Saving trees through online campaigning

How A UK-based Designer Helped to Save The Trees In her Hometown in China

Research student Fan Xia works with me in Dundee, and is from Nanjing in China. Her recent initiative to help save the trees of her hometown is an inspiring account of how design can be a force for change – even when that change is several thousands of miles away from where you are. This is her story.


On the 7th March 2011, I read on-line news from my hometown Nanjing that the local Municipal Government was removing forty 70-year-old Platanus trees in the central area city due to the No. 3 subway construction.

I was furious when I saw the photo accompanying the news item: a row of trees had been seriously beheaded, some of which were uprooted and drastically pruned back to their core trunks. Even though the government called the “removal” a “transplant”, experts say that 80% of the trees will die eventually, judging from the statistics of previous removals. Moreover, regardless of whether it is a “removal” or a “transplant”, the trees are disappearing from the city – and that is unacceptable. I have nothing against the subway construction, but it should not be at the cost of historic trees.

Nanjing is the former Republican-era capital of China and these Platanus trees were planted during the 1920s and 1930s in the memory of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, father of Modern China, founder of the Chinese National Party, also known by the posthumous name, Mr. Sun Zhongshan. Dr. Sun died in Beijing, but his coffin was taken to Nanjing where he was buried. The main roads of Nanjing City, which the coffin passed along, were then named after him.  They are where the platanus trees were planted, which formed impressive boulevards over the past few decades, providing delightful views in all seasons that impress visitors and make the citizens very proud. In particular, the boulevards created green tunnels, sheltering the city from the scorching summer sun with pleasant shade. The older generation sees the trees as part of their childhood memories while the overseas Nanjingers (like myself) treasure them with the nostalgic sentiments. “The trees are the family members of ours,” say the residents of Nanjing.

However, the trees which remained intact even through the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, have been subject to constant felling in recent years because of new construction in the city. 20,000 trees have been reduced in number of to 3,000 today. Although what is done cannot be undone, the offensive continues. In early March 2011 they announced that at least 600 trees will be removed and transplanted somewhere else.

On seeing big trees beheaded and removed, citizens reacted angrily but few took any action at first. This was because they did not believe they could change events. But one man stood out on the street by the trees one day. He did not say anything, holding only a small banner that read “The Nanjingers care about the trees. Stop the offensive to the trees!”

The picture hit me. The man was all alone there, holding this banner up to his head. I can tell by the picture that he must be very tired, and I really wished I to be there by his side. But the reality is that I am here in Dundee – half a world away. Even if I were there, what could be done? I asked myself. But I knew that I could not remain silent. Rather than weeping in my apartment, thousands of miles away from Nanjing, I needed to DO something.

I am a designer: that is my skill and my profession. Design communicates: it brings people together, it makes complex issues clearer, it can persuade, it has power. As a young designer, my goal is to use the power of design wisely to make the world a better place to live in. So, even many, many miles from home, could I use the power of design to save the trees of Nanjing?

I designed two posters that aimed to communicate the issue, and appealing to the government to stop hacking our trees. These were then posted on a Chinese social networking site.

The posters had over 20,000 hits, more than 5,000 forwards and comments within two days of their release.

Mr. Jianxiang Huang, a very famous Nanjing-born sport commentator, used my posters on his Micro-blog page – a twitter-like platform where he has over 4 million followers, gaining massive coverage. And Dr. Yuan Yao, PhD of Beijing University and Waseda University, honored as one of the top people in China concerned with cultural heritage protection also used the posters on his blog.

The quiet voice of protest, that started with just one man on a street corner became louder. National newspapers in China reported on the campaign, a legislator of the Chinese Nationalist Party in Taiwan also got behind the campaign. With this media interest, many residents went out on the streets and tied green ribbons around the trees to signal their support for efforts to save them.

Our endeavors finally paid off.  On 17th March, the government released an official announcement assuring the public that the removal of the trees would be halted pending further study. And the tree hacking stopped. But we all know that this is not the end of the story, which is why I made the third poster on the call for vigilance in our campaign.

I understand the government is doing the subway construction in the best interests of my city. But it has highlighted some critical problems: the lack of transparency, the absence of efficient public hearings before decisions are made, the challenges of strategic planning. The good thing is that the authorities are listening to the people, and their concerns. I am very glad I could participate in the campaign by using the strength of design, even though I am living many miles away.

The posters worked. They gave a visual focus for a campaign that was essential for preserving the identity and culture of my hometown. This experience has demonstrated to me the power that individuals have to influence events in the world around them – even when those events take place thousands of miles away. A man standing on a street corner inspired me to just do something! As a designer I can do something that communicates an idea, a campaign. And using social media, I can ensure that the idea connects with thousands of people, and gets them inspired to back our campaign.

I love my city, and my country. And I love how the power of design can be used in a responsible way to support my fellow citizens and to protect the beautiful trees of Nanjing.

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5 thoughts on “Saving trees through online campaigning

  1. This is a fine example how design can and should solve problems, obviously the effort has evoked waves of concern and response, more importantly a transparent relationship between the city office and its residence must be established, keep fighting for the better society and greener world.

  2. Well done!

    I’m going to go to Nanjing next month for a conference and will do whatever I can to influence people whilst I’m there.

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