Vision 2050: Urban Forests for Ensuring Sustainable Smart Cities
By Debananda S. Ningthoujam, PhD
Climate change and global warming is one of the most challenging issues of the 21st century, besides overpopulation, deforestation, pollution, extinction, and the rise of superbugs. Right now, alarming forest fires are raging through the Amazon rainforests. The lungs of the planet are burning endangering the forests that supply 20% of the planet’s oxygen.
How do we address climate change? Several approaches have been proposed by scientists, environmentalists and policymakers. One promising option that’s currently attracting the attention of forward-looking cities across the globe is that of creating, preserving, and managing urban forests.
Can we talk of cities and forests in the same breath? City forests or Urban Forests? Doesn’t it sound like an oxymoron?
What is an urban forest? There are various definitions for it. One way of defining it is as “the collection of trees, shrubs, groundcover, and wetlands” in a city.
The Canadian Urban Forest Strategy (CUFS) for 2019-2024 defines urban forests as the “trees, forests, greenspace and related abiotic, biotic and cultural components in areas extending from the urban core to the urban-rural fringe.” This definition then includes urban as well as peri-urban forests. However, more commonly, urban forest refers to large trees growing on the streets, roadsides, parks, green spaces, cemeteries, derelict sites and private backyards in a city along with associated organisms. In other words, urban forests include all the trees growing within a city’s bounds.
Why Urban Forests?
Why ‘smart cities’ across the globe are now taking intense interest in maintaining old city forests, regenerating existing urban forests, and creating new urban forests & ‘green lungs’?
We all know that climate change is adversely impacting human societies all over the world. At present, about 50% of human populations live in cities but by 2050 the ratio is projected to rise to nearly 70%. This will create adverse impacts on the cities compromising with the well being of urban communities especially of low and marginalized populations. The city will face increasingly serious air pollution, temperature rise, water scarcity, flooding, and loss of biodiversity etc.
Environmental problems in the city of 2050 may include urban heat island effects, warmer temperatures, storm water discharge and flooding, soil erosion, air pollution, denser particulates in the air, stress, noise pollution and deteriorating physical and mental health.
How do we prepare for these eventualities? There are many ways of tackling these impending ecological catastrophes. One promising way of doing that will be to chart out plans for maintaining existing urban trees, parks, forests or even creating altogether new designs of urban forests suited for the 21st century. It’s not an easy task though. The objective is not to create a garden city but to create a city in a garden.
Many different designs of urban forests have been proposed including street trees, roadside trees, footpath and cycling path trees, trees in public parks, cemeteries, derelict sites, orchards, schools, and private backyards etc.
Benefits of urban forests?
All cities suffer from the heat island effect. That is to say that a city’s summer temperature is at least 3-5 0C higher than the adjacent rural areas. A city also suffers from other problems such as air pollution, storm water discharge leading to flooding and soil erosion, higher ozone concentration, UV radiation, smog, noise pollution, stress, and worsening physical and mental health of the urban citizens. In addition, as trees and urban greeneries are cut down to accommodate developmental projects, there will be depletion of biodiversity associated with urban forests such as insects, birds, large animals, undergrowth, and microorganisms which have been thriving symbiotically with the trees and large shrubs. The most harmful loss will be that of pollinators which provide ecosystem services necessary for production of food crops that ultimately reach our dining tables.
The benefits of urban forests must then be obvious to those of us who are academics, public intellectuals, environmental activists, urban planners, policymakers, foresters, and NGO activists. They mitigate air pollution, cool summer temperatures (counteract city heat island effects), reduce storm water discharge, soil erosion, and flooding; reduce energy costs for cooling buildings and homes, protect against strong winds and buffer sound pollution.
Urban forests also sequester carbon. One acre of mature trees store about 2.6 tons of CO2 per year. They reduce the levels of harmful gases in air: NOx, SOx, and O3 etc. They also filter particulates and fine dust from the city air helping reduce the incidence of respiratory diseases among the city dwellers.
City trees and forests also enhance real estate values due to aesthetic reasons; protect local biodiversity, and may even provide food, fuel, fodder, timber, and medicines for urban and peri-urban communities. They can also provide recreational, educational and eco-touristic benefits to the urban citizens. It’s even claimed that urban forests increase physical & mental well-being, reduce stress levels, and even crime rates.
There are, however, several threats affecting urban forests including insects and diseases, wildfires, storms, invasive plants, e.g. eucalyptus, developmental projects, pollution, climate change and improper management etc.
The Global Scenario
In Europe an ambitious EU-funded project has been launched called Urban GreenUp which aims to create, preserve, and manage urban forests in selected cities in the next few years. Three front-runner cities have been selected for the first phase of the project: Izmir, Tukey; Liverpool, UK, and Valladolid, Spain.
The successful findings from phase I shall be replicated in 5 follower cities: Chengdu, China; Ludwigsburg, Germany; Mantova, Italy; Medellin, Columbia; and Quy Nhon, Vietnam.
The i-Tree design has been developed by the US Forest Service to develop, monitor, and protect urban forests across several cities in the US using modern S & T tools including remote sensing, GPS, and Google Maps etc. This forest inventory method has been replicated in several other countries including the UK. Los Angeles (LA) has launched an ambitious urban forestry plan and has even recently appointed an City Forest Officer to take care of the cities burgeoning forests. This may be the first forester with this kind of unique official designation.
In Asia too, several initiatives have been taken up to create ambitious urban forests. Singapore is one of the leading cities which has maintained nearly 30% of the city area as forests. Other examples of urban green spaces include that of Liuzhou (city forest) in China, Yokohama (City park), Japan; and Bangkok, Thailand etc.
Many innovative urban forestry designs have been proposed including rooftop gardens, vertical forests, food forests, rain gardens (to prevent flooding in the concrete jungle), mobile forests, and even food forests etc.
Urban Forests in India
Mumbai has launched an ambitious plan to create futuristic urban forests in 60 plots across the metropolis. These forests will be created with an innovative technique called the Miyawaki method. This is named after a Japanese ecologist, Akira Miyawaki. This technique can help create mini-forests in small plots of land. It uses only native plants of varying heights and spacings. It can grow forests quickly and requires little to no long-term maintenance except the initial planting, monitoring and care. This method allows forests to grow 10 times faster and 30 times denser in small spaces.
A disciple of Miyawaki, Shubhendu Sharma, has spread this method across various cities in India. He has founded an organization named Afforestt, that trains individuals and NGOs, and even government agencies to create urban forests across India and other countries. It has so far created 126 urban forests in 50 cities spread over 11 countries since its inception in 2011.
Recently, Chennai city has partly solved its chronic water management problems through creation of urban forests using the Miyawaki method in concert with Afforestt.
The scenario in Manipur
Manipuri civilization has had an intimate association with trees and forests since our hoary past. One of our popular Manipuri singers sang a soulful tune “kru ku ku kru ku ku, khongli lam khunu; mana kangna laioiraba, tera pambi da.” Then there is the poignant poem Hijan Hirao, which tells the poignant tale of a mother tree wailing over the impending felling of her tree son. And we have the legends of Kwaklei, ‘Lamphel Nawa Kombirei’, and we invariably use an assortment of flowers and plants in cheiraoba, the Manipuri new year ceremony.
Do the present generation of Manipuris care a hoot about trees and forests?
Is there a systematic government policy for creating urban forests in our Imphal city for ensuring a sustainable smart city of the future? World Environment Day (WED) has come and gone in the last several decades but our forests are declining in an increasingly alarming rate and whatever remains of them are also in advanced stage of degradation. We only use fire-fighting activities, knee jerk reactions, and reactive responses; carry out episodic events of tree plantations with much fanfare; devoid of a long-term vision and holistic considered policies.
Can we formulate Vision 2050 for Imphal Urban City? Can we preserve the existing trees, forest patches, and greenspaces in Imphal? Can we create new urban parks, street and roadside trees, backyard orchards and Imphal Urban Forests; greater Imphal green lungs, urban and peri-urban wetlands and manage them for long-term sustainability?
Yes, we can only if our government, NGOs, and committed citizens work in concert with a global vision, tuned to the local context and implement it in close coordination with frontline actors at the national level.
The city of the Future: Imphal 2050
I fondly hope a few readers’ minds will get ignited. Let there be a cascade of awakened minds. It’s said that “it’s better to light a candle, than curse the darkness.” Together, let’s create futuristic urban forests in Greater Imphal Climate-Smart City!
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