My goal for doing these blogs is to raise awareness related to sustainability and “Sustainable Living.” In addition, I like to include suggestions for actions that individuals can take to make a positive difference … rather than waiting for governments to act. Here’s a new phenomenon that’s now springing up in several cities and countries, and that all of us can use.
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Can Tiny Forests Breathe
Fresh Air Into Our Cities?
May. 26, 2021
In 2014 eco-entrepreneur Shubhendu Sharma gave a TED Talk about the value of the mini-woodland ecosystems he was planting across India. He described how they grow 10 times faster, are 30 times denser, and 100 times more biodiverse than a conventional forest.
His tiny forests were inspired by Japanese ecologist Akira Miyawaki’s technique of creating small, condensed urban forests on degraded soils.
He had created them near houses, schools and even factories. Some covered the space of only six parked cars and were so dense you couldn’t walk into them. Sharma urged …
“If you see a barren piece
of land, remember that it
can be a potential forest.”
His company Afforestt has planted 138 forests in 10 countries around the world.
Tiny Forests Thriving in Europe?
Tiny forests have been springing up across Europe. Advocates say they are key to boosting declining flora and fauna like birds and insects in cities, and to help reach climate goals by storing carbon.
Belgian biologist Nicolas de Brabandere came across Sharma’s work while searching for something he could do to regenerate ecosystems and create jobs.
After visiting Sharma in India to learn his approach, he planted his first urban forest in 2016 and has now started a business, growing them in Belgium and France.
One of the first challenges was adapting the Miyawaki method to Europe and its very different soil conditions, species and climate. De Brabandere said …
“Species that have grown here forever
are more likely to do well and be able
adapt to climate change. So, I contacted
scholars and tree nurseries to identify
suitable native tree species and locally
sourced materials to improve the soil.”
He planted species such as sessile oak, lime trees, wild apple and pear.
The idea has also taken off in Germany, where the first tiny forest was planted in March 2020. The ‘Wald der Vielfalt’ — or Diversity Forest — is bigger than most at 700 square meters, and is home to 33 native tree species, mostly maple, beech, oak, ash and lime.
But do tiny forests live up to the hype?
Measuring Environmental Impact
Daan Bleichrodt, who works with IVN, a Dutch organization that connects people with nature, was equally impressed by Sharma’s story. Bleichrodt adapted the method to plant the first Dutch tiny forest in Zaandam in 2015, kicking off a movement that has since grown 126 tiny forests.
IVN has also planted a “control forest” next to the tiny forest in Zaandam that follows a more natural growth method: it consists of hedges and berry plants to attract birds who then disperse seeds. They hope after a few years it will help them ascertain the impact tiny forests have on air and soil quality, biodiversity and capacity to prevent urban heat island effects.
Researchers from Wageningen University in the Netherlands are also gathering data on the Zaandam control forest and another ten tiny forests in the country, all between 200 and 250 square meters in size. Fabrice Ottburg, environmental researcher at Wageningen University, said …
“Overall, the results are promising.
We recorded 934 different plant and
animal species, over 6 million liters
(1.6 million gallons) of rainwater was
collected in the research period, and
we recorded a lower temperature within
the forests compared to the paved city.”
Although the results varied between projects, they found that a standard sized tiny forest captures an average of 127.5 kilograms (281 pounds) of CO₂ annually, a number they expect will increase for up to 50 years after planting.
Competition Between Species, Drop in Biodiversity?
Europe’s tiny forests are all relatively young. Critical voices, such as Dutch sustainable landscaper Tinka Chabot, have questioned whether they will thrive in the long run.
One issue is that a lack of space could potentially lead to competition between species, causing a drop in biodiversity. Ottburg said …
“We do observe that many low shrubs
and herbs start to disappear after
three years. However, that is the
case in every ecosystem. As the tiny
forests grow, trees will occasionally
die, making way for lower shrubs.”
In Japan, where the movement is more established, they have discovered that it is soil rather than climate conditions that determines the success of the forests over the longer term.
Tiny forests are not a miracle solution, Ottburg adds. Instead, he believes they should be seen as one of many elements that can make cities greener and attract more plants and animals over time. Ottburg said …
“In densely populated cities, it can
be difficult to find space for a large
new park, while it’s easier to create
many connecting pockets of nature,
including tiny forests, green roofs
and natural riverbanks.”
Trees for Well-Being
There is also increasing research into the positive impact being in nature has on the well-being of urban communities.
Last year, scientists found that among 9,751 residents of the German city of Leipzig, those living within 100 meters (328 feet) of street trees took fewer antidepressants.
Well-being is one of the focuses of Earthwatch Europe, a British environmental charity. They created the first tiny forest in the United Kingdom in March 2020 and have since added 16 more.
The organization engages local communities in the planting, maintenance and monitoring of the forests, and uses feedback forms to measure people’s responses. Spaces are created within the forests to allow visits from schools and organizations. Bethany Pudifoot, a researcher with Earthwatch Europe, explained …
“Bringing people into tiny forests
reconnects them with nature
and their neighbors.”
For biologist Nicolas de Brabandere, the forests are a way to help people learn about the plants and animals they may have forgotten. On social media he regularly shares educational posts in the hope greater knowledge about urban forests will help the small habitats thrive. He said …
“I find that many are desperate
for a practical way to fight cli-
mate change and connect with
nature. urban forests offer that.
To me, more than anything, they
are a place where people hear
birds sing and insects buzz.”
• • • • • • • •
Here’s an opportunity that many of us can seize upon to cause positive change. First, we’ll need to spot a patch of land that’s available for planting. It might be on your own site, on someone else’s site, on an unused portion of a large site – such as around a school or office building or large apartment building. The article mentioned that many are between 200 and 250 square meters – which is roughly 50×50 feet.
Second, we’ll need permission from the owner of the parcel. In many cases, that’s no problem whatever. I’ve personally found some difficulty getting permission from municipal bureaucrats, even though a parcel sits totally unused. Some highway departments will welcome such parks in a highway median – perhaps with some traffic safety guidelines.
Third, you can identify species native to your area by asking a local landscape designer, seasoned nursery operator, or ag. extension agent. You may wish to create a palate that shows the trees as full-grown, to guide the spacing of new plants.
Fourth, when it comes to buying plants, the younger the plant, the less expensive it is to buy. Many ag. extension services actually provide free trees when you get them as roots or as very young specimens. The installation cost can then be very low – although – younger plants may need watering and will take longer to reach the size at which your mini-forest is a thriving success.
I once proposed to line our local main street with trees that would provide shade for pedestrians. With only word-of-mouth and no advertising of any kind, we had enthusiastic neighbors wanting to sponsor one to four trees each … enough to line the street on both sides for nearly a mile! In our case, city staff resisted the effort until we gave up. But many communities have more supportive municipal staff … and plenty of land that can benefit from having a tiny forest on it.
The outcome, as the article suggests, is better for our environment better for people living anywhere near the forest, and inexpensive for us to do.
Adding a comment from D, the entity my wife channels …
“Almost every community has land that
is not utilized. Designing and planting
trees will help with climate change. It
will also give a place for birds and ani-
mals to live, or at least have a respite on
one of their long flights. It benefits all.”