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

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By Nithin Sridhar

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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.

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Air Pollution And Its Effects On Our Heath

Man is not just affected physically but his mental peace takes a toll too due to the increasing air pollution

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Stubble burning is one of the main reason behind heavy pollution in the Delhi and NCR region. Wikimedia Commons
  • Air pollution is a major concern nowadays and has major effects on one’s health
  • There are many toxic air pollutants in our environment which can cause severe health hazards
  • Health-related problems like asthma, headaches, nausea, etc. can be caused as an effect of air pollution

Air Pollution and their dreadful consequences are not some newly found phenomena of the new-found world. There have been instances of hazardous effects even in the past. The three major historic documentation, dating back to the middle of the 20th century, happened at Meuse Valley in Belgium, Donora in Pennsylvania, and London. The most gruesome of the three is the well-known London mishap that claimed over 4000 lives during the episode, due to temperature inversion and associated elevated levels of Air Pollution, and over 8000 lives in the subsequent period.

Air pollution can have severe effects on one's health.
Air pollution can have severe effects on one’s health.

Mankind is in a fast-paced race, always in the process of trying to outwit each other. The numerous developments born out of this race have brought along with them dreadful health consequences. Air Pollution is one such inadvertent yet a disregardful act by humans. The pollution does not begin only when you step out of your homes but is present within your safety havens itself.

According to the World Health Organization report in 2014, 92% of the world population was living in places where the air quality guidelines levels were not met. Outdoor Air Pollution was cited to be the cause of  3.7 million premature deaths in both cities and rural areas. Around 80% of those deaths were due to heart diseases and stroke, and the rest were due to respiratory illnesses and cancers due to exposure to fine particulate matter.

Air pollution can even cause risk of life.
Air pollution can even cause risk of life.
Air pollutants categories:

Air pollutants are categorized into two groups based on their impact, Criteria pollutants and Toxic air pollutants. Criteria pollutants include particulate matter (PM), ozone (O3), sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide (CO), and lead (Pb). (defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency in the Clean Air Act). These pollutants are present everywhere and cause health issues when present at significant ambient levels. In general, the criteria pollutants are regarded as the cause of most respiratory and cardiac issues.

Also Read: How exposure to air pollution in womb may shorten lifespan

Toxic air pollutants are also known as “hazardous air pollutants,” are substances that cause cancer or lead to other potential non-cancerous effects on the reproductive and neurological systems and have disastrous consequences in the development process. It is also assumed that there is no threshold level of exposure required to cause cancer. Meaning any amount of exposure to these toxic pollutants can lead to cancer.

At risk Populations:

In any geography, the already ailing and sick (pre-existing medical condition) population is more at risk for suffering from the ill effects of air pollution. Apart from this category, young children are the next at risk.

The reason for children being affected more is that they have higher breathing rates than adults. Therefore, they unknowingly inhale a lot more pollutants than an average adult. The potential for exposure is also increased with increased amount of time spent outdoors. The developing lungs of the young people have a limited metabolic capacity to placate toxicity.

Exposure to air pollutants can case cancer as well.
Exposure to air pollutants can cause cancer as well.

 

Air Pollution Respiratory Diseases:

The small particulate matter of the criteria pollutants has the capacity to reach the lowest portion of the lungs, where the gaseous exchange occurs. The larger particles get trapped in the nose and the medium- sized ones settle in the tracheobronchial region.

The effects of the settlement of these particles are upper and lower respiratory symptoms, asthma attacks, loss of quality living days, and restricted activities. Chronic exposure to particulate matter has also been associated with the development of chronic bronchitis- inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes. This condition presents as a cough with mucus.

Also Read: Neurologists say rising air pollution can cause stroke among adults

Lung Cancer:

It is a commonly known fact and an “ought to be stressed upon” fact that chronic exposure to polluted air can also lead to the cancer of the lungs.

Ozone’s effect:

Ozone, an oxidant gas that is poorly water-soluble, travels throughout the respiratory tract due to its nature of solubility. It reacts with the molecules on the surface of the lung and leads to pulmonary oedema, inflammation, and the destruction of epithelial cells that line the respiratory tract. Children who stay outdoors in high Ozone areas develop asthma. Some of the disastrous effects are permanent in nature.

Air pollution can harm you even when you are inside your own houses.
Air pollution can harm you even when you are inside your own houses.
Some more Criteria air pollutants:

When Carbon monoxide reacts with blood haemoglobin, it reduces the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood and hence can cause damage to the nervous system. It causes a headache, fatigue, dizziness, coma, respiratory failure, and eventually death.

Nitrogen dioxide is mostly an indoor air pollutant released due to the increasing use of gas stoves. Exposure to high levels of nitrogen dioxide can lead to respiratory distress with symptoms such as cough, shortness of breath, and tightness in the chest.

Air Pollution Cardiovascular Effects:

The above-mentioned actions of air pollutants in the respiratory tract can also affect the cardiovascular system. The inflammation in the breathing tract induces transient hypercoagulability (abnormal blood clotting), the progression of atherosclerosis, and propensity to plaque rupture, especially in people with coronary atheroma. Long-term exposure to Air Pollution can also speed up the atherogenesis process, heart rate invariability, and arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat). Some recent studies have also found a significant relationship between heart attack (Myocardial infarction) and exposure to polluted air.

Air Pollution in Reproductive and Child Health:

Long-term exposure to the air pollutants poses risks even to an unborn child. It causes Intrauterine growth restriction -low birth weight at term, intrauterine growth retardation, smaller fetus for gestational age etc.

Indoor Air Pollution :

Some of the major causes of indoor air pollution are indoor smoking and burning of fuels for cooking purposes, especially in the second and third world countries. The people in these countries cook and heat their homes with biomass fuels and coal. Thus the main noxious gas released is sulfur dioxide, that causes respiratory issues and eye irritation

 

In Delhi, air pollution is a major concern.
In Delhi, air pollution is a major concern.
Quality of life:

Man is not just affected physically but his mental peace takes a toll too when the feelings of insecurity and the perception of having to live in a hazardous environment take over. Severe annoyance, sleep disturbances, reduced the ability to concentrate, communicate or perform normal daily tasks also accompany the psychological stress issues.

Some of the issues are too massive to be controlled at an individual level but a resolution to change can, of course, make a significant impact. Individually we are just one drop of water but together we can make a big ocean.

Simple steps involve following the government regulations in your state regarding the upkeep of your vehicles, carpooling, avoiding the burning of coal, adequate ventilation of your homes to dilute the effect of indoor air pollutants among others.

Wish for a change? Be the change! Same Condition

Air Pollution Health Effects