Friday, 25 October 2013

Call for Culture in Toronto's Urban Wood Utilization Plan

I had the honour to speak at a Forum for Urban Wood Utilization last night (Thursday October 24, 2013) hosted by the Canada Green Building Council. Here's a transcript of my call for culture.


In Toronto now, we are in the process of reframing the question of what to do with ill-fated urban trees from a waste disposal problem, to a resource opportunity. This is really a paradigm shift, and the path has been cleared for this by the great work done in other cities like Chicago.

From my understanding this shift has been driven by city budget cost recovery needs, along with environmental ethics. The recent example of the Maple Leaf Forever Tree however illustrates that culture should also be considered when disposing of urban logs. I believe it behooves us in Toronto to seek a further paradigm shift to see our salvaged urban trees not only as a material resource, but also as a cultural material. In fact I propose that Culture be considered the keystone for an urban wood utilization plan in Toronto.

The swirl of public and media attention the Maple Leaf Forever Tree generated in the past several months since it blew down this summer is a stunning example of our culture’s desire for artifacts that will memorialize our collective stories. Said to have inspired Alexander Muir to write the “Maple Leaf Forever” song - once considered a contender for our national anthem - this tree has resonated as a sort of celebrity death of national importance.

Looking at it coldly however, some historians call into question the providence of the tree, but that doesn’t seem to matter... The connection between this tree, Alexander Muir and our national narrative now has a life of it’s own. We seem to need a vessel to carry our stories, an artifact to remind us, and the people around us about our history, our values, and selves. 

This tree isn’t alone in its celebrity status. There’s the Comfort Maple on a farm in the Niagara region, which is said to be 500 years old. There are the ancient white cedar dating over a millennia in age which cling to cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment. The Black Oak’s in High Park have been particularly prominent in the news lately. Several websites exist to identify and list Ontario’s Heritage Trees, but when you start to talk to people and look around you don’t have to go far to find a tree that has a cultural importance. Every neighborhood has them, standing in front our government buildings, our schools, our places of worship, in our parks, and even in our yards. Not all trees will become heritage trees, or of historical significance to the nation, but almost all large trees will be important to someone.

I’m certain that nearly everyone can think of a tree that has been important to them. Perhaps you carved the initials of your first crush on its trunk, built a tree fort in it, or just relax in its shade. Perhaps it was planted to commemorate your birth, or when you bought your first home, or by some revered ancestor. These trees are a reliquary for the stories of our city, our neighborhoods and our personal lives. To get the most value from Toronto’s fallen urban trees we need to harvest these stories along with them.

Whether a tree is a celebrity like the maple leaf forever tree or a humble giant, the real value in salvaging logs from Toronto’s ill-fated trees does not lie in their aggregate commodity value. Cities are not efficient centres of resource extraction; they are centres of cultural production. Putting cost recovery as the core objective of urban wood utilization shortchanges Toronto.  In other words, a culturally nuanced, multifaceted approach to salvaging urban logs would leverage this resource to create greater economic outcomes for the city and it’s people.

I heard a story of a small woodworking company down in the states that acquired the saw log of an old hanging tree. They used the wood from this tree to turn gavels. These gavels sold for $6000 each, primarily to conservative judges. While a bit grim, I think this story illustrates how the cultural material heritage of a log can be leveraged to create an end use for wood that is not only more culturally appropriate, but economically valuable.

This past winter Storyboard Furniture salvaged nearly 200 apple trees from a fourth generation Apple farm on Heritage Rd, just outside Brampton. The farmer, Nick Ferri was retiring, and the land will soon be developed for subdivisions. Normally, Nick like most apple farmers would simply bring someone in to push the apple trees into piles to be burned and at first, he thought we wanted the wood for firewood. He was happy to hear our ambition was to tell the story of these trees planted by his father, and give them a new lease on life as beautiful handmade objects. When we told him we didn’t have any money to pay him for the wood, but we could make him something beautiful, his eyes became watery, and we knew that was exactly what he wanted.

We didn’t have the capital we needed to buy the equipment to take on a project of this size at the time, so along with a few other designers and artisans we ran an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. We raised about $20,000 in advance sales in this way.

What astonished us more than anything was the outpouring of stories and encouragement we received from people about the project. These were people who grew up in the area and people who drove out to pick apples there with their family every year. Now almost a year later these people still turn up at our shop looking for a piece of that orchard.


This summer, as promised we presented to Nick Ferri a fruit bowl, and salad server set made from those trees he’d been tending all his life.

To bring the analogy downtown, lets think about Queen’s Park, which has a concentration of huge trees, and even a couple endangered butternut of rare size. It looks like there is one there that when it dies will yield a 28” diameter by 12’ long saw log. This log would have a paltry commodity value of a hundred bucks or so if you brought it to a mill where it would be anonymous of its cultural heritage. I think this would surprise most people. If you did mention to the mill that the tree came from the city they probably wouldn’t take the log at all for fear of chipping a saw blade on some forgotten nail.

Now imagine how many people who live or work around Queen’s Park who would see special value in a desk made from one of those trees. The same could be said in similar situations all over the city. If the city were to make the logs from these trees openly and publicly available to city residents and businesses, together with their providence. I’m sure they will find Torontonians eager to pay a price above mere commodity values to participate, and to have a piece of the history and culture of Toronto.

To summarize, creating a framework that allows city residents and businesses open access to urban logs will:
·        Encourage a culture of hyper local utilization of urban timbers
·        will enrich their lives by reinforcing our connections to the city and urban forest environment.
·        Encourage a resilient diversity of craftspeople, artisans and small businesses who will transform city logs into a diversity of custom products.
·        Will create industry resistant to overseas job losses by being rooted in local culture.
·        create greater overall economic impact in the city than treating our urban wood as a low value aggregate commodity.

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