Urban forestry or unplanned forestry

Thursday, 19 May 2022 | BKP Sinha

Urban forestry is the only plausible and most effective nature-based solution for building green, sustainable and resilient cities

Today, over half of the world’s population lives in urban areas and this proportion is estimated to increase to 66 percent by 2050. It is also estimated that India, China, and Nigeria will experience significant urban growth in the coming years, and by 2050, India is projected to add nearly 404 million urban dwellers.

A major factor behind this rise is an influx of millions of workers, students, and families seeking jobs, education, and a better quality of life. As a consequence, cities today are overcrowded, urban space is becoming more concrete, and urban infrastructure is under tremendous pressure. Further, urban sprawl and massive human intervention have depleted the urban ecosystems and increased urban vulnerability to climate change.

Urban management like ensuring adequate food supplies, clean water, clean air, energy, housing, education and green space has become this century’s greatest development challenge for urban planners and city administrators. In many cities, the air quality index is also worrisome and air toxicity is compounding health problems such as respiratory diseases. Similarly, extreme temperatures and more frequent heat-waves are contributing to heat-related mortality and aggravating urban heat island effects. Today, many cities are fast running out of space needed for trees, forests, and animals, which are essential to make any city a liveable and healthy place.

Considering the current situation, urban forestry is the only plausible and most effective nature-based solution for building green, sustainable and resilient cities. Urban forestry is the “sustained planning, planting, protection, maintenance, and care of trees, forests, greenspace and related resources in and around cities and communities for the ecological, sociological, economic, aesthetic and public health benefits”.

Urban greening can have a substantial impact on the lives of city dwellers. It can improve air quality by cooling and purifying the air, ground-level ozone and greenhouse effect; mitigates the heat island effect, thereby reducing air-conditioning needs, which in turn reduces the amount of fossil fuels required to generate electricity. The ability of urban forests to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide and act as a long-term carbon sink is a crucial factor in addressing the effects of global warming. However, the amount of carbon sequestered by trees depends upon the density of the wood, size, health and tree species. Trees canopies can also break rain velocity, reduce runoff flow rates and their roots stabilize soils against erosion, hence, reduce flooding and sedimentation in streams.

Similarly, urban forests provides habitat to animals; decrease wildfire risk; contribute to community economic stability by attracting businesses and tourists and provide a way for children to learn about nature and natural processes in an otherwise artificial environment. They also help in preserving and augmenting biodiversity; promoting mental and physical well-being; providing space for recreation, enhancing community cohesion; generating employment in tree planting, care, and maintenance; providing clean drinking water, nutrition, wood fuel, and other benefits to vulnerable and low-income residents.

Thus, greening urban space can prove to be a panacea if properly planned and executed. Yet, they are often disregarded because their ecosystem services are neither well understood nor quantified by the decision-makers. Aarey Colony in suburban Mumbai is an example of infrastructure projects taking precedence over ecology.

In June 2020, the Government announced ‘Nagar Van’ scheme with a goal to establish 200 urban forests across country in the next five years. A similar initiative called the ‘Urban Forestry Scheme’ had also been launched in 2016. Unfortunately, there are no official details and figures available which outline progress of the project and what goals were achieved on planting “200 city forests” between 2016 and 2020.

A comprehensive plan for careful installation and long-term maintenance is necessary for all green infrastructures. Often, these well-intended initiatives fail to produce the desired benefits because city governments lack the skills, expertise and funds necessary for urban forestry management. It also fails due to wrong selection of species, improper placement of trees and inadequate care and ownership.

Therefore, plantation projects must take into account – native vegetation, urban forest dynamics, biodiversity, species composition, spatial variation of soil-water dynamics, costs associated with planting and managing designed spaces, since these factors play a significant role in the outcome. Selection of species are also important for urban forestry because trees in urban areas face more stress in comparison to rural areas such as restrictive soil volume and crown space, soil pollution, air pollution, etc. Low species diversity, poor site condition and planting palettes that aren’t conducive to changing climates are further threats to urban tree population.  It is also essential to consider spatial and temporal dynamics in defining planting strategies and management goals because these factors greatly influence the environment.

Multifarious dimensions of trees require location-based management for maintenance and periodic treatments. It is also necessary to develop new skills to deal with the challenging issues for which we lack institutional memory and working plan. This necessitates intensive and extensive research and development particularly in the areas of architecture and engineering.

Hence, to ensure more sustainable urban forests, local policymakers have to identify and design local strategies that fit into their region’s specific circumstances. Organizing and coordinating between various stakeholders can also be challenging, particularly when urban forests are spread across multiple jurisdictions. Further, political support for passing an ordinance remains elusive, even in places where public support for urban tree management is strong. Providing sustainable funding for tree care and management is another obstacle. In some cases, the maintenance responsibility of trees and forests remains obscure due to limited details of land ownership or tenure.  Many times, the costs associated with training professionals and establishing a network for monitoring and assessing the health of the urban forest exceeds the budget of local Government.

However, proper maintenance is critical for a thriving urban forest, but it demands time, resources and coordination between various stakeholders. Data on the current state of urban forests are vital, for assessing the impact of tree planting campaigns, maintenance need, tree replacement strategies, new planting opportunities and a comprehensive understanding of how to improve the quality of planning and forests construction in the future.

Many cities are entering into partnership with organized citizen groups, non-profit organizations and private landowners in order to effectively manage urban ecosystem and to deal with their budgeting and resource problem. There are instances where citizens have also participated in advisory commissions and provided inputs to local officials on urban forest policy and regulations.  A partnership of this kind can contribute to innovative greening strategies that complement and augment existing programs, improve urban forest health, strengthen community social ties, increase environmental awareness and assist in addressing national and local issues more effectively. Furthermore, implementing advanced technologies such as remote sensing and geospatial artificial intelligence will help to monitor, assess and analyze the natural resources like, individual trees, vegetation changes, forest composition, etc.

Thus, modern technology combined with the desire for a greener city could lead to the incorporation of urban forestry and urban greening into smart city planning and operation. In addition, to address the problem of urban forestry holistically, a constitution of a ‘Tree Commission’ with mandate to radically change the planning, management and execution of urban green spaces with a multidisciplinary team must be created.

(The writer is a former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Uttar Pradesh. The views expressed are personal.)

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