According to the United Nations Department for Economic and Social Affairs, by 2050 68% of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas. This rapid urbanisation brings us many challenges, both for humans and the environment, requiring the adoption of innovative solutions. Today, more and more experts are pointing to a simple yet extremely effective answer: nature.
Urban forests and natural areas provide many benefits. They are key allies in the fight against climate change, providing clean air, mitigating the urban heat island effect, managing stormwater, and much more. They are also important for urban dwellers’ health: today, a growing body of both scientific and other literature is highlighting the positive impacts of nature on health and wellbeing. For example, nature provides a space for physical activity and social interaction. In this sense, besides improving the quality of life in cities, nature can also reduce infrastructure and healthcare costs.
While we increasingly recognize the benefits and especially the need of urban forests, the road to the realisation of such projects is often full of bumps and obstacles. You can read about this in the “Blueprint for Innovation in Urban Forestry” produced by Uforest, which provides a comprehensive overview of the main challenges faced by the European urban forestry sector. Uforest is a project co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Commission. The project created a cross-sectoral alliance for the development of new training and support for students and professionals working towards innovative urban forestry projects. During the last few months, the Uforest team produced 20 case studies on innovative urban forestry initiatives around Europe. The aim was to better understand the current framework in which urban forestry projects are implemented and how innovation can be fostered. Through literature review and case studies analyses, the “Blueprint for Innovation in Urban Forestry” identifies 7 main challenges:
- Growing conditions
Compared to trees growing in forests, urban trees grow in harsher conditions. For example, pollution reduces the quality of air and soil, which has few nutrients, and there is limited access to sunlight.
While the impacts of nature in cities are mostly positive, urban vegetation can also provide some undesirable effects. Among others, these can include tree pollen allergies, physical damages caused by falling trees, and maintenance costs. For a socio-economic point of view, these undesirable effects are identified as costs or trade-offs. However, these “costs” might be experienced differently between individuals and communities.
- Social equity
In cities, parks and urban forests are often concentrated in well-off neighbourhoods, where social density requires less space for housing and where there is a high percentage of private gardens. This promotes the perception of nature as a luxury, rather than a necessity, and puts unequal barriers to disadvantaged people for the enjoyment of green spaces.
As they are part of the wider urban green infrastructure, urban forests are typically implemented and managed by local governments and driven by policymakers and public managers. However, these actors often lack connection with social and environmental realities. As a consequence, the governance of urban green spaces often is not able to create synergies among different needs and communities and struggles to maximise the environmental, economic and social benefits provided by nature.
- Knowledge gaps and the use of technology
As urban forestry projects are site-specific, they always need scientific research and technological capacity to effectively address the environmental and social challenges of a given context. From species selection to communities’ needs and interaction: we require, specific research to better understand how and what type of urban forestry projects can better respond to local needs.
- Funding and economic development
A recurring barrier to the implementation of urban forests is long-term financial support. Where there are funds to plant new trees, there is often a lack of money to ensure their future management. This is mainly related to two factors: first, the available urban land is highly desired for commercial and housing development; second, urban forests are perceived as amenities instead of necessities.
- Training gaps
Urban forestry is an emerging field, but it already has a sound body of scientific evidence that underpins its purpose, features, and practices. Still, we lack awareness about this discipline outside the forestry disciplines. For this reason, specialised education and training in urban forestry is less developed, showing various challenges and gaps. To fully grasp the interdisciplinary aspect of urban forestry, we need to develop specific training which includes complementary disciplines, such as economics, social impact and business, communication and technology, and more.
Over the next few years, climate change and urbanisation will be two of the most important challenges our societies have ever faced. Urban forests can provide an efficient solution for greener, healthier, and more sustainable cities. As highlighted by the Blueprint, stimulating innovative approaches in urban forestry can help improve services, while also solving local problems. In this sense, urban forests can be key allies in the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in urban areas. For this reason, we consider it fundamental to facilitatee the implementation of urban forestry projects!
Uforest is a Knowledge Alliance project co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Commission. The project is promoted by the ERSAF, Politecnico di Milano, Etifor, EFI, Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona, CREAF, Agresta, Transilvania University of Brasov, Forest Design, Trinity College Dublin, Nature Based Solutions Institute, Green City Watch.
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