Nature-based solutions for happier and healthier cities

Game Changers: An art exhibition at the Olivier Cornet Gallery in Dublin explores the relationship between trees and people in urban spaces

Annika Berglund’s art is hanging in the Olivier Cornet Gallery in Dublin until the end of the month. It’s part of a wonderful show called Arbour Essences in Anthropocene Dublin. I was on a panel there recently, chaired by Paddy Woodworth, where we talked about urban trees and forests.

Berglund’s works are beautiful spun ropes of Merino wool, silk and viscose coming together at nodes with gold-plated silk thread. Flattened on to felt or fashioned into a hanging globe, they reminded us of networks, the mycorrhizal threads that connect trees under our feet. Like all good art, they stayed with me, and my 4am brain provided another comparison. These pulsing red cords were umbilical, drawing human and arboreal relationships together, people and plants entangled in the same ecosystem. Our connections are visceral. Urban trees absorb some of our pollution, clean our water, provide shade and help make us feel happier.

The show features Yanny Petters’ exquisite portholes, circles of glass decorated with watercolour renditions of leaves from Dublin trees. The leaves of the London planes of Cathal Brugha Street are foregrounded with stems behind, bringing the full tree together in the round. Hugh Cummins has made gorgeous mirrors with leaves hand-cut into the frames, a lamp with an acorn base, and the shade like the wings of a seed above it. Eoin MacLochlainn’s watercolour studies are beautiful and heartbreaking, tree stumps painted from above, their growing seasons recorded in light and dark rings, one with new green leaves growing from the depths of one hollowed out core.

Outside in the basement of the Georgian building, Simon O’Donnell from the Urban Farm at Belvedere College has planted two silver birch trees in a repurposed IBC (intermediate bulk container). These unlovely industrial buckets for liquids make brilliant sense as inexpensive tree planters in a shady basement space. Cornet told the audience that when the new trees were being installed, they found a birch that had already seeded itself there like an advance party.


Fellow panellist, head of the National Botanic Gardens Matthew Jebb, finished the night with a sad but hopeful story. Experts in Dublin have recorded their first pine marten. Found in Drumcondra, the unfortunate pioneer and forest creature had been killed by a car. But hopefully others will follow their path, and the Botanic Gardens will be installing pine marten boxes to welcome them home.

The focus of debate on the European Nature Restoration Act has been on rural Ireland but the law, if it comes into effect, will also help with the restoration of urban nature. Artists like these four talented creators (and the Belvedere students whose apple tree studies also feature) can help us appreciate the beauty and potential of nature-based solutions to make happier and healthier cities. It can all go to help ensure the Anthropocene, the era where humans are making a geological impact on the planet, ends well for us all.

Arbour Essences in Anthropocene Dublin is on at the Olivier Cornet Gallery, 3 Great Denmark Street, Dublin 1, until June 30th

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a founder of Pocket Forests