Can These Crazy High-Tech Tree Structures Get More People Into Green Space?

Invisible Cities is a project looking to make technology and nature come together seamlessly in order to draw a new, connected generation into spending more time outdoors.

Parks in urban places have generally been envisioned as oases from fast-paced city life, as preserves shaded from modern technology and development where you can quietly read a book with the birds. By definition, we draw lines around parks: nature belongs on one side, civilization on the other.


A London-based company called Invisible Works, however, is trying to change this thinking. The firm hopes to fill a park in central London next year with semi-permanent “biomimetic” infrastructure that would enable live music shows, restaurants, movie screenings, and other multimedia productions. Their concept would transform how people interact with urban green space, dramatically upping the ante on the old public park band shell.

“A lot of people who look at parks think they should be untouched, unspoiled places,” says Ed Shuster, the project’s director. And he includes in this group many environmentalists. “We’re really saying that people need to be able to use this space, and people are living in a technologically developed city. How do we integrate these two things together without harming the environment, but enhancing it?”

Invisible Works is hoping for a 10-year residency in its first park, while building out a company that would deliver similar privately financed installations in cities everywhere. “The fundamental problem that we think we’re tackling,” Shuster says, “is the lack of how people who live in cities are able to interact with green spaces and interact with nature.”

He believes your experience of parks would be enhanced if you could regularly visit art galleries and ballet performances inside of them (you also might simply go into nature more often). Simultaneously, he thinks that particular ballet performances or works of art might be better viewed–or take on more meaning–when set within a tree canopy. We’re used to viewing art, he points out, in more clinical environments. There’s a reason for this with paintings from the Renaissance-era masters. But plenty of art could travel outdoors–and wouldn’t it change your interaction with it if you were standing inside a structure like this?

Shuster envisions a whole range of productions in parks: “big immersive circus events,” public lectures, TED talks, educational seminars, live theater, chef demos. “We’ve got the capacity to plug in different types of multimedia,” Shuster says, “to do hopefully anything.”

This proposition is not uncontroversial. Do we really want to be able to “plug in” every type of multimedia into nature? And how would you do that without strangling the trees in power cords? “There are parks around London where I’d empathize with that, where this would be somewhat inappropriate,” Shuster concedes. But he also believes that we can treasure some green spaces by creating more ways for people to use them.


In those places, the company intends to hide all of that technology within novel, sustainably sourced timber structures that would mimic nature itself. Thus the term they’ve coined for the park concept: “The Invisible City.” Their “aerial amphitheater” was inspired by the shape of a shelf mushroom, their restaurant shacks by seed pods, and their treetop exhibition spaces by beehives. “The idea, in a simple way,” Shuster says, “is that they’d look like they’d grown there.”

This also means the company won’t be mass-producing pre-fabricated structures that could plop into parks anywhere. If Invisible Works is able to truly seamlessly blend the city with nature, it will have to confront extensive design restrictions at each location, around each tree–“really funny things,” Shuster acknowledges, “like bats in trees that we can’t disturb. So even the lighting has to be designed in a specific way.” We may learn if this is possible as soon as next year.

About the author

Emily Badger is a writer in the Washington, D.C., area, where she writes about cities, sustainability, public policy, and strange ideas. She's a contributing writer at the Atlantic Cities and has written for Pacific Standard, GOOD, the Christian Science Monitor, and The Morning News.