September, autumn is setting in, and I’m driving from Devon to Nether Edge in Sheffield to learn about one of the most outstanding environmental stories of our time. The Sheffield Street Tree Festival is a perfect reason and excuse to go back to this city I loved. Returning to a once familiar place is always a little strange. Its picture-perfect, sandstone suburbs, edge of gothic storybook houses nestled amongst broad, gently curving streets and rare arboreal magnificence were my home-from-home for some 8 years. The people I knew then long gone, what is bringing me back now are the trees which have been disappearing, and the people taking action to stop that happening. I wanted to meet them, and to find out first-hand about their experiences and what the future for the city’s trees, and wider ecology in connection, looks set to hold.
The issue affects people living in and beyond the more privileged leafy-suburbs; trees are important for us all. Grown, healthy trees have been earmarked for substitution with saplings across the city. According to experts, the majority of the thousands of trees already taken, (and the 12,000 more still planned for felling over the next 20 years) were (and are not) in need of being replaced. A sapling for a prematurely lost, well-grown tree is a hugely unequal exchange. Executed on such a huge scale it is dangerous folly, and not only because air pollution levels in the city are already too high. Being sacrificed to city council and multinational corporate profiteering, Sheffield’s ecology — which includes humanity — is under enormous threat. Illnesses such as depression, anxiety and adrenal exhaustion are increasing in states of solastalgia as well-being is sacrificed to the tearing out of trees, as the campaigner and writer Joanna Dobson has noted. Through acts and events of indifference and despotism to force tree removals, the democratic reputation of the city council is in tatters, too.
Tall, in their prime. They lift your spirit. Leafy skies to look up to, shelter under, hear birdsong from, see tiny aspects of the other lives they support. A place of memory, a spot to meet friends. Beauty. Comfort, reassurance, inspiration. Marker of seasons, giver of fresh air and life. Despite their value, whether immeasurable or economically assessed, and although they were deeply wanted by the people who live alongside them.
In the independent collaborative report on the Capital Asset Value (CAVAT) of the street trees in Sheffield subject to the city council’s £2.2 billion Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contract with Amey PLC authored by volunteer expert, Ian Dalton, Matt Larsen-Daw of the Woodland Trust writes why the hard numbers are important. Although such surveys cannot include everything that trees mean and do, ‘The findings from such surveys … remind … that trees are not passive decoration, but active agents of change working for the benefit of wildlife, people and the environment. Our relationship with the trees around us is challenged. If they are working hard for us, shouldn’t we be prepared to work hard to help them survive and thrive?’
Festival speakers discussed the need to communicate and exchange with planners and engineers using CAVAT language, reasoning and signifiers. On the Street Tree Festival stage, urban forestry expert Russell Horsey shared his experience of this in Bristol and elsewhere. Adopting economic rationales for keeping street trees alive does not mean losing the deeper meaning or the relationships between people and trees: ‘the soft values are still there’. It means working and communicating effectively to achieve what is needed for healthy, sustainable urban environments. He noted the knock-on effects of tree-lined bus routes having been created in Bristol: public transport usage up by 50 per cent, private car use and hence pollution levels down, and qualitative and quantitative high-street retail benefits. This is wonderful for Bristol (although Horsey also noted that in fear of competition, people did not want to share the tree-based reasons for their local success). So, what about Sheffield?
With so much taken and gone, I expected to hear a large measure of embitterment and cynicism amongst the people with such a long fight ahead. I didn’t. The Street Tree Festival was much more the celebration it promised to be: ‘multifaceted, joyful and thought-provoking’, learning and sharing about the conflict and successful peaceful resistance, as well as about the trees.
Sheffield’s experience and people’s creative responses have made it a beacon twice over. In the first sense, the city heralds warnings. Though it sounds bizarre in a land where we still expect democratic process, the cutting of Sheffield’s beloved street trees began without the majority of the public realising what was happening or the scale of what was planned. Prior community consultation on the removal of street trees was poorly attempted, unconvincing,ineffective. The council’s invitations to residents were limited to one brown and unpersonalised envelope per household, presenting much like any old junk mail, rather than clearly signposting access for individuals to vital democratic participation and ecological responsibility. They were, unsurprisingly, overwhelmingly ignored rather than responded to. As Professor Jennifer Saul has documented, the council’s initial public discourse was of improving streets, of removing only the trees that needed to be removed — and when it became evermore clear this was not the truth, authoritarian methods were used to force their plans forward. And the Council simply lied, denying there was any plan and the content of it, until they had to admit otherwise.
When public realisation dawned that a massive process of ecological destruction was underway, people did respond, creatively and with determination. There’s laughter across the auditorium at mention of Councillor Jack Scott’s 2013 request for volunteer citizen ‘tree champions’ to look out for problems and help care for street trees, with Scott having been so centrally involved in the destructive policy of felling so many healthy trees. With the laughter came the comment: ‘he got his tree champions!’. They were just more ecologically conscious, braver, more committed, and more independent- and community-minded than the councillor had bargained for.
And with that, Sheffield has become a beacon in another sense: a torchlight for others experiencing similarly drysmian politics and environmental degradation. Local community campaign groups sprang up, linked, communicated and co-ordinated. Their organisation throughout the city under the umbrella group Sheffield Street Tree Action Groups (STAG) demonstrate concrete working examples of successful, peaceful, direct actions, how to create them, and reach out for effective support. Publishing videos of people, often pensioners, risking their physical well-being by chaining themselves to trees and being roughly handled by security workers are obvious headline moments in the campaign. Sharing knowledge of the law and its due process is, as ever, key for protesters in such circumstances.
But there’s been more: yarn-bombing and craft decorations, messages of love for the trees in chalk graffiti, poetry and singing, applications for Tree Protection Orders (which are, it is worth noting, in legal hierarchy trumped by Highways), connections made with experts, and the making of art, individually and in community. Many examples decorated the grounds and entrance at the Street Tree Festival, placards, and collections of tree drawings that seen together are affecting in their differences of colour, styles, perspectives, details, all the while portraying affection, contemplation, awe, wonder, and mystery within each of unknown connection between the sketcher and what a tree is to them.
Visual artist Lynne Chapman’s talk on bringing the urban sketching movement into play into the campaign was inspiring and instructive. Urban sketching is about going out into the world and taking time to stop being busy, to observe and simply to be, to rest in the sketching of something, portraying what is seen. She emphasised ‘it’s about process, not result — you do not have to be an artist’. She also spoke of the effect of the tree crisis on her community; how she now ‘knows her neighbours’, people to whom she would before have said little more than ‘hello’. Many of her campaign drawings are of the Sheffield tree fellings and protests taking place.
For me, the most touching story was of what happened on Armistice or Remembrance Day 2017, when some 100 people gathered to draw the trees on the Western Road alongside Chapman. As I looked through a large collection of drawings outside the main door, someone explained that each one of the Western Road trees had been planted in memoriam of a soldier killed in the First World War. And all of the soldiers represented had been to the primary school on that very street. Given the role of education in producing James Joll’s ‘mood of 1914’ — the nationalistic beliefs and sentiments that drove popular support for the war — the placing of these trees is particularly poignant, the memory more than important.
The Sheffield Street Tree conflict may seem a long way and very different from the history of the First World War. But Sheffield is just one example of a phenomenon of environmental conflicts around the world in which deaths are the result and financial gain above well-being the cause. There are parallels in all conflicts, and there are responses other than violence to unwanted situations — whether damaged pavements and roads, inequality of resources, environments and ownership, or harsh changes to one’s home environment.
When common enemies effect bringing people together, recognition and creative use and appreciation of that — despite whatever suffering has been caused — is a key step in working towards peaceful transformation of a conflict. Another is realising how common ground, and air, and language, and cares, are also shared. Sheffield’s street tree campaigners seem to know this well.
The first Sheffield Street Tree Festival was held on Saturday 29th September 2018, beginning with a choice of bird, elm and tree walks and continuing in the Merlin Theatre and its grounds in Nether Edge. Alongside of yoga, stalls, singing, placards, and conversation outside on the lawn, speakers in the theatre included the poet Robert Macfarlane, artist Nick Hayes, novelist Gregory Norminton, writer Peter Fiennes, artist Lynne Chapman, Dr Nicola Dempsey, David Elliott (Chief Executive of Trees for Cities), Rebecca Hammond (STAG), Russell Horsey and Joe Coles (Woodland Trust). Professor Jennifer Saul and Dr Katharine Cox chaired the panels. Local people from the campaign also spoke, and after copies of Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’sThe Lost Wordswere presented to representatives of Sheffield schools, a community choir sang ‘Heartwood’, a poem written by Robert Macfarlane especially for Sheffield, but also as ‘a charm-against-harm for all trees everywhere threatened with unjust felling’.
Thank you to Paul Selby for his insightful talk and walk on Elm trees.
The full programme and further information can be found here: