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3 Cities Taking Urban Forestry to the Next Level

A version of this post originally appeared on The City Fix.

While the words “forests” and “cities” don’t traditionally go hand in hand, urban forestry has started to bridge that gap. While some cities have minimal tree cover due to inadequate soil or a lack of space, others are nearly half covered by these leafy, carbon-storage machines. Additionally, in recent decades, cities around the world have started to think about urban forests and their benefits as the need for climate change mitigation has increased. On the whole, trees improve the quality of life for the millions who live and work in urban areas by filtering polluted air, reducing smog formation, preventing erosion and cleaning up contaminated land, supporting local wildlife, and sheltering buildings from heat and cold—saving up to 10 percent of the energy needed to regulate a building’s temperature.

On this International Day of Forests, here’s a look at three cities that have taken urban forestry to the next level:

Tokyo, Japan

Omotesando Avenue, Tokyo. Photo credit: Kakidai/Wikimedia Commons.

After the city was bombed during World War II, the number of trees on Tokyo’s streets fell from 105,000 to 42,000—nearly 60 percent. In the years following, the city lost another 35,000 due to disease and as many were cut for firewood. Fire from the bombings destroyed much of Tokyo’s forest cover in addition to decimating street trees, creating large empty parcels of land as well.

In 1946, the city created a plan to secure 10 percent of urban lands for green areas and turn the barren parcels of land into urban parks. Beginning in 1948, the city started restoring street trees as well when new supplies of trees became available from nurseries. By 1980, the number of street trees exceeded 235,000.

As of 1990, 21,630 hectares of Tokyo’s green space is made up of forest, meant to help conserve water—one of the many benefits of tress for the natural environment. Tokyo’s urban forests and trees have also helped to supply the city with clean drinking water, a system of wastewater disposal and storm water control.

Belfast, Northern Ireland

Belfast, Northern Ireland from above. Photo by Destination

Ireland is called the “Emerald Isle” for the large amount of green space in its countryside, and it should come as no surprise that the same can be said for its cities. Formed in 1992, the Forest of Belfast in Northern Ireland includes all of Belfast City. Since the end of the Troubles in 1998, nearly 200,000 trees have been planted across parks, playing fields, streets, schools, factories, and along streets and river banks.

The Forest of Belfast’s management has brought together partners from local and central governments, environmental organizations and local citizens who become volunteer Tree Wardens. With the help of the Belfast City Council, support from European funding aimed at promoting peace and reconciliation has allowed the partnership to help 300 groups plant 90,000 trees in the last three years alone.

Until recently, the perception of forests in much of the United Kingdom has been that the “woods” are out in the countryside and are meant to provide habitat for wildlife and act as a means of timber production—and that cities have trees only for aesthetic beauty. There is now growing recognition that trees can provide a whole range of benefits to cities, thanks to the Forest of Belfast.

Washington, DC

Washington, DC. Photo by Moya Team/Wikimedia Commons.

The District of Columbia has a long history of planning, enhancing and maintaining its urban forest. Beginning in 1872, Governor Alexander Shepherd ordered that 60,000 street trees be planted systematically to “improve the quality of life in the Nation’s capital.” Because of his actions, DC’s unofficial title became The City of Trees.

An 1889 Harper’s Magazine article even proclaimed “The city of Washington, the capital of the nation, exceeds in beauty any city of the world…. But above all, its magnificent trees, make it without peer.”

Since then, there has been a municipal agency responsible for tree maintenance across the city. As of today, DC’s urban tree canopy hovers near 35 percent, with nearly 2 million trees across the city. These trees remove 540 tons of pollution per year, store 526,000 tons of carbon and reduce the cost of energy usage in buildings by $2.6 million per year—resulting in an estimated $96,000 in avoided carbon emissions.

A Future of Urban Forests

So, city dwellers, let’s begin thinking of ways to better incorporate these trees and forests into our daily lives. While moving out to the country may have been the way to connect with nature’s benefits in the past, it’s not the only solution now.


Essentially, trees are good and indeed an integral support for human survival through the production of oxygen, fruits, feeds, shelter canopy etc. It is all about understanding, requisite planning and integrating same into the urban community culture, that holds it negatively.
Urban communities are becoming unconcerned about future, despite the intellectualism and various information through communications that bombards the dwellers on daily basis. Unfortunately, it is only the negative aspects that attracts the Media to appear as news or news worthy materials.

No trees or forests NO LIFE
We damand sustainable life for cities

As more and more cities and towns in emerging countries become congested due to population and vehicular traffic, the impact of Climate Change becomes real. People scramble to be under the shade of any available tree. It has therefore become imperative for these towns and cities to adopt the culture of developing recreational parks and tree planting or urban forestry.

A large number of cities all over the world; London, New York, Chicago, Houston, Toronto, Vancouver, Singapore, Melbourne and Sydney, just to name just a few are in various stages of implementing urban forest strategies to increase their tree canopies.

Trees provide numerous benefits and services, but the primary motive for all of this action appears to be, to mitigate rising urban temperatures.

Extreme heat events are wreaking havoc across the world, especially in cities, because built up areas are hotter due to the Urban Heat Island Effect .

Heatwaves kill more people than all other natural disasters combined. Populations in cooler climates seem to be worse affected, even thought their extreme heat temperature may not seem high to people who live in very hot places like Australia or Texas. That is because they are not acclimatised and their buildings were not designed for hot temperatures. When temperatures start getting up into the high 30s in cities like Tokyo, Moscow or London, emergency departments go into over drive and people start dying.

A heatwave is now defined by three or more days of unusually high maximum and minimum temperatures in any area. People can often handle a day or two, but after that it starts to take its toll, not just on health but also on the cities productivity levels. Workers get little sleep in extreme heat, so focusing and moods deteriorate and tempers fly. People slow down considerably in very high temperatures, outdoor work and sports events etc. are often cancelled, teenagers die at music festivals (methamphetamines, alcohol and heat don't mix well). People with chronic illness are at risk. Those with , kidney and heart conditions and especially those taking a combination of heart and diabetes medications. So are infants under 12 months, athletes, outdoor workers, the homeless, the sick and in particular the elderly. Some medication become unstable in exposed to heat and food hygiene related illnesses also increase.

Air-conditioning cannot be relied on and a lot of people can’t afford to install it or run it.

So back to trees – though some may consider trees to be hard work, they are the most simple and effective way of reducing urban temperatures. Sure, living roofs help, so do 'cool pavements', but large shade trees are what shade the roads, walls, parks, open spaces, car parks and footpaths. They need to be big and there needs to be lots of them. Melbourne University has found significant cooling benefits begin at about 30% tree canopy cover.

It is possible to build around existing trees and make room for new ones in the planning and design stages of development .

So chop them down, minimize pruning and start planting more, if you want to live in habitable environment.

Forests are a long term strategic goal, which are now critical to the survival of our ecosystems. With urban centres the dominant human settlements, the forests are essential to so many facets of sustainable living. How we manage the long term health of our green spaces, including forests, determines the success of our cities in so many ways. The examples shown are good. How can we save what's left of our green spaces, and consolidate and expand the 'lungs' of our towns and cities going forward?

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