Requiem for Trees: Rhizomatic Ecologies, Insurgent Communities, Green Policing

Multi-layered collage: Insurgent crowd in Exarcheia, shrouded in smoke and darkness; plants and their rhizomatic underground connections. Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc).
Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)

Athens is a city where air pollution from vehicles is widespread, while the intensification of construction activity, often in the name of green development, has caused green spaces to become scarce. The construction of a new metro in the rebellious community of Exarcheia is both an expression of this paradox and a strong impetus for the development of urban ecopolitics from below, as Nelli Kambouri argues in her contribution to the “Kin City” text series.


“The smell of leaf mould and the sweetness of decay / Are the incense at the funeral procession here, today”. Pulp, The Trees

On Monday, November 6, the trees in the central square of Exarcheia in Athens disappeared to make way for the construction of an underground metro station. There were approximately seventy trees on the square, some of them older than fifty years old: carob trees, one fun palm, plane trees, arias, robins, privets, mulberry trees, acacias, sophoras, olives, one cypress, pines, maple trees, ficus trees, and bushes. The articles published in the media did not mention any information about the lost trees, other than their number. We need to name them and account for their loss.

The only information on the trees comes from an announcement made by Attico Metro (AT), the construction company that claimed that the trees were not cut, but “moved” to make room for the overground parts of the metro station that will occupy Exarcheia Square. According to the company, the trees will be safely stored by the municipality and then moved and replanted in scattered locations nearby. No one in Athens trusts Attico Metro to replant the trees, and even if they do, it is very difficult for the trees to survive. Yet the turmoil these trees are going through is treated as a technical problem in the announcement.

Incorporating Exarcheia

Local groups mourned for the lost trees by protesting. They had been protesting against the development of this project for a long time and their mourning became an integral part of these practices. They are opposed to the destruction of the square because it represents a symbolic place for social movements, a meeting place for locals, a playground for children, but most importantly one of the few open green spaces left in the area. Most tourist guides introduce the square to foreigners by telling histories of social movements, struggles, revolts, and occupations, but warn them that Exarcheia is an unpredictable place in which violence may erupt abruptly.

They warn tourists that the square might seem “authentic” and “tranquil” in the morning, “vibrant” and “alive” in the evening, but it is not always safe for tourists, as it hosts drug dealers, drug addicts, and migrants. Fights between anarchists and the police may erupt any time. The sounds of the police attacking the crowd, especially young people, the smell of burnt garbage and tear gas are common. Tourist guides do not even mention the trees that stood there silently to witness the tranquility of early mornings, the selling of drugs in the evening, the arrival of tourists, the protests, and the fights with the policemen that seem to have multiplied since the works started.

From the roots to the branches?

In “Mille plateaux” (1980), Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guatarri criticize the tree structure as one of the foundations of Western philosophy. The thought that grows like a tree from the roots to the branches, the thought that takes the tree as a paradigm, is problematic because it relies on a worldview based on fixed points, roots, from which all binary truth grows. The root (one) is divided into (two) branches. However, they argue that the architecture of the tree we have developed is not how trees actually are in nature: “Nature doesn’t work that way: in nature, roots are taproots with a more multiple lateral, and circular system of ramification, rather than a dichotomous one. Thought lags behind nature.” At one point, the two thinkers speculate that perhaps all plant life in its diversity is rhizomatic. Some animals may also be rhizomatic.

Deleuze and Guatarri criticize arborescent thinking and propose a rhizomatic one. Unlike trees, rhizomes have multiple and differently positioned roots that are interconnected and create complex spaces. (The word “rhiza” in Greek means root.) One cannot identify where the rhizome began, there is a multiplicity of origins, a complex understanding of floral and philosophical development that is non-linear and non-binary. In rhizomatic thinking, any point can and must be connected to any other point. As a result, any part of the rhizome can be broken off and replanted elsewhere without stopping the development of the first part, because rhizomes always have multiple lines from which to grow. Rhizomatic thinking requires attention to detail. One must find connections and networks that are not immediately apparent, especially if one has eyes only for a single strong root and the way it divides into two branches. As parts of the plant touch the ground, they develop new roots that can grow into an interdependent plant that is both autonomous and interconnected. Rhizomatic thinking does the same: it reads in detail all the signs of roots that can develop out of nothing, it identifies how they are connected to other roots and how they multiply.

Can we think of Exarcheia Square, the metro and the trees in a rhizomatic way? The decision to cut or uproot the trees is ironically justified as part of a green policy planned in a very linear, futuristic, technoscientific imagination. This is the norm today. Paradoxically, every time we celebrate a green infrastructural innovation, we must at the same time mourn the terrible destruction of part of our social life and our relationship with the urban and rural flora and fauna that surrounds us. Moreover, each time we welcome a spectacular green plan to remake life, it is accompanied by increasing precarity and uncertainty about the future.

The paradox of green development

Athens is a city where air pollution from vehicles is widespread, while the intensification of construction, often in the name of green development, has made green spaces rare. The new subway at Exarcheia Square is, not least of all, an expression of this paradox. The metro is a relief to the poor public transportation system, and it’s the only mode of transportation that doesn’t seem to worsen air pollution. It also provides emotional relief from the agonizing and stressful time squeeze that Athenians experience because of traffic. It gives people the opportunity to move cheaply, easily, and quickly without the enormous environmental impact that commuting by ground has. But there is one detail that makes all the difference: the metro stations are built in such a way that they eat up the remaining open spaces in the city, destroying the trees and social relationships that used to grow there. Metro stations are large, cemented, and spectacularly built where there used to be rare green spaces, leaving the streets intact and expanding spaces for commercial use. In fact, the shrinking of public spaces and the expansion of their commercial uses is one of the most lasting effects of green development.

The subway imposes a new logic on the surface. The metro reconfigures the life of urban plants, animals, and people. Proponents of the metro’s overtaking of the square argue that it is far more important to build an infrastructure that reduces the number of cars, buses, railroad tracks, and motorcycles than it is to preserve the old trees and social relations of the square. Environmental issues in urban spaces are framed as binary dilemmas: it is either or. The binary opposition between the metro as green infrastructure and the trees, people, and history above ground seems inescapable. Aren’t trees also an infrastructure worth protecting, rhizomatic yet green, perhaps greener than all?

The cutting of trees has become a social issue in Athens. The group “Cut it right” has been campaigning against the widespread practice of cutting and pruning. They call for a tree sergeant approach that takes care not to harm the trees, not to upset their balance. They argue that many trees fall during storms or snowfalls because they have been pruned in ways that make them unstable. The effect of this strange arboreal urban planning, which paradoxically results in many dead trees, combined with a construction boom that has eliminated the few remaining truly green spaces in the city, is that the temperature in the summer rises to such an extent that there are regular heat waves. The heat combined with the pollution is a deadly combination. The heat waves reproduce stereotypes about the laziness of Greek workers, even though precariousness and overwork are the norm in Greece. Especially in the summer, the absence of trees, the pollution and the tired bodies of overworked people are felt more intensely.

In contrast to the arboreal urban planning regime of the metro stations, which relies on the uprooting of trees, there is a park nearby that was born in a rhizomatic way. A former “parking lot,” the space was cemented until its occupation in 2008. It was liberated and planted as part of the uprising that began in Athens when a young boy was murdered by a policeman in Exarcheia. It was also the beginning of the financial debt crisis. The occupation led to the creation of a small park where plants and social relations developed in a rhizomatic way. While there are many tensions surrounding the park, both within the social movements and in their relationship with the police, Navarinou Park manifests a different possibility of how space can grow out of the entanglements of people and flora. Despite its organizational shortcomings, the park’s architecture emerges from a non-binary conception of the natural and the urban.

Green infrastructures, pollution, gentrification, and policing

The history of protest has made Exarcheia a “hot” place for tourism-related investment. The promise of golden visas has opened up new opportunities for real estate development in the area. Once purchased, the apartments of Exarcheia are renovated and turned into short-term rentals. Rental prices have risen enormously and many locals have been displaced. Some members of local groups protesting the destruction of the square have been unable to rent in the area and have moved away. As the locals leave, tourists arrive en masse at Exarcheia. The local shops and taverns are renovated to meet the needs of a crowd that wants to consume local authenticity. A few years ago, a tour called “sweet anarchy” advertised on Airbnb was widely criticized. Today, sweet anarchy enthusiasts seem to be everywhere. They are still attacked and booed by locals.

One wonders why a place where trees are violently cut down amid local protest attracts so many investors, developers, and tourists. They have no interest in exploring the tragic history of the local trees, but find the aesthetics of past revolt and mourning fascinating and pleasurable. The police make sure that tourists, developers, and investors feel safe consuming a revolutionary past, while local social movements are crushed and trees are cut down (or removed). After spending some time in an Athenian Airbnb, visiting the museums and nightclubs, tourists move on to the Greek islands, where similar processes of investment, policing, tourism, and gentrification are taking place. Last summer, protests spread to the beaches, with local groups demanding free access to the sea and open beaches free of rented chairs and umbrellas.

As the binary oppositions of underground and aboveground collapse, the binary oppositions of urban and rural lose their meaning under the weight of intense exploitation and extraction of natural and social resources. Police violence ensures that this kind of green development continues without major disruptions.

Redrawing the city map

Rhizomatic thinking proposes a way of approaching the question of the urban and the natural that escapes the inevitability of green infrastructures, gentrification, and policing. It requires roots that are complex and grounded in entanglements between plants, people, animals, and machines that move underground and above ground, between urban and rural spaces. It requires emergent infrastructures that produce livable lives, within and across the borders that seem to separate the rural from the urban. Livable lives are lives that adjust their rhythms to the social, floral, and machinic entanglements that take place above and below ground. These infrastructures are usually opposed to green policies, although they may use some of their products to subvert and rethink them.

The preparation of a plan for a livable life will involve the drawing of a map of Athens, a map of Exarcheia, which will visualize these entanglements. The map will be produced in collaboration with residents, visitors and technicians. The map will prioritize the demands, needs and practices of social movements, their opposition to the police, mass tourism and speculative investments. The map will expand horizontally according to these demands to include islands that are not overcrowded and access to the sea that is not blocked. It will also expand vertically to include trees whose roots and branches are no longer cut to grow linearly. It will also include the rhizomatic paths of animals and people – locals and visitors – who don’t overwork and don’t overheat, who have time to travel underground, to rest, or to walk above ground under the shade of trees.

Editor’s note: The article is a contribution to the “Kin City” series of the Berliner Gazette. More information:

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