Eco artwork grown for three whole years got quickly “wiped out” by mistake
An overly diligent council employee in Utrecht cleaned up a living plant artwork by mistake. Volunteers have been taking care of it for the last three years and now all their progress is pretty much gone.
The art piece involves an outdoor set of steps, which is carpeted with greenery, however, the cleaner sadly demolished it in no time at all. The idea behind the piece was realized by artist Birthe Leemeijer, who lives and works in Haarlem but is born in Amsterdam. She got the idea about the steps and ecologists selected the most suitable plants so that the steps get color as quickly as possible. The project cost around €250,000. The Mondriaan Fund donated 100,000 euros, while the rest came from the portfolio of the Municipality of Utrecht.
Here is an image from three years ago, which showed what the artist envisioned for the future. We can still hope one day it’ll look like this, however now it’s going to take at least that much longer.
The Disappearing Steps, as some call them, are located behind the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, and usually, they are cared for by Vergroening Singels030, which is a community of volunteers who are trying to make local areas greener.
The creator of the volunteer organization, Harmke van Dam, shared: ‘‘I think the council hired a temporary worker who did not know these steps were an ecological project and that the council does not do the maintenance. I heard he was working in the area with a weed burner and that he thought he might do the steps as well. It was all gone in no time. That is very sad. It took us three years to do that. The municipality’s green management department is also concerned about this. It remains a shame that it is now ruined.’’ She also added: ‘‘We can solve it, but it will take a while before we are back at the old level. The staircase consists of seven or eight eco zones. Different types of plants grow on each part of the stairs. We had thought that out for an ecological variation. Now we are entering the wrong season to replant. It’s too dry. The intention was to let the plants, including many ferns, grow nicely so that the stairs are almost invisible.’’
Another volunteer, Ben Nijssen also commented that ‘‘There is really nothing left at all. We will try to order the plants as quickly as possible, but that is a problem in itself. But you need special plug plants for this, and you cannot get them all year round. It will take at least a year before it is a bit green again.’’.
This is what the result after the council cleaner’s work was:
And this is what it looked like before:
Birthe Leemeijer commented on the accident saying that ‘‘It is very unfortunate that this has happened. People spent three years building something very special there. That takes a lot of time and love. That is why the feeling of disappointment is very great. The work is now undone in no time. We can start again.’’
It is sad to see this happen also because the steps were where a lot of species used to live. Some of them were Hart’s tongue fern, Maidenhair fern, and Ivy-leaved toadflax. One of the purposes of the project was that the steps were supposed to let people aware of all the different types of plants and that even though some are mistaken for mere weeds, they’re really beautiful and beneficial plants (especially when thinking about the air in huge cities and the need for more greener areas), according to Birthe. She claims: “That staircase is very much about the relationship people have with plants. An important mission of this group is to show how many special plants there are. And it is precisely those plants that provide a stage. There are many plants that people think are weeds, but which are very useful, especially in a city center. Plants belong in that very large system of which we are all part of.” Moreover, the artist explains that “For a long time there has been a hierarchy in which people felt they were the most important. Then came the animals and then plants. In the meantime, a realization is increasingly beginning to arise that we all live side by side. That we should all have our place. Those stairs are very much about that hierarchy. There is a place for everyone and everything. The staircase is well attended, not only by people. Those plants have earned their own place. Now it appears once again that there is not always an eye for it. Plants belong in that very large system of which we are all part of. So those plants have to come back soon.” Back when the stairs were freshly built in 2018, she shared that: “The intention is that it will become a meeting place. For plants, animals, and people. Moreover, the staircase serves as a kind of connecting factor in the park, between the Centraal Museum and the canal.”.
The Utrecht local council representative disclosed that what their employee did was an “honest mistake” and that the council would cover the financial means regarding the restoration of the project. They stated: “We will also consider an addition which will make clear that this is a work of art.” Additionally, it was assured by the council that “Together with all the parties involved, we will draw up a plan for the new, green design of the stairs as soon as possible. Together with those involved, we are also looking at an addition to the artwork to make it even more explicit that this is a work of art with a green element.”
There have, unfortunately, been similar situations in the Netherlands. Like when back in 2020 Rotterdam council workers mowed away land that was housing a project by the Natural History Museum, aiming to give nature the chance to take its course in the reserve, where wildflowers, butterflies, and bees could live undisturbed.