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Urban Forests in the light of sustainability transition – kick-off at Urban Forestry Days 2021

Cities need to learn from nature in order to organise themselves.

(Vicente Guallart, IAAC)

The first day of the Urban Forestry Days 2021 kicked-off on March 23. More than 600 attendees from over 60 different countries joined the conference – for the first time online – to explore the role of urban forests for a transition towards sustainable cities. The two-day collaborative event of integrated Urban Forestry activities was hosted by the European Forest Institute (EFI), the European Forum on Urban Forestry (EFUF) and the Horizon 2020 CLEARING HOUSE project. Policy planners, decision-makers, practitioners, researchers and representatives from different stakeholder groups of urban forest management logged in and exchanged views, discussed recent urban forestry developments and shared experiences. 

Opening the first keynote session on ‘The urban area and sustainability transition´, Harriet Bulkeley, Professor in the Department of Geography at Durham University and project coordinator for the H2020 Smart Cities and Communities programme NATURVATION project, raised the importance of making space for nature-based solutions. In a changing climate and with increasing demand for housing and electricity, alternative ways for keeping our cities cool are urgently needed. Prof Bulkeley referred to the World Energy Outlook (IEA 2018), stating that energy demand for air conditioning and electric fans is set to triple by 2050, which equals the current electricity capacity of the United States, the EU, and Japan combined. This development contributes to the increasingly important role of healthy urban forests and their cooling effect.

“Since the early 1990s, local governments began to position cities as central to the international effort to address climate change”, says Prof Bulkeley. But what is needed to enable nature-based solutions to step into place? Rethinking governance schemes, fostering financing and establishing innovative business models are a few of the solutions she mentioned. Prof Bulkeley further highlighted the importance of ensuring social and environmental justice: In order to enable nature-based solutions, it is critical to engage all stakeholder across different sectors and countries.

Why do we need a paradigm shift to transform our cities into bio-cities? Jerylee Wilkes-Allemann, Bern University of Applied Sciences and Giuseppe Scarascia-Mugnozza, University of Tuscia presented ongoing research that aims to define narratives, actions and research gaps. Furthermore, an architect’s insight, presented by Vicente Guallart, IAAC, stressed the need for shifting towards circular bio-cities by merging ‘urbanity’ and nature. Sustainable urban development, as well as architecture, are closely linked to nature and its resources. This group of speakers followed one theme: Cities need to learn from nature to organize themselves and follow the principles of natural systems to promote life.

Credit: Unsplash

The second keynote session about ‘Urban forestry and the pillars of sustainability’ started right on the pathways for global urban forestry. Tahia Devisscher, University of British Columbia, emphasized the value of urban forests for promoting health and wellbeing. To put this into practice, she presented the 3-30-300 rule (Cecil Konijnendijk van den Bosch, 2021):

  • Each resident is able to see at least 3 trees from their residence.
  • Each neighborhood has at least 30% canopy cover (or other vegetation in e.g. arid zones).
  • Accessible public green space (0.5-1.0 ha at least) less than 300m from each residence.

According to Dr Devisscher and Prof Konijnendijk, adopting nature-based thinking is needed to reimagine future cities based on the connection between nature and people. Building social and ecological resilience as well as synergies between Sustainable Development Goals through nature-based solutions requires a transformative urban landscape.

And where do urban forests go? Dagmar Haase, HU Berlin, showed Leipzig city trees’ examples to depict the aspects of climate change and its impacts on shape, diversity, and usage of urban forests in Europe. Looking at the wide range of essential benefits that urban forests provide, protecting and improving the ecological status of urban green in the long-term plays an increasingly important role, especially regarding heat and drought stress. This takes into account not only individual tree species or forests but also an essential factor for a healthy ecosystem: the soil. Prof Haase further provided perspectives about essential research questions to be asked when assessing the future of urban forests. Among others, focusing on the governance of urban forests: What are the synergies and tradeoffs in classical planning, the role of civil society, and new forms of stewardship?

Besides the many benefits that urban trees provide for climate regulation, urban green spaces are also vital for strengthening social relations. Rik De Vreese and Dennis Roitsch, researchers at EFI, highlighted the societal values of urban forests.

Credit: Unsplash

The final presentation of the session, by Michael H. Ramage, University of Cambridge, took attendees and panelists on a tour to learn about growing the future sustainably by using wood in buildings. Large-scale building in timber requires ensuring stewardship for the people and the environment that helped create high-value forest products. Prof Ramage argues that builders, developers and countries should be credited for the CO2 stored in buildings. Rethinking urban building material and putting timber as a primary resource requires appropriate policies and incentives.

Stay tuned for more presentations and insights about the Urban Forestry Days 2021 on EFUF, CLEARING HOUSE and Resilience blogs.

-The CLEARING HOUSE project has received funding from the European H2020 Research and Innovation programme under the Grant Agreement n° 821242.-

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