Future Tense

The History of Fake-Tree Cellphone Towers

How an incredibly niche industry took root.

A palm tree that's also a cell tower
Tim Gray/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Excerpted from The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt. Copyright © 2020 by Roman Mars. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

When engineers at Bell Labs first envisioned a modern wireless communications network in the 1940s, they imagined relay towers that would provide continuous coverage by passing calls from tower to tower as people moved between zones. As commercial cellular towers began to sprout up in the 1970s, diagrams depicting their coverage areas looked like blobby plant or animal cells pressed up against one another—hence the name cellphones. The engineers developing these systems and drawing these illustrations presumably never guessed that many of the actual towers in this network would later be designed to also mimic nature, disguised as various species of trees to make them more inconspicuous.

As mobile phones became more popular in the 1980s, more and more cellular network towers had to be built, most of which were relatively utilitarian and industrial-looking affairs. This naturally led to predictable NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) criticisms from area residents who saw these additions as eyesores. Thus, an array of camouflage techniques emerged in parallel with this expanding technology, pioneered by companies like Larson Camouflage in Tucson, Arizona. This particular firm was well positioned to shift into a new industry; for years, the company had faked natural environments, building faux landscapes with artificial rocks and greenery for Disney parks as well as pseudo-wild settings for museum exhibits and zoos. Larson debuted its first faux tree towers in 1992, just a few years before the legal landscape around cell towers underwent a big shift.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 restricted the ability of communities to regulate the placement of towers by telecom companies, which was frustrating to municipal governments. Unable to fully control or block construction outright, some areas responded with ordinances requiring new towers to be camouflaged. Suddenly, aesthetic subterfuge went from desirable to mandatory. Some new towers were hidden entirely out of sight inside of tall architectural elements, like the steeples of churches, while others were integrated with structures like water towers or flagpoles that were either extant or purpose-built to serve as part of the disguise. Still, there were many places where these kinds of obvious human artifacts would stand out, so the idea of cell towers looking like trees really began to take root.

In the decades that followed, business flourished for these camouflage companies as cellphone usage proliferated. Larson expanded its range of trees to blend into different regional environments. The single-pole cell tower is often called a monopole, so naturally, the first cell tower Larson disguised as a pine tree was called Mono-Pine. This was soon followed by Mono-Palms and Mono-Elms—they even made ones that look like saguaro cacti. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of cellular towers across the United States, many of which are camouflaged in some way by companies like Larson.

Some of these fakes are well disguised, but others stand out in part because of costs and other challenges. Camouflage can add more than $100,000 to cell tower construction prices, leading frugal clients to skimp on branches. Adding more branches costs more in itself but also adds more weight, necessitating a sturdier trunk and thus additional expense. Cell towers also have to reach high to function well, which can make them look awkward in groves of trees half their height. In the flat landscape of Las Vegas, some faux-palm towers can be seen from miles away. And, of course, seasonal change in many places can make these camouflaged towers stick out more. Faux pines may remain evergreen like their natural neighbors, but deciduous look-alikes become freakish oddities when the real trees around them shed their leaves.

In the end, some semicamouflaged towers can ironically wind up standing out more than bare-bones, functionalist steel ones would, falling into a kind of botanical “uncanny valley” between natural trees and utility poles. Camouflaging towers as trees is clever, but there is arguably something simple, honest, and clear-cut about more functionalist tower designs. Things don’t have to look natural to be beautiful. But setting aesthetic judgments of functionalist industrial chic and ungainly faux greenery aside, it can be fun to keep an eye out for the fakes.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.