play a small but important part in. I’ve even written a whole post about individual vs collective climate action.
But that’s not the only way you can contribute to environmental action. If you have the drive, you can use activism and community organising to do something bigger, something that makes a significant impact all on its own. In my post on seven types of citizen power, activism is the most potent.
Today I want to tell you about a really cool project which is a fantastic example of what one passionate individual can do if they put their mind to it.
Steve Hughes is a chemist who lives in Chester, a smallish city in northwest England, UK, and he has spearheaded a project to turn a derelict lot into a beautiful community garden with three majestic ‘supertrees’. I had a chat with him to find out more.
Chester Supertrees – the game plan
So what exactly does this ‘Supertrees’ project entail?
Currently there is an area about 50 metres by 50 metres in size, at the centre of ‘Bingo roundabout’ in Chester, with three subways leading into it. It’s well-used by pedestrians passing through but it’s shabby and rundown and generally not considered a nice place to dwell. Here are some photos, so you get the picture.
Steve’s game plan is to regenerate the whole area. There will be landscaping and garden planter boxes – local garden associations are already involved. There will be three beautiful murals on the subway walls painted by local artists, with one each depicting sky, ocean and land. These will celebrate nature’s beauty and also highlight environmental issues such as climate change and air pollution, plastic ocean waste and deforestation.
And of course the pièce de résistance – the three supertrees themselves.
If you’re wondering ‘supertrees sound cool as hell but what are they?, that’s what I thought too.
Basically, they are large metal tree-shaped structures with climbing plants growing all over them to provide a habitat for wildlife and help clean the air, and with LED lights and air quality sensors embedded. The Chester ones are inspired by the iconic supertrees of Singapore. As you can see they look incredibly impressive. While similar in style, the ones Steve has masterminded will be much smaller at about 7.5 meters tall.
The purpose of the supertrees and surrounding garden is to increase the biodiversity of the urban environment, create an outdoor educational space and raise awareness of environmental issues, helping people feel more connected to nature. Steve notes that the people of Chester (like most people everywhere) feel detached from environmental issues, like they are always happening in some other place or time. He hopes this project will bring it home to people in a positive and tangible way.
While the plants on the supertrees will absorb some carbon, Steve is upfront about the fact that given the carbon emissions of producing the structures, they aren’t a net win on the carbon front. If that was the priority, good old-fashioned natural trees would do the job better. The purpose of this project is more about biodiversity, education and clean air. Having said that, he is looking into special kinds of moss that absorbs carbon at insane rates, and could potentially be added to the supertrees.
The spark of inspiration
In terms of how Steve got into doing this, he told me he was inspired by watching David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II series, and especially by the final episode on cities.
I remember loving that episode too, and referencing it in my post on why cities are our lifeline for climate action. Each episode of the series is focused on one of Earth’s biomes, such as forests, islands or oceans. The final one is on “the planet’s newest habitat – cities”. Which was unique for a nature program and cool AF.
Anyway, Steve said that when he watched that final episode, and saw the supertrees of Singapore, he had a powerful feeling of inspiration and he decided there and then he wanted to recreate these amazing structures within his own city.
And that’s when the idea of the Chester Supertrees project was born.
Making the dream a reality
Amazingly, this isn’t just some cool idea. This is actually happening. Steve assured me that “the project is definitely going to happen”. He has the money, the work has already kicked off, and he reckons it will be completed by April 2019.
In October 2018, volunteers came down to the site to start scraping the subway walls for the murals, so the artists will have a smooth surface for their art.
The planning permissions for the supertrees has been submitted, and the council are supportive of the project already so it’s expected to sail through. The contractors have been booked to start work in January.
Wondering how they’re paying for it?
Steve kicked off the fundraising last year in pretty spectacular style. He ran seven marathons in seven days. I know, bonkers.
When we chatted on the phone, he said this was really valuable not just for raising cash through sponsors but by showing commitment and getting buy-in from the community. Steve explained that the public has been extremely positive from the get-go (remember what the site is like at the moment) but at first people thought it was “a nice idea that wouldn’t really happen”. When they saw him running his seven marathons, “they realised I was crazy enough to actually do this”, says Steve with a laugh. He certainly is dedicated.
Along with another sponsored run, this time on a treadmill at the actual site, he raised £10,000 in donations from the public. From this springboard, he was able to get grant funding from the county council, Chester Zoo and a local waste management company.
In total they have raised £200,000 and expect a further £50,000 to come in. This means they have enough money to do the project as currently planned, and anything extra will contribute its longer term financial sustainability.
Do you just love the sound of this and want to get involved? The Chester Supertrees Twitter is regularly encouraging locals to come on down to the roundabout site and lend a hand, even for just half an hour.
Massive thanks to those who came and down and worked hard and laughed harder. Theres still a lot to get done though, so if want to come down and be part of making another great space for our city, we'll be down there from 10am this Saturday and Sunday. RT #ImForEST#MakeChester pic.twitter.com/ZJWfcW6p0q
— Chester's SuperTrees (@ChesterSTrees) October 14, 2018
But what if you don’t live near Chester? Most of you lovely readers don’t. Steve said that supporters can donate to the project – which will contribute to the longer-term running of the educational activities in the space – and spread the word.
And beyond that, Steve said he wants people to feel inspired and empowered that projects like this can happen in your community, and you can even start something like this yourself! “If you have the energy and commitment, you can make a difference”.