Talk Tree To Me
2022 ASLA Honor Award in Communications
Talk Tree To Me was an interactive design project installed for the Month of Design—a month-long design festival in Detroit. The project was a collaboration by SMM and its partners Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and Sierra Club Michigan Chapter. The project was part urban eco-scavenger hunt and part interactive exhibit. Residents could explore the Detroit Riverfront throughout the month and interact via text message with a collection of 12 different species of trees that had been programed with the real-life thoughts and questions of local Detroiters. The exhibit was live during the entire month of September 2020.
Urban trees make a city livable. They create shade, capture carbon to combat climate change, clean the water. Urban trees are a nuisance. They grow and crack driveways and sidewalks, drop leaves and limbs onto roofs, fall and destroy houses. The relationship between communities and trees is complex.
Talk Tree To Me aims to facilitate a conversation about trees, using trees themselves as the vehicle of conversation. Trees are important to a city. But there are lots of mixed feelings about trees in Detroit. Beyond the tangible issues around urban ecosystem health, economic beneﬁts, and resiliency, trees are tied to larger cultural narratives about identity, race, wealth, and justice. With this project, SMM seeks to engage the community in this messy conversation, and tie it to place, memory, and the potential for transformation. setting the topics the trees will discuss with the public. The goal of the project is to open a space for conversation about the community’s attitude towards urban trees and at the same time bring people in close contact with the trees in their city.
The project pairs a Detroiter with a tree, as the voice of the tree—asking the questions and setting the topics the trees will discuss with the public. At the end of the month, selected conversations between the public and the trees will be posted on the website, revealing some of the unﬁltered thoughts Detroiters have about trees and their role in people’s lives. SMM invited 12 Detroiters from diverse backgrounds, ranging from age 10 to over 60, to become the voices and personalities for 12 trees of different species found along the Detroit Riverfront. Through a series of 30-minute interviews, participants formulated the questions and set the topics their respective tree would discuss with the public via text message.
Once the trees and interviewees were paired, a conversation dialogue was designed from the interview transcripts to create a dynamic conversation for each tree. The prompts and questions each tree asked are derived directly from the interviews.
While the conversations generally revolve around the theme of trees, the space was opened for a wide-ranging conversation. Not every question, or response, from the tree is about trees. Sometimes the conversations focused on what it means to live in Detroit, or simply favorite things to do. The trees became the conduit for a conversation between Detroiters about trees, but also about what it means to live in Detroit.
Ginkgo: When was the last time you forgot about time because you were so engrossed in something, and what was it?
Texter08: Sitting next to you in the sun!
SMM believes that Talk Tree to Me can become a tool to engage communities and create opportunities for novel conversations around Detroit and beyond. The project offers the ﬂexibility of tailoring the interviews, conversations, and topics for a unique urban environment. It also leverages the now universal technology available through mobile phones to have the potential for expansive reach. The project is positioned to provide invaluable research and an interfacing tool that will help form a community voice around growth, design, and inclusivity in our cities.
More information about the project and for selected conversations can be found at www.talktreetome.com
Talk Tree to Me received the ASLA Honor Award in Communications in 2022.