polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Merry Parking Lots

by Ivan Valin

As much as we all love the holiday season, few would admit to enjoying the onslaught of Christmas paraphernalia sparkling from storefronts and a-rum-pa-pum-puming from speakers all over the city. Ick, we say — the reaction in equal parts disgust (for the overt commercialization), distaste (for the tackiness) and distress (for the shopping list yet to fill). But every year there is one urban transformation that never fails to inspire an authentic holiday joy: The Christmas Tree Lot.

Portland, Oregon.

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, 25-30 million live trees will be sold in the U.S. this year. Some of these will be bought at the farm that grew them, some will be delivered, some will be available at your local big-box department store. But some will be carefully arranged in rows and stacks between candy-cane stripped poles, transforming parking lots and vacant parcels into little pockets of coniferous woodland.

To be sure, these are not productive urban forests--dead, they sequester no CO2; they create no habitat other than bird perches; without roots they do little to mitigate stormwater runoff; the shade they cast is of little benefit in December; and, given the short tenure, they probably won't contribute to higher property values. The only thing going for the Christmas tree lot is the romance of the blue-green view and the smell of needles. And the magic is in the transition from unused, unsightly urban space to productive, purposeful urban space. Then there is the arousal of the unexpected juxtaposition: shrink-wrapped evergreens or painted asphalt plus pine-sap. Many of us dream (post-Joni Mitchell) that all of our parking lots would be turned into parks and gardens--the Christmas tree lot is a small and fleeting satisfaction.

With empty space at a premium, Manhattan Christmas tree lots are often strung out along sidewalks.

And let's consider that the trees are--after a humiliating two weeks dressed in glittered balls and strung with LED's--ultimately destined to be mulch in a local park or median. In other words, the Christmas tree lot is the opportunity to visualize and 'spatialize' one of the many flows of material that contribute to the production of (living) urban green space. There is a sentimentality, a feeling of connection with the hinterland that we experience rarely in urban settings. It's related to that healthy feeling you get just by walking through a farmer's market …

In fact, strip away the commercial purpose, and installation of 25 million trees in hundreds of thousands of 1/2 acre dioramas--every year--around the country would is an impressive 'urban installation' to rival any Agnes Denes Wheatfield or Robert Smithson Non-Site and to dwarf a REBAR 'Parking Day'. Agnes had a tractor and Robert was in your face, but the Christmas Tree Lots each come with a lumber-jack (or at least a guy with gloves and a flannel shirt) and a chainsaw.

Vancouver mud.

NYC, off Colombus Ave.

Credits: Image 1 from lemonpeper. Image 2 from natearm. Image 3 from mdpNY. Image 4 from ianwojtowicz. Image 5 from Ralph Hockens. Image 6 from the Granat Project. (Thanks to all the Flickr members for allowing me the use of your provocative photos.)