Tree-centric cities

For the Data & Publics unit, we we wanted to create a conceptual project that would take place outside of a screen, on the streets of New York. We started by digging around the NYC Open Data site, looking for interesting data sets, and we found the 2015 Tree Census. It’s an incredible collection of data that contains information about 682,515 trees across the five boroughs, including species names, unique ids, even the status of each tree’s health.

As a jumping-off point, we imagined the city as a giant forest. What if, like in a real forest, the trees were the most pertinent landmarks? We started conceiving of an alternative city map and wayfinding system that uses trees instead of street names and house numbers. In this alternative map, trees would become central to our experience of the city.

A Sampling of Inspirations:

  1. I sited my grandparents' relationship to trees, talking about how in their villages in India, they knew the nearby trees intimately—what fruit they gave, when they bloomed, and so on. We wanted to regain some of this knowledge in our city, where people are detached from nature and don't rely on it in the same way
  2. Trail markers: On many hiking routes, trails are marked by symbols on trees. We looked at these markers—sometimes a particular color of paint or a reflective medallion—as a model for using trees as guides. 
  3. We also thought about accessibility in devising the form of the tree markers. A braille magazine inspired us to use symbols that could be touched, to use a more reliable classification system then color.

The Map:

For our alternative city map, we thought of creating a digital map such as Google or Apple maps (or a toggle option within) that the user could view in “tree mode.”

In our “tree mode” example map, we imported the tree census data set into a custom Mapbox Studio basemap, stripping the map of the usual markers—streets and street names, buildings, etc.—to highlight the paths created by tree dots. The numbers on our example show the IDs for different maples in the city and begin to show how people could adapt their notions of place in the city, from neighborhoods and streets to clusters of tree IDs. In the process of creating our map, we also found a couple of projects that created similar one, including NYC Parks and Jill Hubley.

The Markers:

For the tree markers, we wanted to create labels that would serve multiple functions: showing the tree’s ID and “address,” educating passersby about the kind of tree, and presenting a fact 1 the tree that would emphasize the role of trees in nature and society. Each tree would have its own marker, which would have a color and identifying cut-out shape for the visually impaired corresponding with the tree type.

Data Aesthetics

The dataset we had to visualize for the Data aesthetics section was the immigration data to United States in 2015.

Ideally, I would've loved to get out of the 'world map' to visualize this but I fell for the understandability factor. (This makes me feel like a hypocrite cause I strongly opposed an argument in a debate where Bollywood film makers claimed to dumb down the story line so the audience would understand it but...)

Tools used - Processing, Laser printer, Illustrator

Materials used - wood and thread

I imagined a line from the US to the region getting thicker based on normalized percentages of foreign borns in the U.S.

I wanted it to be a physical piece, it could be adapted into a large scale installation. I decided to use nails for regions and a slightly big enough screw that could hold the maximum threads.

Step one - cardboard prototype

I lasercut a textured world map, added nails and tried threading with a few multiples of the percentages I got from the data set. The cardboard obviously couldn't hold the screws for long but it gave me a good idea about how to tackle thread.


Step two - Wood prototype

I etched the same on wood and run it a few more times so it had a burnt dots look.