Robot trees might sound dystopian but Cork City Council has managed to get their hands on some, all in the name of tackling air pollution.
Paying €350,000 for the year (including maintenance), the five high-tech robot trees have been installed at St Patrick’s Street and on the Grand Parade near the City Library.
Although the name inspires more futuristic images like the ones below:
— Nathan McDermott (@natemcdermott) August 10, 2021
The actual robot trees look like this:
CityTrees are large structures covered in mosses designed to filter harmful pollutants such as fine dust particles and nitrogen oxides (NOx) from the air.
The moss acts as a filter to ‘trap’ and ‘eat’ fine dust, making it a sustainable and regenerative fine dust filter.
Scientific studies by the Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research have shown that these ‘moss mats’ clean about 80% of fine dust from the air.
The CityTrees also have in-built sensors to collate air quality data for analysis and 40-inch TV screens to share information about air quality in the city. They also feature a built-in chair to act as street furniture.
Cork City Council said that they form one part of its strategy to tackle pollution, which also includes the planting of 1,300 trees this year.
Like everything these days, social media users were quick to offer their own takes and reaction to their installation has been mixed, to say the least, and ranged from the humorous:
A city grows great when the council installs trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.
– ancient Cork proverb
— Brian Leahy (@cobyhectic) August 9, 2021
To the downright outraged:
Is this a joke or are we really in a dystopian film, the world is burning, we have a global pandemic and there are now robot trees!! Read the room @corkcitycouncil , plant real trees and protect the ones that are already there!!
— Shane G (@sg_111) August 10, 2021
And so advanced is this new technology it appears to have attained sentience:
SOON WE SHALL RISE https://t.co/co47fvOEol
— Cork Robot Trees™️ (@CorkRobotTrees) August 10, 2021
However, their installation has sparked an important conversation online about the urban environment, conservation, and carbon emissions.
Plant ‘actual’ trees
Most people questioned the reasoning behind the decision to install the robot trees and asked why real trees were not used instead.
For the same money ye could have planted tens of thousands of actual trees
— Bill (@BilliamMUFC) August 9, 2021
What about actual trees though?
— Áine (@aineg) August 9, 2021
— Frank O’Connor (@frank_oconnor) August 9, 2021
While others focused on the visual impact of the new trees and the costs of maintain them.
Those have to be the most ridiculous and ugly looking monstrosities I’ve ever seen. Can’t you plant some real trees? 😱
— Margaret Griffin (@foodborn) August 9, 2021
If these are to reduce traffic pollution, try “planting” them in the middle of the road to prevent the problem entering your city. Better yet use some real trees…
Anyone running a book on how long until broken, unserviceable and removed?
— Andy_2000x (@Andy_2000x) August 10, 2021
Academic debate takes root
The city’s scientists also made their own contributions.
University College Cork’s Dr Eoin Lettice, a lecturer in plant science, said the council should have focused more on reducing traffic congestion rather than installing the city trees.
I would concentrate on actually reducing traffic congestion in the city and spend the money on real trees instead but sure look it. https://t.co/2V0mIWVRAG
— Dr Eoin Lettice (@eoinlettice) August 9, 2021
A point that UCC air quality and atmospheric scientist Dr Dean Venables made when the robot trees were first announced.
Some comments as an atmospheric/AQ scientist on cyber trees & Cork city #airquality:
It’s a huge positive that AQ is being seriously discussed. @corkcitycouncil is doing innovative monitoring work (incl. with us in @craclabucc) & it’s good to see cllrs engage with the problem pic.twitter.com/D7C6JLz2Ty
— Dean Venables (@DeanVenables) October 3, 2020
For a real look at what the robot trees are able to contribute towards air quality, UCC’s John Wenger, an environmental chemist, has published this detailed thread.
The installation of City Trees in Cork has caused quite a stir!
This thread contains some commentary & links to recent studies on their ability to remove pollutants from the air.
TLDR: They slightly improve air quality, but only in the immediate area. https://t.co/YGE3MJ4kyW
— John Wenger (@johnwenger9) August 10, 2021
The huge public interest and response to the new fixtures on Grand Parade and St Patrick’s Street prompted local politicians to share their reactions to new robot trees.
People before Profit Councillor Fiona Ryan was the most scathing in her assessment of the new investment and focused on other expenditure options.
We could hire multiple litter wardens, for years, with this money & plant many adult trees likely to bring about a similar level of air purification. This isn’t climate action, it’s playing around with gimmicks while ignoring the councils box ticking approach thus far https://t.co/Hp6BCV75UP
— Fiona Ryan (@CllrFionaRyan) August 10, 2021
But Green Party Councillor, Dan Boyle, has said in defence of the decision that the robot trees were not a substitute for real trees but instead are meant to have an air quality monitoring role.
Meanwhile, An Rabharta Glas-Green Left Councillor, Lorna Bogue said the response to the robot trees shows “the appetite in Cork City for large-scale urban planting” of trees.
Thanks to @LizDunphy1 for reporting on the “robot trees” 🤖🌳
I think the reaction to the robot trees has shown the appetite in Cork City for large-scale urban planting. I hope the conversation can move that way, especially in light of the IPCC report.https://t.co/a1PfxqZW28
— Lorna Bogue (@LornaBogue) August 10, 2021
Fall Out Boy and public engagement
Of course, any spending like this on any new projects attracts many responses from different groups questioning the priorities of their local government and the effectiveness of their decisions.
Irish cities are undergoing great changes as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic especially with reduced traffic volumes and wider pedestrianisation.
And many people ask just how deep-rooted these changes actually are.
In this video:
– Cork’s new #faketrees installed to remove particulates
– private cars driving down street from where they are banned, generating particulates
In 15 mins today (3:30pm) I counted:
157 private cars & vans
18 taxis pic.twitter.com/yWpCZo25oo
— Random Cork Stuff (@RandomCorkStuff) August 10, 2021
It’s fitting the installation of the city trees came on the same day the UN published a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the grave severity of the climate crisis.
Around the world, temperatures might not be “goin’ down, down in an earlier round” but if interest like this continues then “sugar, we’re goin’ down swinging”.
There’s that Fall Out Boy album reference you were looking for – although these may not have been exactly what the band was thinking of when they called their album From Under the Cork Tree.