The first time I meet SuperTrees Steve he’s cheered to the front of the room of a GFN (Good For Nothing) gathering at Commonhall Social. Such is the raucous support, it’s tricky to get a grip on the idea he’s outlining, and when words do break through it’s easy to assume I’ve misheard. Trees. Three of them; bio-diverse sculptures on the roundabout near the new bus station, with lights and solar panels and…well…the scope is ever-expanding.
And when he’s not being inspired by Planet Earth to create something similar to the Singapore SuperTrees in Chester, you can find Steve working as a chemist, supporting the Saturday morning Parkrun at The Countess, helping to organise the Chester Charity Beer Festival, volunteering with Chester Roundtable or participating in Transition Chester. No wonder when we meet up to talk all things trees in Gustum, he asks if he can have a sandwich. The man must be positively starving. He laughs when I ask if there are any groups in Chester he’s not part of. ‘Yes. It’s actually what gets me up in the morning and keeps me going. It’s great to be part of a community and so many things. Chester’s just about small enough to have that – if it was any bigger like Manchester or Liverpool, we wouldn’t.’
I try and make him recite the inspiring speech from David Attenborough, which planted (yep, I did it) the desire to create three epic tree structures in Chester. He knows it almost word for word and the ambitious project is now rapidly ramping up to fruition. ‘I’ve always had environmental concerns and wanted to do something. I’ve done bits and pieces but nothing on this scale.’
Steve grew up twenty miles south of Chester, has called it home for four years and felt the city was an obvious choice. But having the idea is one thing – how do you convince the powers that be to open their minds and pockets, particularly in a place so fond of preserving the past? ‘It snowballed. I had a chat with Brian (Upton Councilor) who was planting trees in the Countess Park. He’s a doer, an activist and he presses things. He got me a meeting at the council with people like Louise Gittins (Environmental Officer for Cheshire and Chester West). Originally it was one tree. It wasn’t going to be anything like this.’
Great ideas began to pour in which Steve struggled to refuse. ‘It got bigger and bigger. I’m constantly trying to rein it in. People are talking about it being Chester’s lamb banana (Liverpool) that symbol of the city – where you have loads of them all over. It’s going that way a little bit; The Grosvenor Museum will have a replica tree.’
We’re talking way beyond a civic art installation here – the trees facilitate the regeneration of the entire space, turning it into an outdoor classroom, and The Council have committed 47k to transforming the area – ‘The Sunken Garden Project’ – including benches and flowers. ‘I want to engage as many community groups as possible. Chester Zoo will bring family and school groups to use it.’
In fact, Steve has been utilising the prowess of community groups since the project’s conception. ‘GFN (Good For Nothing) liked the idea and I gave a talk at the next gathering – most of the ForEST group (the group behind SuperTrees) has come from GFN. We had a Hack, a one-day 9-5 workshop developing things like how can we fund it and manage the web presence, what it’s going to look like design wise and marketing. It was super useful and I made some amazing connections.’
I ask if contributors will be rewarded with an initials engraved in bark equivalent? Steve smiles, ‘People just like the idea I think at the moment. When you’re not doing it for profit, for financial gain, it sets the tone, people are happier to help.’ Which, I suggest, is the GFN ethos in a nutshell. ‘Exactly, our chapter isn’t as big as London but it’s one of the most active in the country. Things like this are more organic in Chester. The city is just small enough that you bump into people, and there’s crossover – this keeps you morally on the right track – you’re held to account. That’s a cynical way of looking at it, but there are positives; It’s the potential of a great interaction every time you walk into town. I love that.’
It’s important to provide a little clarity about the money involved and where it’s coming from. ‘For the Eco SuperTrees we’re paying, fundraising, installing and doing everything for the metal structures, the trees themselves, including upkeep.’ By and large public reaction to the prospect of the trees has been hugely positive. But the brief spark of online criticism has naturally focused on financing. ‘It was a chain of around two hundred comments. People saying why are the council spending money on this and not buses, hospitals and schools. But there were people defending me too, pointing out that I was funding it myself and making jokes. Someone said, ‘The trees are good for the environment, good for Chester and it’s self-funded – and still the haters come,’ or something like that.’
I suggest that there’s a compliment in there somewhere – being significant enough to spark debate. ‘Definitely. I get it; it’s not improving the walls. It’s not an easy win to convince people on. The history here is amazing but we also need to be progressive.’ We talk about amble’s recent interview with Shit Chester, and his desire for a more cultural city such as encouraging street art.
Inspired by Ranulph Fiennes, the explorer who ran seven marathons in seven days, on seven different continents Steve did the equivalent, swapping seven continents for (the more affordable) seven countries. I ask if he considered himself much of a runner before the challenge. ‘Yes, a little bit. I’d done a marathon or two but nothing this extreme. I wanted to do something crazy. I’d done the traditional things and thought, what am I going to do next?’
Try and kill myself? I suggest. ‘Yeah, I got pretty close actually! We didn’t quite get the money we needed, but the project had also changed and expanded to three trees.’
How close are we to getting shovels in the ground? ‘We’ve got a grant app in with Wren – a waste management company who invest money in environmental ideas. If that’s successful (find out in June) we’ll start in November. We’ve got other grant applications out there too. In total we need 20k-25k and currently have 8.5k. The next fundraiser is on the 21st July – in the actual space. I’ll be running 100k in 10 hours. I did 50k in 5 hours at the weekend and…that was…I’ve done some tough things but…’
The event will kick off at 8am and finish at 6pm (or when Steve collapses.) There will be nature-based events going on with the help of Chester Zoo, and the plan is for several food stalls and an array of live music. ‘Joe Dunn from Commonhall Social will man the bar. The idea is to have three treadmills and I’ll be in the middle – I’m asking people to come and run with me for ten minutes and donate.’
If everything goes to plan the trees will be in place by Spring 2019. ‘There’s a critical pathway – things that have to be done first. We can’t plant until the beds are in, or put benches in until the walls around them are fixed etc.’
Before Steve breaks his legs publically, such is his drive to make this dream a reality, there’s another event on the site, which is part of The Great British Get Together. ‘It’s on the 24th June. The aim is to get different generations working together building bird or bat boxes. There’s a real benefit getting older generations to work with young people. The older gen become more active, they start playing, and the kids are learning and gaining experience.
Before I let Steve dash off, no doubt, to another community gathering of some kind, there’s just time to talk about Chester Parkrun. I did it once, was massively overconfident about my fitness level and almost threw up at the end. Specifically (from a place of sheer jealousy) I want to address the man at the top of the stats list who’s participated in every run since the event started. Chester, he even warms up by running around the carpark. Steve is also impressed/thrown, ‘Have you seen the guy who does it with a toddler on his back?!’
Who are these people? Talk about life goals.
‘I know. For the full 5k. With a child, on his back.’
If you’re inspired to give it a go (Parkrun, not wearing a kid as a backpack), it takes place at the Countess Park, 52 weeks of the year, Saturday mornings at 9am. It’s entirely supported by volunteers, and free to take part. For the 100th anniversary special, the course will be run backwards and fancy dress is encouraged. Find out more here.