Have you ever asked a friend or relative what they particularly value about their hometown or a city that they have recently visited? Do you remember the answer? More often than not, people will quickly think about the local landscapes and greenspaces. Such memorable places include public parks, urban forests, waterfront walkways or just everyday streets with distinctive or historic trees… like the cherry blossom in Bonn, the city where I live right now.
Indeed, urban greenspaces help to transform our cities into more welcoming, healthier, and more resilient places to live. People simply appreciate the natural areas around them in, sometimes hostile, urban environments. We can immediately recognise the popularity of such spaces through the images shared on social media.
This year, I had the wonderful opportunity to be part of the Urban Forestry team of the European Forest Institute. In the beginning, the concept of “urban” was quite a challenge for me, having been more familiarity with the “wilder” and larger forests of the Dolomites – pretty much the opposite of urban… however this urban forestry journey has brought a plethora of new experiences, ideas and food for thought.
One key chapter of my urban forestry journey was attending the European Forum on Urban Forestry (EFUF) event which was held from the 24th to the 26th of May in the beautiful city of Krakow (Poland). For some years, the European Forest Institute has been one of the Forum organisers. The EFI Urban Forestry team was there in strength to connect and exchange with urban forestry experts from all around Europe (and beyond) on how to define and shape the future of urban forestry.
Significantly, this year also marked the 25th anniversary of the EFUF – so I figured the Forum is almost as old as I am!
This year’s overall theme was “Urban Forests as Nature-based Solutions” and the individual sessions focused on different topics, from planning and managing urban forests to biodiversity conservation, from climate change mitigation to the social and health benefits of urban green infrastructure.
However, when discussing urban forestry for the first time, I always feel it’s useful to clarify some key questions first – others have already given these matters much consideration and so I like to give the following answers:
But what do you think of when you read the word “urban forestry”? The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines urban forests as “all forest stands and other tree dominated vegetation in and near urban areas”. They differ from other urban greenspace concepts through their focus on trees as key components. As you can imagine, in EFUF has explored many different urban forestry contexts and it’s really quite fascinating to learn how big and diverse this topic is.
Importantly, many basic concepts and lessons from urban forestry can be adapted as building blocks for sustainable and engaged communities at any scale; from community woodlands in small villages and towns to extensive forested areas around global megacities.
Why do urban trees and urban forests matter? During EFUF event, I learned about many diverse benefits and ecosystem services provided by urban forests. Indeed, rapid urbanization and climate change pose some of the greatest challenges that our society has ever faced. As a response to that, urban forests provide a huge variety of benefits: they reduce urban heat island effects, improve our air quality and assist biodiversity conservation. Significantly they also offer space for recreation and help rebuild a sense of community by fostering people’s connection to nature and to each other on a human scale; thereby putting people back in the picture and improving mental health in, often stressful, urban environments.
I feel incredibly grateful to have participated and worked behind the scenes of this event.
It felt very special to have the opportunity to connect and learn from many different professionals and experts in the field in an open and sincere exchange of knowledge, which included exploring knowledge gaps and unanswered questions.
In Krakow, I encountered a vibrant, knowledgeable and active urban forestry community. It was inspiring to see the sheer diversity of people – not only with regards to nationality, age, or background but also to disciplines, including those which often don’t collaborate so effectively: urban planners, architects, forests and ecologists, engineers, socio-economists and ICT (information and communication technologies) specialists.
I also had the opportunity to showcase the project that I am involved in: Uforest – the “European Alliance on Interdisciplinary Learning and Business Innovation for Urban Forests Project”.
The most exciting part of our Uforest promotion was when we grabbed a small table from the buffet facility and placed it under the “call to action” posters to encourage people to join the Uforest alliance and read our report(s). (If you are interested, take a look at our the “Unlocking the potential of Urban Forests: Developing a Local Urban Forestry Action Plan”) . With our report in hand and some registration papers on the table, we were approached by many people with curiosity and questions – from students to professors, professionals to researchers. This proactive approach generated an enthusiastic response and indeed quite a buzz around the table.
Last but not least, the forum was not only presentations, but also featured a series of stimulating field excursions which were organised by the Krakow Municipal Greenspace Authority. These provided the opportunity to explore urban forestry case studies from around Krakow and its surroundings and to appreciate the beauty and the innovative approaches to urban forestry in the area. In addition, this was also a great chance to network with colleagues and to witness the discussions of the morning being put into practice.
Finally, the event also celebrated another important achievement: EFUF has been constituted as an international organisation under Belgian law now. It will provide a platform for further collaborations, funding applications and an extension of activities in the future.
The future of the forum is clearly in safe hands as it gears up to meet its next challenges with commitment, professionalism and enthusiasm.