January 2nd, 2013

The Treehouse of Roosevelt Road

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A couple of months ago, I wrote about the fig tree that has taken root atop a dilapidated building on Temple Street in Hong Kong. 800 kilometres to the northeast, across the Taiwan Strait, there is something even more spectacular: an enormous tree that grows straight through an otherwise ordinary shophouse.

You can find the tree on Roosevelt Road, a wide boulevard that runs through the heart of Taipei, from the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall to some of the city’s largest universities. From afar, it looks as though the tree stands in a courtyard, but walk closer and you’ll find its trunk rooted in an adjacent sidewalk. It rises up through the building’s first floor, curves through the interior and explodes past the roof into a riot of foliage. What came first, the building or the tree? Either way, accommodating the tree would have required serious effort and expense on the part of the building’s owner.

It goes without saying that cities impose themselves rather heavily on nature. Manhattan was verdant and hilly when the Dutch arrived; now it is flat and stripped bare of nearly all primeval forest — even Central Park is a simulacrum, its landscape meticulously planned by Frederick Law Olmstead. Even recent efforts at urban greening — vertical gardens, rooftop farms — stop short of being truly transformative.

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November 11th, 2012

Meet the Fig Tree

Posted in Asia Pacific, Environment, Heritage and Preservation by Christopher DeWolf

It’s a fun exercise to think of how long it would take for reclaim our cities if humanity were to disappear overnight. How many months until Dubai is returned to the desert? How many hurricanes until New Orleans becomes part of the Gulf?

Here in Hong Kong, nature’s plan is well underway. In a city entombed in concrete, it’s easy to forget just how fertile the surrounding land is, until you remember that this is a place where century-old banyan trees grow from the cracks in stone walls. The same scenario occurs in many smaller instances: tile roofs taken over by grass; shrubs sprouting from broken drainpipes.

There’s a particularly derelict building at 23 Temple Street. After a similarly-aged building in Hung Hom collapsed two years ago, emergency scaffolding was installed to hoist up its concrete balconies and it has been there ever since. But there is a benefit to such dilapidation: there’s a fig tree growing on the building’s roof. I can only guess that it came into being the same way as any other tree, seeds deposited by wayward birds, but in this case it grows so perfectly — protruding right from the middle of an old concrete shed — you’d almost think it was planted deliberately.

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May 22nd, 2011

A Citadel of Colonial Power — For Sale

Central Government Offices

Later this year, when Hong Kong’s government moves its headquarters to a glassy new building next to Victoria Harbour, it will leave behind the leafy hill it has called home since the 1840s. Rather than conserve the hill for public use, however, the government wants to sell half of it to developers, who plan to tear it up for a new shopping mall and 32-storey office tower.

“This hill belongs to the public and it should stay public,” says heritage activist Katty Law, who is part of a spirited coalition of groups that oppose the plan.

Over the past few months, a litany of groups have come out against the government’s plan, including the pan-democratic political parties, designers, environmental activists, architects, historians and congregants from St. John’s Cathedral, which is located on the hill.

Even feng shui masters think it’s a bad idea. One master, who is also a registered architect, told the South China Morning Post that the new office tower would block the site’s chi, which comes from the balance between Government House, at the top of the hill, and the three 1950s-era office blocks immediately below.

The government’s rationale for the redevelopment plan is straightforward: there’s a shortage of Grade A office space in Central and the new office tower would provide 28,500 square meters of it. The project is essential “to maintain Hong Kong’s competitiveness,” a spokeswoman for the Development Bureau told me.

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April 10th, 2011

The Masked Metropolis

Posted in Asia Pacific, Environment, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Why do so many Japanese people wear masks? The question became stuck in my mind almost as soon as I arrived in Tokyo late last month. Everywhere I went, on the streets and in trains, nearly half of the people around me were wearing surgical masks.

I already knew part of the answer: people wear masks when they are sick. That’s the case for many people in Hong Kong, and even in Vancouver and Toronto, especially after the SARS outbreak of 2003. But that didn’t seem to explain why such a huge percentage of people in Tokyo wore masks. Was half the population really suffering from colds? It seemed unlikely. Did people think that the masks could filter out radiation, which everyone worried would float down from Fukushima? That seemed unlikelier still.

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March 7th, 2011

King Banyan

Posted in Asia Pacific, Environment, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

Chinese banyan tree in Yau Yat Chuen, Kowloon, Hong Kong

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December 7th, 2010

Tokyo Serenity: Naka-Meguro

Posted in Asia Pacific, Society and Culture by Christopher Szabla

Whether surfacing, globetrotting, or merely in transit, it’s best never fully to trust the travel section. Take Tokyo, where over the last few years a number of writers have labored to portray the southwestern neighborhood of Naka-Meguro as tragically hip.

Descending from Naka-Meguro’s elevated subway station into a quotidian landscape of utilitarian shops and services, though, “hipness” wasn’t the first thing I felt washing over me. If anything stuck out, it was the neighborhood’s anomalous politics: I’d arrived on the eve of Japan’s historic 2009 election, when the Liberal Democratic Party lost its majority for only the second time in history — but had clearly retained much of its popularity in Naka-Meguro.

Parked in front of the station was a minivan mounted with speakers, blaring the slogans of an LDP candidate busy shaking hands with voters on the sidewalk below. Further into the neighborhood, posters confirmed that Naka-Meguro’s constituency was either an LDP redoubt or at least one of its targets. It meant a substantial number of people here were clinging with uncommon sympathy to the party most associated with Japan’s elite establishment. “Hip” seemed increasingly far from the right word to describe the place.

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July 18th, 2010

Hard Knocks for Hong Kong’s Trees

Posted in Asia Pacific, Environment, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

Wang Tong’s Ghost Tree. Photo by Larry Feign

Furious residents of a village on the south side of Hong Kong’s Lantau Island say government workers have been hacking at the roots of a landmark rubber tree, raising questions about the government’s declared effort to improve tree management.

Last Saturday, cartoonist Larry Feign was riding his bicycle near his home in Wang Tong Village, Mui Wo, when he saw three men standing near the base of the so-called Ghost Tree, a large Indian Rubber Tree that has stood in Wang Tong for at least 30 years. As he approached, he noticed two of the men chopping at one of the tree’s roots with axes.

The workers explained that they were building a new drainage channel to cope with runoff from a nearby slope that had recently been reinforced with concrete by the Civil Engineering and Development Department (CEDD). Feign was then joined by his wife, Cathy Tsang-Feign, an avid gardener who grows many varieties of trees on her property.

“I said, ‘What are you guys doing?’ and the foreman said, ‘Oh, don’t worry, we’re just chopping down some roots to make a drain,’” said Tsang-Feign. “At the time I was there they were chopping quite a few younger roots. If I had come out 15 minutes later they would have been chopping into the main root. The damage would have been fatal.”

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May 31st, 2010

The Tree Professor

Jim Chi-yung normally walks with a steady, deliberate pace, but on the grey afternoon of February 4th, he broke into an uncharacteristic sprint, running from his office at the University of Hong Kong to a friend’s waiting car. He was heading to Maryknoll Convent School in Kowloon Tong, where the future of a tree was at stake.

Last year, Maryknoll had a decided to chop down a 20-metre-tall Norfolk Island Pine that leaned to the north and seeped resin from its trunk, giving the eerie impression that it was crying. The schoolgirls called it the Ghost Pine. Since it was planted in the late 1930s, it had become an emblem of Maryknoll, which is one of Hong Kong’s most prestigious private girls’ schools. The decision to fell the tree was met with a furious response from Maryknoll’s network of well-connected alumni, who called Jim for help. He helped publicize the case and after a flurry of media attention, the school backed off.

But in January, a crew of contractors dug a trench around the pine and severed most of its roots. The school declared that the tree could not be saved. Its felling was scheduled for February 5th. When he arrived on the afternoon of the 4th, he asked to look at the tree, but the school’s administrators refused. He looked worried. “Like a doctor who will use every effort trying to save a patient, immediate stabilization work can be imposed on the trunk instead of cutting the tree immediately,” he told reporters.

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April 30th, 2010

Exploding with Greenery

Posted in Asia Pacific, Environment, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

Chaotic, polluted, the cradle of Cantonese culture — these were some of the ways I had heard Guangzhou described before I visited last month. Reality was a bit different. It wasn’t chaotic at all; in fact, it was rather calm and orderly for a Chinese city. It was also less Cantonese than I expected. Cantonese is still the language of the majority, and this is reflected in subway announcements and TV commercials on outdoor video screens, but Mandarin has become the lingua franca in large parts of the city and some areas, like around Sun Yat-sen University or the in the orderly streets of Tianhe district, suffer from a generic “anywhere, China” feel, a kind of placelessness.

The one thing that was true to my expectations was the pollution, which blankets the city in a near-constant grey haze. Despite the air quality, though, I was amazed at how green Guangzhou is. Trees take pride of place in many of the city’s streets; apartment balconies are filled with potted plants; elevated expressways are covered with vines. It seems that, unlike Hong Kong, Guangzhou never dispensed with greenery as it urbanized. The warm, humid climate certainly helps: dilapidated buildings are covered in moss and plants grow out of cracks in the stone or cement. Nature, it seems, is keeping pace with Guangzhou’s incredible economic growth.

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May 19th, 2009

Felled Tree

Posted in Canada, Environment by Christopher DeWolf

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Last year, on June 10th, a sudden storm blew into Montreal with hurricane strength. It was brief but intense as fierce winds toppled trees across the city, including this one on Milton Street in the McGill Ghetto.

December 24th, 2008

Watch Out For the Tree

Posted in Asia Pacific, Environment by Christopher DeWolf

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Bonham Road, near the University of Hong Kong

December 15th, 2008

Ginkgo / Silver Maple

Posted in Canada, Environment by Kate McDonnell

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Jarry Park, Park Extension, November 2nd, 2008

December 11th, 2008

Wall Trees

Posted in Asia Pacific, Environment by Christopher DeWolf

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Wall tree on Bonham Road in Western Mid-Levels

Walls are nothing special but wall trees certainly are. When I first came to Hong Kong I was astounded to see enormous banyan trees growing from what appeared to be the flat surface of a wall. I wasn’t mistaken: they really were growing out of walls. Every so often, a passing bird poops on the wall, and once every thousand times that happens, one of the seeds contained in the feces finds enough nourishment in the wall’s soil and moisture to grow into a full-fledged tree.

Unfortunately, these trees aren’t given the respect they deserve by Hong Kong’s environmental authorities, and most wall saplings are removed before they have a chance to thrive. Earlier this year, a survey revealed that of the 288 saplings growing atop or on the sides of stone walls, 159 had been removed. The government’s tree-removal efforts reached a new peak at the end of this summer, when a giant tree in Stanley fell and crashed a woman passing underneath.

But Hong Kongers have become ever more sensitive to the things that make their city special. Trees are no exception. Over the past few years, attempts to clear away trees for development have been met with howls of protest from conservationists and residents alike. It’s true that in some cases, the trees pose a danger, perched as precariously as they are. But in most situations they add a certain intangible character to Hong Kong’s streets, a sense that even nature is caught up in this city’s rush to build things on top of everything else.

June 7th, 2008

The City’s Arboreal Landscape

Posted in Canada, Environment, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

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Late last month, as a breeze rustled through the leaves overhead, a small group of people stood at the corner of Laval Ave. and Sherbrooke St., waiting for a tree tour to begin.

Their guide was Bronwyn Chester, a writer fascinated by trees, who has decided to share her knowledge by taking people around the streets and parks of Montreal. Her plan, she said, is to introduce Montrealers to the arboreal diversity of the city, to expose them to an entire world of trees that is often ignored or taken for granted.

Chester began by handing out a list of trees found on and near Laval Ave. – more than three dozen in all – then unfolded a map of Montreal’s largest parks.

“The area around Montreal is where the richest forest in Quebec is found, but it’s also the most heavily farmed and exploited forest,” she said, gesturing to the parks on the map.

“We’ve managed to replace a degree of the biodiversity that once existed and, in between, on the streets, we’ve created bridges between those islands of green.”

As Chester ushered the group up Laval, she pointed toward the street’s thick canopy of trees, explaining that many of them are maples that were planted only 30 years ago — a bit surprising when you consider that the street was first developed in the 1860s.

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