Bringing the forest back into the city

Urban and peri-urban forestry is not a new concept. In fact, it has been around for years. Simone Borelli from the Food and Agriculture Organization shares its numerous benefits.

 Cities and metropolises may cover two per cent of the planet’s surface, but that is nothing when compared to the forest blanket sprawling over 30 per cent of Earth.

But urban residents use up to 75 per cent of the earth’s natural resources. By 2050, it is estimated that 70 per cent of the world’s population, will be living in the city.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, planting trees in cities can contribute to urban landscapes, making them not only resilient, but also sustainable, if managed well.

In developing countries, urban and peri-urban (that is, a forest around the city) forests can help take the pressure off limited resources as well as surrounding natural forests, helping to produce energy through charcoal and wood fuel.

But that’s not to say that urban and peri-urban forests are one and the same thing; they have many differences, and one of it is the degree of naturalness involved.

“A peri-urban forest is firmly a natural ecosystem,” Simone Borelli, Forestry Officer for FAO’s Forest Policy and Resources Division, clarified. “An urban forest is progressively more artificial and systematic; all the plants in the garden, like those maintained in the Botanical Gardens in various cities, are essentially the urban forest. An urban forest is basically a composite of different components.”

An overlooked resource
Unfortunately, not many countries in the world consider urban and peri-urban forestry a priority. One of the reasons why this is so is because most of their benefits are hidden. As a result, many forests are slowly edged out, with authorities choosing to rank other needs above that of planting trees.

Some countries like Singapore, however, have chosen to prioritise it alongside economic development.

“The nice thing about Singapore is that the country has made it their business to attract investment by creating green spaces,” Mr Borelli said. “It’s a pleasant place to live and work, and attracts investment, beating out other cities and towns. Aside from all the other benefits to people and well-being, it is also for the economy.”

In 2009, a study entitled Effect of phytoncide from trees on human natural killer cell function found that after a forest visit, the human natural killer (NK) cells associated with immune system health and cancer prevention significantly increased. The positive effects lasted around a month after a weekend in the woods.

Other studies suggest a very strong connection between green spaces and encouraging people to exercise, which in turn combats many diseases.

Mr Borelli advised, “In many cases, cities are spending a lot more than they should on the health of the people. But when your citizens are healthier, there are less healthcare costs.”

He also pointed out that green spaces reduce stress, improve mental health, foster societal cohesion and lower crime rate as a result. They also boost children’s cognitive abilities. Furthermore, the value of real estate can go up 15 per cent more if it is next to a park.

The challenges

Trees often lose out in the concrete jungle especially in urban areas where competing needs wrestle for space.

Additionally, urban forests have a shorter lifespan compared to natural ones as they must survive under harsher environmental conditions, such as pollution and insufficient root space.

“Some trees need an additional one cubic metre of root space for each year of life,” Mr Borelli elaborated. “You need to watch over the trees in cities.”

Moreover, urban and peri-urban forests need succession planning and this should be integral to city management. As the ecosystem in cities are not natural but artificial, this long-term plan needs to include tree care, maintenance, and replacement.

However, the biggest challenge trees face is in education and awareness of urban and peri-urban forestry. Although the FAO is actively educating all levels of the general public, it is ultimately a process that takes time.

Central Park, New York

“We have to start thinking about the future, we need to plant trees with an eye on future expansion, and not plant them after expansion; trees take time,” Mr Borelli explained. “That is why we have to educate our children, see that they come to understand the value of forests. But it also depends on the effort we put in, in making sure that these forests are properly valued and understood.”

And increasingly, nature-based solutions are being used to address natural disasters, especially with rising awareness of climate change. But along with it has come an acknowledgement that trees or forests are able to provide natural solutions, rather than man-made solutions.

In New York City, for example, a serious issue with water quality prompted city authorities to invest in forest management rather than water pipe extensions. Simultaneously, they also raised awareness about the benefits of investing in forest management while also saving up to US$4 million.

While there are no right answers to the location or size of green spaces, Mr Borelli stressed that “people must understand the value of urban and peri-urban forestry, and find a way to convince people to invest in green spaces before they all decide to invest in something else.”

After all, when placed side by side with city residents swallowing up to 75 per cent of natural resources, trees need little in comparison.


This article was first published in Wood in Architecture MENA Issue 2/2017