This story is part of the exhibition A City Designed by Trees, produced by City as Nature for the 2022 Daejeon Biennale.
Patrick M. Lydon
When the woman who was pushing a handcart full of groceries fell onto the pavement, people took notice. Not just the people around her at that moment. Nearly everyone, across the country. Word spread quickly about the old woman who fell.
“She had heat stroke.” said the doctor, said the local leaders.
Two months prior to the incident with the old woman who fell, the tree maintenance crew was on the street for a full week. Usually the crew brought a bevy of handheld cutting shears and small hand saws, by which they delicately manicured the trees. This year however, you could smell the gasoline. It was a different crew, and they had large chainsaws.
The old woman who would later fall onto the pavement was on her way to the grocer that day too. On her mind was a mission to get two ice creams for her grandchildren who would arrive later that day. She walked slowly, but confidently, and half way down the block she stopped to take her usual break, under the tree with a bench next to it. There by the bench, she saw the chainsaw wielding man. “Don’t worry lady. Just giving them a little trim!” said the man, motioning his head toward the tree canopy. Maybe it was his posture, or the way he held the saw so that it swang back and forth in her general direction, or his strange grin, but somehow the old woman felt unsafe. She accomplished the acquisition of two ice creams on that day however, and her grandchildren rejoiced in the treat.
The trees, however.
The next week the chainsaws were gone, and hundreds of trees that had previously shaded the street with their canopy looked like hundreds of upright logs. Only a few leaves struggled out of the trunks, and the smell of gasoline still lingered in the air as pedestrians took back the sidewalks.
Business seemed to resume as usual.
Then came the heat stroke incident. It was the hottest day of the year. Only 92 degrees Fahrenheit on the official record, but due to the lack of shade—or really, the lack of anything other than concrete, cars, and asphalt along the entire block—it measured 117 just above the pavement where the woman stood.
Young people can bounce back from heat stroke. The elderly have a bit more trouble. The death certificate for the old woman who fell on the hot pavement that day said the cause of death was “heat related.”
Given the circumstances however, the neighbors suggested that the death of this grandmother was not from the existence of a hot sun, but from the lack of shade.
For all the years that the trees had thrived with full canopies which shaded the street, it is true that no one died while carrying home their groceries. This could be why word spread so quickly, about the old woman who fell in the blazing sun on the newly-shadeless street. What started with concerned groups of locals quickly spread to a national movement. They wanted to take action. The results were unheard of.
In just three years time, there were fledgling urban canopies along most major streets and shopping districts. Within five years, networks of forested walkways for cyclists, pedestrians, walkers, wheelchairs, and all kinds of wildlife — called “Multi-use Forest Corridors” (MuFCs) — became the new standard infrastructure for getting around cities. By law, every neighborhood was required to be connected to at least one of these leafy green corridors.
Good thing then, that the city had previously built many egregiously wide 10-lane streets. Most of these streets were converted into MuFCs, increasing equitable travel for all beings, accepting more wildlife into the city, and creating a renaissance for local businesses.
Over the next ten years there were zero occurrences of heat stroke on urban streets throughout the country, and zero pedestrian deaths for the first time in the country’s modern history. This, added to the multiple other health benefits brought by the forests and the natural farms that sprouted up along the MuFCs, resulted a 2.7 year increase in average lifespan for city dwellers.
The death of one woman was a catalyst for much change. However, the doctor who tried to save her was not yet satisfied. His final effort was to personally commission a statue, cast in bronze, of an old woman with a handcart of groceries, sitting on her bench under the tree.
“Every time we think about pruning or removing an urban tree, we should remember her.” he said.
This story comes from The Possible City series.