Greening urban growth: the role of urban and peri-urban forestry

Greening urban growth: the role of urban and peri-urban forestry
In many places, urban forestry is simply seen as being a set of operations aimed at beautifying cities and not as an integral part of the planning process

Simone Borelli, agroforestry and urban and peri-urban forestry officer within the forest resources management team at UNFAO speaks to STQ about the importance of urban and peri-urban forestry in the cities of the future.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2014 the global urban population accounted for 54% of the total global population, up from 34% in 1960, and this continues to grow. Indeed, this is expected to increase by approximately 1.84% per year between 2015 and 2020, 1.63% per year between 2020 and 2025, and 1.44% per year between 2025 and 2030.

Such growth will mainly occur in developing countries, particularly in the African and Asian regions, where poverty and related socio-economic issues are increasingly moving from rural to urban areas.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UNFAO) argues that evidence of the unsustainability of most cities’ growth, increasing inequity and gap between rich and poor, centres and peripheries, are now drawing the attention on the need to focus efforts towards a resilient, sustainable and equal development of urban regions. Coherent investments by communities and governments in the protection and restoration of urban forests, trees and green areas can make a real contribution to the creation of a healthy and resilient environment.

Urban and peri-urban Forestry (UPF) can help achieve food and nutrition security, and provide livelihoods. It can alleviate poverty, reduce risks of natural disasters, support climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies, and can create recreational, cultural and social opportunities.

SciTech Europa spoke to the Simone Borelli from UNFAO’s forest resource management team, about the benefits of urban and peri-urban Forestry from an economic, health, and environmental perspective, as well as some of the challenges involved in increasing the amount of forests and green spaces – and indeed maintaining and preserving them – in the cities of the future.

Urban and peri-urban forestry is a relatively new discipline. How would you characterise its evolution thus far? What have been the most significant developments?

While urban forestry began as something typically only seen in wealthier countries, many developing countries have, over the last 20 years or so, have begun to follow suit. One significant indication of how this discipline has evolved over time can be found in the number of articles published on urban forestry over the last 10 years: we conducted a recent survey and found that this has grown from 450 to 4,500 articles. That illustrates how the interest of the research community has also evolved and, of course, in many instances the scientific community does not pay a significant amount of attention to areas which haven’t been highlighted by society. As such, it is possible to similarly infer that society has begun to pay attention to the importance of urban and peri-urban forestry, and that the research is now ramping up to better explore it.

Urban forestry has seen a noteworthy level of evolution in the USA, where efforts in ‘urban and community forestry’ is working to engage with communities and involve them in implementing urban forestry activities.  Similar progress was observed in Europe.

While a little slower than the USA and Europe to take up urban forestry initiatives, Asia and Latin America are now moving forwards quite quickly. From our won work, we have now realised that in Asia there are many countries which are quite advanced in urban forestry; China, for instance, has been investing a lot in this area, and a national forest city scheme has been launched there, which is used to certify cities according to their investment in urban forestry and greening. This includes a very stringent system to categorise whether a city fits within their scheme, and a system of periodical reviews, and so on. Of course, China has a lot of resources and they have the capacity to enforce certain schemes, whereas in other countries this may not be the case.

Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Malaysia, for example, have also done a lot of work, while there are other Asian countries which are largely catching up.

The same is true in Latin America, where some countries are quite advanced – Colombia, Mexico Argentina, Chile – while others are developing at a slower rate. Again: in Africa, overall uptake has been a little slower, but to my knowledge, in South Africa, Rwanda, and Nigeria, and, to a lesser extent, Tanzania, a lot of good progress is being made.

This perhaps serves to show that there has been a realisation of the role that urban forestry can play in addressing some of the problems and challenges posed by the rapid and sustained urbanisation that is being seen in many countries around the world.

There are numerous challenges facing urban and peri-urban Forestry, from high costs to a lack of adequate governance. What would you say are the most significant hurdles mobbing forwards, and how is the FAO hoping to tackle them?

The key challenge pertains to urban planning because the reality is that in many places urban forestry is simply seen as being a set of operations aimed at beautifying cities and not as an integral part of the planning process. The urban forestry component must have a dialogue with the other components (infrastructure, transport, housing, sanitation etc.).

Additionally, the fact that trees take 10-20 years to develop must also be taken into account. This means that the planning of urban forests needs to be done from the beginning of the planning process and must then include active management; we need to ensure we are looking 30-40 years into the future.

Unfortunately, this is currently not the case in many instances, and urban forests are included in cities retrospectively. This can involve transplanting adult trees into cities, which can be expensive. It is much better to be able to look at growth forecasts and plant the trees now that will be needed in 20 years, and then build the city around them as it grows.

How much emphasis should therefore be paced on the preservation of existing forests?

Established forest is much more resilient than one which is newly planted – the soils are better, for instance, and if you are able to keep the natural soils then it is much more resilient; it will last much longer and cost much less to maintain.

Cities are a hostile environment for trees – soil space is limited, there is pollution, and a lot of heat is generated by buildings; the better the trees are established, the better they will thrive in this environment.

Another important challenge concerns land tenure: who owns the land and what are they hoping to do with it? Having clear land tenure and clear decisions from the start is critical; this will ensure that the monetary value put on trees can compensate for lost income from other uses the land could be put to.

Urban growth is always going to be a challenge, and so we need to find the right model. There are different options – compact cities, higher cities with green spaces around them; multiple nuclei cities, spread out orbital cities, and so on. Each country will have to find its own path; there is no one size fits all approach.

Of course, which model will work will also depend on the level of a city’s growth. In many Italian cities, growth has slowed significantly as people move away from cities, for instance, while in China urban growth is considerable. The two ends of the spectrum will require totally different approaches. Yet one common thread within them will be the need to invest in green spaces.

There is also a real need for the benefits of urban and peri-urban Forestry to be made explicit. How can this be achieved? Indeed, is this particular challenge being exacerbated by the current lack of public participation in UPF activities and, indeed, in a lack of education regarding the direct connection between trees and a better quality of life for the population?

Yes, and this makes it even more important to take a multi-stakeholder, bottom-up approach. There is a lot of progress being made in urban greening, but without involving the population and explaining what the benefits are and why it is being done, acceptance levels will remain lower than they should be.

The general public is interested in urban forestry and, for the most part, are in favour of more greening. But they are also aware of potential risks. It is therefore necessary for information to be disseminated to a much greater extent.

To move away from challenges and focus on benefits: what are the biggest advantages that urban and peri-urban Forestry has? How are these being boosted?

The economic benefit of trees from a health point of view has been the subject of a recent study which highlighted the potential savings to be made on a nation’s health bill –which is probably one of the highest in most countries – if more trees were planted in urban environments. This saving is enough in itself to justify planting many more trees, and this is alongside the many benefits that more trees in cities can have on areas of human health in terms of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) and respiratory diseases, and mental wellbeing.

Yet, planting trees alone isn’t enough; we need to change the way we do things and how we develop things; we need to use more public transport; bicycle paths, every little helps.

Urban and peri-urban forestry also stands to aid efforts to combat climate change. Alongside the direct benefit of CO2 absorption, several studies have shown that strategically placing trees can reduce heating and air conditioning bills by shading houses or sheltering them from cold, northern winds. Indeed, studies conducted in the Near East have shown that these bills can be reduced by yup to 30%. And, of course, a 30% reduction in energy bills means 30% less energy being used and a corresponding 30% less CO2 being produced, equating to less climate change.

The use of trees to help reduce the urban heat island effect is also of huge benefit, especially in cities which reach high temperatures during the summer months – pedestrians are exposed to less heat and to less UV light.

This has also been shown to have economic as well as health benefits: studies have shown that shopping areas with trees providing shade are much more popular – and therefore more lucrative – than those without.

Given the direct link to well-being and mental health issues, how important is it to ensure a multidisciplinary perspective that involves the social sciences, from sociology to psychology, as well as others from health and medical-related backgrounds in planning activities?

There are perhaps two aspects of note here. The first is to say that it is indeed important for the multidisciplinary nature of approaches to go beyond health, and we are working to bring the many different disciplines together.

This is similar to the approach taken by those working in the concept of ‘place-making’, which, as the name suggests, is the making of a place, but this is a place which includes the local communities and is one which they are able to access easily and in which they can socialise.

To make a good place it is necessary to have a lot of different ingredients: it has to be in the right place; it has to be accessible; and people have to feel like it is their own. Indeed, the idea of ‘ownership’ is fundamental here: unless the people for whom the place is being established feel as though it is ‘theirs’, then it won’t be utilised to its full potential. To achieve this, they have to be involved people from the beginning.

Tying into this is the importance of green urban spaces in helping to address the problem of loneliness and isolation, something which man studies have found to be a significant issue in Europe and the wider world, especially amongst older generations. There is a close link between a lack of public spaces and a feeling of isolation; just by seeing people in the park, people feel less isolated.

Alongside the more obvious ecological benefits of UPF, there are other important elements that perhaps many of us in western countries may have forgotten about. For instance, in many developing countries, forests and particularly peri-urban forests, remain an important source of energy – wood, and charcoal – and therefore it is important for these to be managed in a sustainable way and, indeed, for this to be taken into account from the beginning of the urban planning process.

The same applies for food – in many cases these forests are still a source of food, and so they have to be maintained – this includes issues of land, soil, water management.

One of the aims of the World Forum on Urban Forests is to initiate a global process to enhance communication and networking among practitioners, scientists, and decision-makers concerned with the environmental aspects of urban and peri-urban forestry landscapes and particularly the urban forest and green infrastructure issues. What, then, do you hope will emerge from the conference?

Building on the regional events we have been holding for some time now, we felt it was time to step this up and beginning a global discussion on the importance of the sound planning of the cities of the future. We need to ask where we want to live in 20 years from now. Do we want to be living in a grey wasteland or in a place where people can live a healthy and productive life? The answer is clear.

We know that we need to foster a more multidisciplinary approach; so far, people have been working too much in their silos and there has been a distinct lack of integration. We therefore want to bring people together around a common topic and this topic will be split into three main areas: the past, present, and future.

Looking to the past, we want to see what lessons we can learn, and there are many. We want to better understand why cities develop in a certain way. When we look at the present, we want to explore what the challenges are and what is being done to address them. Here, we can look to cities which are leading the way in the urban and peri-urban forestry sector, such as Vancouver and Singapore in order to export elements of best practice.

Finally, looking forwards, we want to make ensure that the cities of the future will provide a better place for people to live. And, of course, this will not only benefit citizens, but also the economy: if it is a better place to live, people want to go there, they want to live there, and they want to move their business there.

Of course, alongside this is the fact that if your employees are happy (as a result of their environment) they will also be more productive. Similarly, studies have also shown that ill people heal faster if they are able to view green spaces, while children learn better if they are regularly exposed to green spaces.

Looking to the cities of the future, there are already different models emerging: there is a vertical forest in Milan, and in China cities are being planned which include trees on buildings as well as across the city.

In terms of outcomes from the conference, we want to launch a challenge for cities to help them become greener. This could include a list of four or five objectives for cities to achieve over a five year period – such as incorporating urban forestry in planning, spending at least two dollars per inhabitant on green spaces per year, or ensuring that canopy cover is increased by 1% per annum. Of course, these have yet to be decided upon, but the idea is to have a set of simple, achievable challenges that all cities can meet. The conference will see three days of scientific and technical discussions hopefully followed by a day where this challenge can be discussed and perhaps launched.

The 2018 instalment of the International day of Forests on 21March will take ‘Forests and sustainable cities’ as its theme, and within this we will hold an event with the aim of bringing together city mayors to share their experiences of urban and per-urban forestry. We are also preparing a publication with inspirational stories from cities.

Alongside this, the European forum will be held in May in Finland, and the World Urban Forum (WUF9) was held in Malaysia in February. Through these events, I am confident that at the very least we will be able to raise awareness of urban and peri-urban Forestry and, moreover, will be able to provide advice to countries and cities around the world on the importance of urban forestry.


The views expressed in this information product are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States (FAO).


Simone Borelli

Agroforestry and Urban/Peri-urban Forestry Officer

Forests Resources Management Team

This article will appear in SciTech Europa issue 26, which will be published in March, 2018

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