Talk Tree to Me: Facilitating a Complex Conversation Around Trees in Detroit
Detroit, Michigan, United States
Spackman Mossop Michaels
The jury declared it an “innovative way to engage the public…especially during those early days of isolation and uncertainty.” The project sought to call attention to the role trees play in urban area and to facilitate a complex and nuanced conversation about the environment.
- 2022 Awards Jury
Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, Partner
Sierra Club Michigan Chapter, Partner
Design Core Detroit, Event Host
Brian Allnut, Collaborator
Suzy Berschback, Collaborator
Zenaida Flores, Collaborator
Tharmond Ligon Jr., Collaborator
Ederique Goudia, Collaborator
Andrew “Birch” Kemp, Collaborator
Kinga Osz-Kemp, Collaborator
Maurice BP-Weeks, Collaborator
Rayshaun Landrum, Collaborator
King Bethel, Collaborator
Tom Nardone, Collaborator
Christina Ridella, Collaborator
Dr. Leonard Weber, Collaborator
Mye “Bells” Bella-Ray Copeland, Collaborator
Paul Plante, Collaborator
Tanya Markos-Vanno, Collaborator
Sue Hudnut, Collaborator
Shaohuai Xing, Project Designer
Joie Chan, Project Designer
Jane Satterlee, Project Designer
Tracey Armitage, Project Designer
Kenneth “Wes” Michaels, Project Designer
Emily Bullock, Project Designer
Erin Kelly, Project Designer
Erin Porter, Project Designer
Gabrielle Gaspard, Website Designer
Talk Tree to Me explores the use of interactive chatbot technology to engage Detroiters in a unique way, with trees being the conduit for conversation and engagement. As an outdoor exhibit for the Detroit Month of Design—during the height of the pandemic lockdown—the words and thoughts of 12 Detroiters were paired with a collection of 12 trees along the riverfront. People interacted with the trees via an automated chatbot on their cellphone.
Trees became the conceptual framework for the project for a number of reasons: to call attention to the role trees play in a city, as a way to engage the public while outdoors, as well as to explore the potential of the project to facilitate a complex and nuanced conversation about the environment.
Talk Tree to Me is an exploration of public engagement technology that is both socially-distanced and intimate—where the public can express thoughts about their community in the same way they communicate with friends and family, via text conversation: ultimately providing a more intimate snapshot of public sentiment.
Talk Tree to Me is an interactive design project that was installed for the Detroit Month of Design—a month-long design festival taking place during the height of the pandemic in September of 2020. The project is a collaboration by Spackman Mossop Michaels (SMM)—a landscape architecture and urban design firm in Detroit and New Orleans—and its partners Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and Sierra Club Michigan Chapter. The project is part urban eco-scavenger hunt and part interactive exhibit. Detroit residents explored the Detroit Riverfront throughout the month and interacted via text message with a collection of 12 trees, each a different species common to Detroit, that had been programmed via an automated chatbot technology with the real-life thoughts and questions of local Detroiters.
Urban trees make a city livable. They create shade, capture carbon to combat climate change, and clean the water. They prevent flooding, provide bird and wildlife habitat, and produce oxygen for us to breathe. They alleviate stress, improve health outcomes, and create economic growth. They are places of memory, community gathering spaces, and symbols of cohesive social life.
Urban trees are a nuisance. They grow and crack driveways and sidewalks, drop leaves and limbs onto roofs and into gutters, fall and destroy houses. They clog city infrastructure, block city streets, and break electrical power lines. They cause friction between residents and the city over maintenance, arguments between neighbors over property damage, and are symbols of hopelessness and loss when left standing dead for decades.
The relationship between communities and trees is complex. Beyond these “tangible” issues of value and cost, trees are tied to larger cultural narratives about identity, race, wealth, and justice. At the city level, trees are intricately woven into ideas of political autonomy, power, control, and care. Even neighbor to neighbor, trees are often seen as symbols of class, character, and politics. Talk Tree to Me was created to facilitate a conversation about trees in Detroit, using trees themselves as the vehicle of conversation. It does not hope to answer these far-ranging questions in a definitive way. Rather, the goal is to open a space for conversation and simultaneously encourage people to stop and pay attention to the trees in their city. While experiencing the early stages of a global pandemic in 2020, Talk Tree to Me—as an entirely outdoor and technology-based project—facilitated an opportunity for Detroiters to interact with one another and create meaningful conversations in a safe way.
Spackman Mossop Michaels (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. For example, the prompt from the tree—a Dawn Redwood in this instance—was taken directly from the interview with Detroit resident Rayshaun Landrum:
Dawn Redwood: It’s strange, when I travel sometimes, I think about how you can be in such different places at the beginning of the day and the end. It makes you think, is this all even real? How do you know if this is all real what we experience every day?
Texter23: Good question. Very matrix!
Dawn Redwood: Oh, I like that perspective. I think it is the things you can see and touch that make things feel real.
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.
River Birch: While we’re brainstorming… what could Detroit do with all the vacant land?
Texter24: Tear up the concrete and let it become a urban forest
River Birch: We can't just build on all of it, some of that has to be preserved. We're going to have to designate sanctuaries or safe havens for wildlife.
River Birch: What are you doing to contribute to the environment?
Texter24: Not much. I don't even have recycling and I feel pretty bad about it
Included in these conversations are interesting facts about the particular tree species. These “Tree Facts” shed light on both positively and negatively viewed attributes and impacts on the community around them to initiate a more dynamic and candid conversation.
Ginkgo: TREE FACT: Ginkgo trees are deciduous, and the leaves turn a beautiful bright yellow in fall. Ginkgos also have separate male and female trees. The fruit of the female trees is very stinky!
Ginkgo: Are you willing to climb a tree?
Texter18: One of my favorite past times as a kid
SMM programmed each of the tree dialogues through a chatbot program called TextIt. The conversation provides automatic responses from the tree based on user interaction as well as alternative paths for the conversation to flow based on how the texter chooses to answer. This variability allows a texter to have multiple unique conversations with a given tree.
To engage the Detroit community, SMM created the website, www.talktreetome.com, to convey the project’s purpose, location, participant bios and instructions on how to interact with the trees. It also became the platform for sharing the results at the close of the month-long interactive period, so that the thoughts and insights from Detroiters could be readily accessible to a broad audience.
Talk Tree to Me was launched on September 1, 2020 in collaboration with the start of Detroit Month of Design. Tree markers were placed on each tree which contained the name of the tree species, the designated phone number to text, and an invitation to engage in conversation for passersby. A map was also located on the website identifying each tree’s location, the Detroiter who was the voice of the tree, and the number you could text. These marketing tools allowed for the community to encounter Talk Tree to Me through multiple channels.
Throughout the month of September 2020, 210 individuals talked to the 12 trees along the riverfront. The captured conversations consisted of approximately 3,960 text messages exchanged. The ideas, thoughts and insights shared in these conversations presented an incredible opportunity to understand more about how Detroiters feel about the trees in their communities that is free from the biases that Landscape Architects may bring to the conversation. Given the timing of Talk Tree to Me, these conversations captured some of the most intimate thoughts and feelings around the collective experiences faced throughout a transformative year.
After reviewing the material captured through the text message conversations, SMM selected and highlighted surprising interactions – from thought-provoking to joyful – and presented what was gathered both at www.talktreetome.com and at an interactive culminating event, where community members could continue the conversation with SMM staff and come home with their own tree sapling.
Outcome and Impact:
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.