The mere presence of trees has been shown in urban settings to lower the incidence of depression and reduce the racial divide in COVID positivity rates.
When assigned to create an installation for the Brooklyn Museum’s steps that loosely addressed COVID-19, Brooklyn-based artist and data journalist Mona Chalabi asked herself: in what alternative world would the pandemic have been even worse than it has been? On a weekend trip upstate with friends — the first time she was leaving the city since the onset of the pandemic — Mona (who prefers to be referred to on a first-name basis) found herself surprised by the simple joy of looking at greenery. She was delighted by the possibility of looking farther afield. “During the pandemic, I was literally just looking at things in my apartment,” she recounted in an interview with Hyperallergic. She began to think about the importance of trees and, upon doing some research, was astounded to find that trees were independently correlated with significantly better health outcomes, even when controlling for other factors.
That’s how she landed on doing an installation about trees. She contacted the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation and requested data on the most common trees in the city — data, she found out, that is collected every 10 years in a tree census conducted by volunteers who survey the city with clipboards. She researched and drew the leaves of the top 100 occurring tree species in the city. The London plane tree is most ubiquitous, accounting for 13.3% of all trees in the city. The leaf of that tree might strike viewers as familiar; it is rumored to be the real-life referent of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation’s logo.
“Not only do trees create shade and shelter, reduce energy needs, and remove air pollution, but access to trees also affects physical and mental wellness,” a wall text explaining her work reads. The museum is in close vicinity to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Prospect Park, where viewers can stroll afterwards if they find themselves so inspired by Mona’s art.
Mona was excited to produce something for her home borough, but for a while, she wasn’t quite sure about the right angle for the assignment. There wasn’t much about the pandemic or how people responded to it that she didn’t find thoroughly depressing. Her initial temptation, she said, was to “lean into that depression and to create something that was quite dark and somber about the subject.”
“So much of my work is about exposing who loses out in the systems that we have, and COVID-19 just demonstrates that even more,” she said.
Keeping in mind Mona’s disposition to the issue, a visitor happening upon her final product — an installation wallpapering the concrete walls and steps outside the entrance to the Brooklyn Museum with tea-party-pink and blown-up illustrations of leaves — might be surprised with what she ultimately arrived at: a light, joyful exposition that passersby often briefly stop to take selfies with or otherwise sit in the thicket of without second thought. Feeling a “real responsibility” to her neighbors — especially that of “not creating something that people don’t want to see” in a time already ridden with anxiety and despair — Mona wanted to put out something more positive.
Those who choose to engage further with the work might stop and read the informational panels attached to the work, which delve into the inequities of access to vegetation in the city. A segment written by Mona herself exposes that the city’s highest income neighborhoods have almost three times more trees than the lowest income ones. “The correlation between income and trees means that neighborhoods with more rich people, which are also the neighborhoods with more White people, have cleaner air,” she writes. “Doesn’t everyone deserve a little green shade, regardless of their race or income?”
“With all of my work, if you pull this thread — if you really pull it — the end point of it is still really distressing: It’s this idea that heat kills and the absence of trees has huge, huge consequences to many New Yorkers,” she said.
A QR code that footnotes one panel allows those interested to find out more about local organizations like Forest for All NYC, GrowNYC, the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, and UPROSE that are committed to the advocacy of green space. Mona says that she was surprised to find that the number of trees in the city has actually increased over the past three decades, though most of those benefits have accrued to wealthier neighborhoods.
Asked why she thinks that is, she says she’s not totally certain, but notes that she’s observed how wealthy, White people mobilize in these contexts. “Whether it’s drug pricing or school board reforms, it’s just this ability to organize in a way where they’re able to speak with a louder voice thanks to resources like money — but also because the systems that are in place are more willing to listen to them regardless of how loud they’re speaking.”
“Some of it, again, is incredibly depressing,” she says. “But some of it is also saying, no, you can also pick up your phone and try to ask [elected officials] what it is you need.”