Whether one seeks an escape from Delhi’s scorching summer heat or a winter afternoon basking in the sun, Sanjay Van National Park, one of the city’s few surviving urban forest, comes to mind. Mangalavanam in Kochi or Shalimar Bagh in Srinagar evokes a similar sentiment in residents of these cities.
Trees, parks, and urban forests are essential to cities not just as spaces of community building, but as they also offer multiple ecological benefits, from building resilience against climate change to water security, biodiversity, resident health, and well-being. Adequate green cover and various forms of green built environment, including nature-based solutions (NbS), improve the quality of urban life. It is estimated that if natural climate solutions are mobilized over the next 10 to 15 years, coupled with a reduction in fossil fuel emissions, they could provide 37% of the mitigation required for global climate targets.
The Cities4Forests global initiative defines an urban forest as the trees and shrubs in an urban area, including trees in yards, along streets and utility corridors, in protected areas and in watersheds. This includes individual trees, street trees, green spaces with trees and even the associated vegetation and the soil beneath the trees.
In cities, urban vegetation along with other blue-green infrastructure help mitigate climate risks like heat islands and urban floods, enhance urban resilience and ensure sustainability. They also play an important role in creating natural recreational spaces, dust pollution mitigation, reducing noise, creating green jobs and topsoil conservation.
Over the last decade, the central government in India has been working towards improving the green cover in cities. But planting trees continues to be seen as a cost rather than an asset. Success metrics for urban forestry is defined by planting rather than maintenance, and funding is usually inadequate because the financial returns from trees are simplified based on material revenue rather than returns in the form of ecosystem services. Such challenges prevent cities from raising the necessary public capital and participation to grow more urban forests.
The Urban Forest scheme launched in 2020, to create Nagar Vans (Urban Forests) supports the extension of the green cover in cities. Instances of collective action to this end also exist in cities such as Chennai, Gurugram, Delhi and Kochi. But extensive conservation, promotion and addition of green cover continues to require concentrated and consistent efforts. We have identified three key actions for trees and forests to thrive and result in more livable cities for us all:
We must collectively reimagine the role trees play in our cities not just as tools of beautification but as participants that improve urban life.
There is also an opportunity to further explore how urban forests can improve human health. But this entails safeguarding urban green spaces and preventing their conversion, enhancing forest management on working lands, using a variety of restoration techniques and planting urban forests.
To better include the importance of trees in our lives, the conservation sector must recognize and promote the benefits of investing in forest protection, management, and restoration as a prime method to restore our earth to its natural environment. As we look back on World Earth Day, let’s remember that rigorous collaboration and a shared vision and action across various stakeholders is critical to ensure that ‘we invest in our planet’, for a better tomorrow. Along with the recommendations discussed in this blog, such collaborative action can help create healthier and more resilient cities for our coming generations.
All views expressed by the authors are personal.