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The critical role of trees in cities is too often forgotten

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Hattie Hartman looks back at an uplifting week for urban trees and a new way of experiencing architecture

This week is all about trees. The second Trees, People and the Built Environment conference took place over two days at the University of Birmingham with close to 400 people gathered to promote the cause of trees in UK cities. The conference title may seem long, but more than 20 organisations from the green space and built environment sectors have partnered to make this event happen. The critical role of trees in cities is often forgotten because they have no clear champion in the urban development process.

Timed with the conference, this week Birmingham became the first UK city to join the Biophilic Cities Network – a group of 13 cities which includes Portland, Oregon, New York, Oslo and Singapore. Professor Tim Beatley of the University of Virginia, founder of the Biophilic Cities Project was the keynote speaker, outlining numerous strategies to introduce restorative nature into cities.

In the UK, Manchester is leading the way in assessing how trees can reduce the urban heat island effect and in promoting the role of trees in climate change adaptation strategies. The focus of several conference sessions, i-Tree is a cost/benefit analysis tool which establishes the asset value of trees, quantifying their role in energy savings for building and water retention. UK i-Tree has been trialled in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Torbay and Wrexham, and a London i-Tree survey is planned for later this year. To take the urban tree agenda forward, greater collaboration and cross-disciplinary working is essential.

Nothing to do with trees, but last week I attended a most extraordinary architecture event at The Royal Academy – Sunday evening yoga at the Sensing Spaces exhibition. I am an avid yogi (though not too hardcore) and approached the evening without particular expectations, not wanting to be disappointed. Anyway, I was keen to see the exhibition. The sold-out event attracted 100-plus practitioners. We were directed into Grafton Architects’ ‘dark’ gallery to space our mats so closely that they were almost touching. 

Curated by Gabrielle Hales’ Shoreditch-based Secret Yoga Club, the evening started with a one-hour Jivamukti class, accompanied by live music and a gong during the savasana relaxation. Gazing up into those suspended light coffers with the gilded Royal Academy (RA) ceiling beyond was magical. A vegan supper followed, served at long tables in the adjacent gallery with the Pezo von Ellrichshausen installation. And then a tour of the exhibition with heightened awareness afterwards.

Sensing Spaces curator Kate Goodwin explains that the event was inspired by the intent of the show itself, which seeks simultaneously to shift exhibition goers from passive to active participants as they engage with the architecture, slow down and reflect on the installations. Sleepovers had been considered, but recent yoga events in galleries in both Germany and America were the spark for bringing yoga to the RA.

More trees and more yoga in unusual places. Hard to argue with that.

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