The unbearable heat wave that India witnessed this year has made the phenomenon of ‘urban heat island’ a common topic of discussion in our households. A cartoon, now almost viral, has succinctly put the harsh and scary reality before us, that seen as the harshest summer of our life may well be the coldest summer for the rest of our lives. The blazing summer heat of 2022 is another climate reality lived closely. This decade has been the hottest ever recorded, and temperatures will continue to skyrocket without far-reaching government actions to curb greenhouse gasses. Heat is a particularly deadly stressor, and far worse in metro areas that have more concrete than greenery. And like any other signs of the climate emergencies, we are facing, heat waves are also about climate justice and equality, affecting the poor and vulnerable populations more.
Urbanization, which has almost always been associated with an increase in paved, impervious areas, and often a decrease in greenery, acts as an enabler to heat waves. Concrete and asphalt roads and other built materials readily absorb, store and release heat, raising city temperatures, a phenomenon called the urban heat island. An idea to mitigate this urban heat phenomenon is urban forests.
The effect of green spaces
From the Central Park in New York to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park or the Asola wildlife sanctuary and Aravalli park in Mumbai and Delhi, there are galore examples to highlight the role green spaces can play in the city’s life. A recent study in Adelaide, Australia, found that tree canopy cover and, to a lesser extent, grass cover decreased local daytime surface temperatures by up to 6 C during extreme summer heat conditions. Tobi Morakinyo, an urban climatologist at the University College Dublin, highlights the same cooling and therapeutic effects of green spaces in his research.
The Indian policymakers recognize these benefits which resulted in the drawing up of the policy on the Nagar Van project in 2016 which aimed to create urban forest cover in 200 cities across the country in the next five years. It’s been five years since, and no data stands available on the progress of the initiatives or what goals they achieved. And while India may be sluggish in creating a coherent policy on urban forests and green spaces, Indian metropolises waking up to a new form of eco-revolutions as seen in the Aarey colony of Mumbai where over 3,000 trees were slated to be chopped down to build a metro shed, metropolises worldwide are thus increasingly creating urban forests. Seoul, Singapore, and Bangkok have built green corridors that provide space for nature and wildlife while improving the lives of city dwellers. The Dutch city of Utrecht is creating scores of ultra-small forested spaces, and across Netherlands 200 such forests are planned by IVN Nature Education.
The Miyawaki Method
The small-footprint projects are based on the work of Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki, who, beginning in the 1970s, pioneered a method of planting young indigenous species close together to quickly regenerate forests on degraded land. In his essay, he wrote, “The planting should centre on the primary trees of the location, and following the laws of the natural forest,”. The saplings grow at a faster rate as they compete for light. Back here in India Shubhendu Sharma, a botanist learned this method and embarked on his journey to create a forest at the Toyota factory in India in 2009. Soon he started his own company Afforestt, which has helped plant forests in 44 cities. Miyawaki has caught the attention of policymakers. In Chennai, for instance, officials have set a target to plant 1,000 mini forests. Some residential societies like in Greater Noida and CSR initiatives like by DCB Bank in East Delhi have risen to the occasion too.
In conventional forestry, around 1,000 trees are grown in one acre. Under the Miyawaki method around 12,000 trees are planted in one acre, which creates the benefit of a 100-year-old forest in 10 years,”
Urban spaces are under threat
Regular incidents now like the Aarey milk colony standoff, and the loss of urban spaces for building in Bangalore have caused raucous nationwide debate about ecology versus infrastructure projects. But the loss of green spaces happens unabated in any Indian city. The Nagar Van project, however a complete non-starter, planned to increase aggregate area and per capita area under forests in urban masterplans and land-use plans. Going further, the MoEFCC must mandate that city master plans and regional plans undergo mandatory strategic environmental assessments. Another strategy could be to identify areas in the urban outskirts and reserve them for forests so that when urbanization catches up, there are already reserved green areas. There is a need to create natural conservation zones in Indian cities on the lines of the Regional Plan for the Delhi National Capital Region (NCR) which mandates a 10% forest area in the NCR. And more important will be to look beyond initiatives by the Union government and enable local governments to develop governance practices where urban forests are guided through local government instruments such as ward committees. The initiatives taken by residential colonies and city civil society have already shown the urban appetite for urban forests. the Warje urban forest in Pune, Maharashtra’s first urban forestry project by joint initiative of TERRE, a non-profit, with Tata Motors is exemplary of such partnerships.
India needs to rise to the idea of urban forestry to mitigate the various climate effects ranging from heat waves, deteriorating air quality, stormwater runoffs, dust storms, and others, cities will deal with in coming years. Urban forests are powerhouses in regulating a city’s microclimate. Not stopping at that, the local initiatives and policies need to rehabilitate lakes and canals as urban ribbons of greenery. The debate that started with this year’s heat waves, which brought the effect of heat waves to the masses, needs to convert into strong policies that look at adaptation and mitigation to the climate realities the world is waking up to. And India being high on the climate vulnerability index needs to be at the forefront of creating green policies. Urban forestry is one of those policies: quite potent and a solution to the crisis we face today.
Aakash Mehrotra is a novelist, blogger, and consultant in international development working in South Asia and Africa.