Urban Forestry: The panacea to all problems and needs of urban society


By Nithin Sridhar


The Union Government has decided to start an “urban forest” program and through the program, it will plant trees in those areas that have been marked as forest lands but do not contain any trees.

Previously, on June 6th, Union Environment and Forest Minister, Prakash Javadekar had inaugurated Urban Forest Garden project at Warje, near Pune. The project was one of the initiatives of the Union Government under its urban afforestation programme that intends to increase tree cover around the cities.

These measures will go a long way in countering the hazardous effects of rapid urbanization.

What is Urban Forestry?

An urban forest is a forest or a group of trees that grow around any human settlement, be it a city, a town or a village and management of such forests constitutes “Urban Forestry”.

Urban Forestry can be defined as: “the art, science, and technology of managing trees and forest resources in and around urban community ecosystems for physiological, sociological, economic, and aesthetic benefits that trees provide for society.” 

The urban forests play a very vital role in improving the quality of life in those areas. They provide various benefits to the ecosystem- like removal of pollutants, biodiversity conservation, and heat reduction. They provide tangible and intangible economic outputs as well. Hence, they are inevitable for the overall development of an urban center.

What is the need for Urban Forestry?

Rapid urbanization has led to severe depletion of forest cover in the last few centuries. The depletion of forest cover has in-turn adversely affected the ecological balance and the economic stability of the society. The health of the people has been affected as well.

In 1900, 10% of the global population was living in urban centers. But it is now more than 50% and is expected to rise up to 67% in another 50 years.

The urban population of India has increased from 17% in 1951 to 31% in 2011 and is expected to reach 55% by the year 2015.

This concentration of human population in various urban centers results in various environmental concerns- like increased air and water pollution, increased temperature, destruction of natural habitat, increased emission of greenhouse gases, and an overall ecological imbalance.

But these harmful effects of urbanization can be mitigated by adopting urban forestry.

Urban forests outside India

Many countries have successfully employed the concept of Urban forest in their cities. Although there is a difference in opinion among experts regarding the ideal per capita tree cover area that is required for a city, it can be observed that many cities which are famous for their green cover have maintained a green coverage of 20 to 40% of geographical area and a per capita green space of 25 to 100 sq. metres. 

The International minimum standard as suggested by World Health Organization (WHO) is 9 sq. metres of green open space per city dweller.

A study conducted in 386 cities of Europe revealed the green space coverage as ranging from 1.9% to 46% with an average of 18.6%. The urban green space per capita varied from as low as 3 sq. metres to as high as 300 sq. metres. The average tree canopy area over urban areas in United States is 27%. In 2006, China had an urban green cover of 32.54%.

China is one of the best examples of successful implementation of Urban Forestry

Though it went through rapid urbanization in last few decades, its urban green cover has not decreased. In 1986, it had a green space coverage of 16.9% which increased to 20.1% in 1991. It further increased to 23% in 2000 and 32.54% in 2006.

By such sustained efforts at urban forestry, China made sure that the harmful effects of its industrialization and urbanization were mitigated to some extent.

Urban forests within India

The situation of Urban forests across various Indian urban centers is not very encouraging except in few areas. Delhi has a forest cover around 20%. Chandigarh stands at 14.9%. Gandhinagar, municipal areas of Ahmedabad and Vadodara stand at 53.9%, 4.6%, and 16.29% respectively.

According to this report, the green cover in Bengaluru Urban district and Bengaluru Rural is estimated at 6.85% and 13.96% respectively. The figures for Chennai, Hyderabad, and Jaipur are 6.25%, 5%, and 4.49% respectively, and Mumbai City and Mumbai Suburban stand at 1.21% and 26.91% respectively.

According to India State of Forest Report, 2013, urban tree cover exists on 12,790 sq.km out of the total 77,997 sq.km of urban area. That is, only around 16.4% of urban area is covered by trees. This is quite below the global standards of 20-40% forest coverage.

Further, the situation is very worrisome in places like Hyderabad and Jaipur which have very low percent of tree cover.

Challenges to implement Urban Forestry:

There are significant challenges that need to be addressed before urban forestry programmes can be successfully implemented. The very first challenge is to change the attitude of all stakeholders; be it general public or politicians.

The issues of environment are often put forward as being obstacles to growth and development.

This mindset needs to change.

People must be made to realize that development and environment are not contradictory. Instead, true development is not possible without taking into account the environmental impact of every activity.

Therefore, the planning and developing of a city with all its buildings and amenities should go hand in hand with the conservation of ecological balance.

The Union government appears to be aware of these challenges. In its “Draft Guidelines for conservation, development and management of Urban Greens”, it lists down various issues related to the conservation of urban greenery:

  1. Absence of long term planning resulting in frequent changes in land use. As a result there is lack of integration of trees/ greens with planned development process and trees are often planted as an afterthought.
  2. Land covered with trees is viewed as loss when compared to the land put to commercial and infrastructural uses.
  3. Limited space available for tree planting. Trees are often viewed as obstructions to development and therefore become the first casualty in the process.
  4. Water scarcity, refractory soil and stressful growth conditions impact proper growth and health of the trees, leading to high cost of development and maintenance. Lack of trained manpower for the management of greens poses a serious problem.
  5. High public pressure on urban greens due to high floating population. Urban poverty and homelessness encourage squatting in open areas reserved for trees.
  6. Lack of respect, sensitivity and care from different sections of the society. Green spaces, young plantations, and saplings are prone to vandalism.

Benefits of Urban Forestry

Urban Forestry has innumerable benefits ranging from economic to ecological. Its ecological benefits include reduction in temperature, rise in urban areas due to heat island effect, reduction in CO2 emissions through photosynthesis, removal of other air pollutants, prevention of soil erosion, recharge of groundwater, and stabilization of soil. They act as home to many animals and birds and hence help in conservation of biodiversity.

For example, it has been reported that urban trees store around 700 million tons of carbon in the border areas of USA. A total of 711,000 metric tons of air pollution removal has been achieved by US urban trees.

A study showed that the forest ecosystems of Beijing could intercept approximately 1.43 billion cubic metres of annual rainfall and 277.82 million cubic metres of soil water under ideal conditions, and supply 286.67 million cubic metres of fresh water.

Further, reduced pollution and increased biodiversity will improve the quality of human life.

Many of the diseases that are caused due to water and air pollution can be reduced as well. People will have a place to relax and de-stress which will in turn improve their emotional health.

Apart from this, the urban forests provide various intangible benefits.

Urban shade trees can help in reduction of building air conditioning demand and the savings may be as high as US$ 200 per tree. A 2010 study revealed that the total economic value of water conservation provided by Beijing’s forests was US$ 0.63 Billion.

In a study conducted in China, the value of intangible forest environmental services was six times that of forest material goods.

Hence, urban trees play a very vital role in maintaining ecological balance and improving human life. Furthermore, they impart various economic benefits. They provide tangible economic items like firewood, timber, fruits, medicinal products etc. They further act as places for recreational activity. Therefore, forest tourism can be made a source of wealth generation.

Therefore, Urban forestry is a necessity and not a necessary evil. It is not an economically unprofitable initiative. Instead, it can provide enormous economic benefits and at the same time help conserve environment and improve human life. Therefore, the measures being taken by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest is in the right direction.