Measuring the True Value of Trees

Offsetted, an exhibition at Columbia University’s Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery, explores how our society commodifies trees and the unintended consequences thereof.

Cooking Sections Offsetted Exhibition
Running until June 8, Offsetted comprises 42 narratives linking the development of New York City, both past and present, to its street trees. Courtesy James Ewing, Columbia GSAPP

There are nearly 700,000 street trees in New York City, and all of them—London plane trees, Bradford pears, lindens—are working every hour of every day to sequester carbon dioxide or capture stormwater. These environmental services generate $110 billion in value per annum. But how does one quantify the value of much-needed shade? Of the color of fall leaves? What is lost when value—in the narrowest sense—is put to a living thing?

These questions are at the heart of Offsetted, an exhibition at Columbia University’s Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery open through June 8. Developed by Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe of the London practice Cooking Sections, the show calls attention to the financial practice of offsetting, whereby ecocide (the destruction of the environment for development) becomes a pretense for managing—through carbon taxes and tree replanting—the planet’s welfare.

As Fernández Pascual and Schwabe spell out, the regime of offsetting more or less kicked off with the “no-net loss” policy introduced by George H.W. Bush in 1989. Within this framework, since expanded through carbon stocks, the waylaying of natural habitats must trigger an equal and opposite response from those responsible: For a forest cleared by a developer in a New York suburb, the sequered carbon lost must be “restored” elsewhere, at a rate of $37 per ton.

Cooking Sections Offsetted Exhibition
Courtesy James Ewing, Columbia GSAPP

“What is problematic [is the] very fact that the value of every New York City tree is quantified,” says Schwabe. The logic is perversely instrumental but also compulsory; crises of profitability like the Great Recession always beget new complex methods for mining surplus value. Conformity follows the heedless pursuit of profit in near lockstep, so that lost in the vortex of algorithms that fuel environmental offsetting is the sensuous particularity of species arboris (vividly depicted in Cesare Leonardi and Franca Stagi’s The Architecture of Trees, recently reissued by Princeton Architectural Press). The exhibition foregrounds this heterogeneity in two ways: Tree fragments are posed like sculpture and to each is appended a historical vignette laced with tragi-comic anecdotes.

By arranging the specimens—over 40 in all, ranging from eroded trunks to fallen branches and leaves—the show gets around the perennial problem of exhibiting landscape, whose products often lack museum-ready objecthood. In doing so, the curators (who worked with GSAPP’s Irene Sunwoo and Tiffany Lambert) relegate the expository bits to a pamphlet (designed by An Endless Supply), which forms an integral part of the experience. The anecdotes are assiduously chosen, moving between lighthearted incredulity and despair.

Falling in the former camp is the tale of a hapless Staten Island contractor who fells a tree to lay down the foundation of his new house, only to be slapped with a fee greater in worth than the house. In case study #12, Chase Bank’s logo is shown to correspond to a farcical 19th-century scheme in which Manhattan would be furnished with freshwater via hollowed-out log pipes. A political and financial boondoggle that delivered non-potable drinking water, it nevertheless laid the ground for the founding of the Bank of the Manhattan Company, an erstwhile predecessor to Chase Bank. Conclude Fernández Pascual and Schwabe, “Trees and freshwater in New York can be regarded as elements that served first as commodities and later as assets to control both space and people.”

The most tragic narratives, however, recount the cynical use of public parks to displace and disenfranchise freed slaves, Lenape people, and the city’s other historically marginalized groups. Offsetted ultimately argues for establishing the rights of trees. But as these stories demonstrate, it’s another demand whose fulfillment, paradoxically, rests on the discovery of a greater humanity that has so far evaded us.

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