A city of forests: Is it a distant dream?

This World Environment Day, our call to action should be a scenario where plucking a fruit from a tree in the backyard will be easier than buying it from the market because we only have one earth.

By Ambika Sharma
Published: Saturday 04 June 2022
जंगलों की बहाली से जल चक्र पर पड़ता है असर, जानें कैसे?

It’s a hot summer afternoon, and in a thicket of bougainvillea shrubs & amaltas trees, several birds chatter and peacocks flutter. A bug crawls over a stone and several snake pits appear like gaping holes. This is a forest setting about the size of several basketball courts, right next to a modern multi-story building, a mall, a metro line and a rapid transport line.

The origin of this 800-acre forest was apparently during the Sultanate period, when Mohammad Bin Tughlaq enclosed a large area within a wall, creating within it the Jahanpanah forest

Amid all the transformation that Delhi has witnessed over the years one thing that has decreased is the forest area. The more we started getting close to the future, the more modernization started taking larger spaces and the forests have had to settle in for less. 

Each year, 6-9 million hectares (area roughly the size of Denmark) of forests are permanently cleared and many millions more are degraded. But many decisions affecting forests happen in cities that are home to government officials who set land policy, businesses that sell and buy the commodities that displace forests, and investors who finance it all.

Although city-dwellers often live far from the frontiers of deforestation, the impacts of deforestation still reach them. Forest loss and degradation contribute more than 8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, leaving cities with rising sea levels, extreme heat events and more powerful storms.

India’s forests as per a 2017 study were valued at $1.7 trillion — this was lower than India’s GDP then pegged at $2.1 trillion but higher than the GDP of countries like Canada, Korea, Mexico or Canada.

The valuation was arrived at by an expert committee that was asked to decide on net present value (NPV) of forest land in case they had to be diverted for industrial or construction purposes.

In 2013, the panel recommended that rates be revised to a range of Rs 5.5 lakh to Rs 50.7 lakh per hectare and additional premium of 20 per cent to 4 times of NPV be charged if the project was coming up in an ecologically sensitive area (was accepted by the Central government with some clauses).

It is imperative to talk about trees within cityscapes (those outside of forest areas) and urban forestry. Only then will the context (and the importance) of large-scale forests be understood. 

Individual citizens have long taken to precautionary measures to save themselves from fine dust, smog and general pollution. Urban vegetation absorbs gases in the air which improves air quality and the respiratory health of inhabitants.

While standard removal rates differ based on the tree species, larger healthy trees have the potential to remove 70 times more air pollution than smaller trees or saplings. This also makes a case for conservation of current urban vegetation, as tree planting take years to mature and reach their full pollution removal potential. 

Scientifically speaking, there’s so much that trees can do for cities by virtue of just being planted and allowed to grow to full size and in good health. 

Cities and forests are often perceived as two separate entities, but the fact is that the two are interlinked and often co-dependent. Cities may appear self-sufficient on the surface, but a significant portion of their resources (think cool wind, water supply, rainfall) directly take root from forests nearby.

The reason most of the well planned large cities in the world have parks, trees, and pockets of urban jungle is because spending time in an urban park is found to have a positive impact on a person’s sense of well-being.

Aside from city parks, the more in-depth practice of “forest bathing” has been found to lower blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of harmful hormones — like cortisol, which the human body produces when it’s stressed.  

Kochi is one of India’s fastest-growing cities, and is experiencing increased flooding and extreme heat risks from decreased green cover caused rapid and unplanned urban expansion.

Kochi’s leaders are dictating a larger role for trees, forests and other nature-based solutions in their city’s new disaster management plan and climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies.

The Kochi Municipal Corporation is now promoting planting trees and forests for long-term resilience, piloting community-led urban restoration, and engaging with local communities to protect and maintain already existing green spaces.

By 2030, the world will have 43 megacities, each with 10 million inhabitants. This rapid rate of growth only spells danger for these inhabitants if sustainable measures aren’t taken to balance out resources and demand. In line with this are the rapid rates of deforestation for agribusiness or of natural causes — decreasing forests could result in catastrophic effects on the cities of today.  

The need for a new game plan is entirely obvious — as people crowd cities, air quality drops, green spaces shrink, roads become dangerous, housing prices rise and public transport is overwhelmed. As if in retaliation, urban areas globally are being wiped out in a flash due to floods, lightning strikes and wildfires of disastrous proportions. 

This World Environment Day, our call to action should be a scenario where plucking a fruit from a tree in the backyard will be easier than buying it from the market because we only have one earth.

The city of the future (and the future of the city) is one that co-exists with forests, involving trees planted in predominantly urban areas and thick forest cover surrounding them. An urgent recognition of trees as a multifunctional nature-based solution for making an areas more resilient to climate risks is imperative. 

Ambika Sharma heads OD & Innovation at WWF India and is a member of the WWF Global Forest Practice leadership team.

Views expressed are the author’s and need not reflect those of Down To Earth.

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