If you’re reading this, you are probably a city dweller. More than half of humanity lives in cities, and the percentage continues to grow. As more and more of us move from the rural landscapes our ancestors called home, we are particularly estranged from forests. Trees have been cut back to the hinterlands, replaced by farms, housing and urban sprawl.
But even if you live in the heart of the concrete jungle, you should care about forests. Today is the International Day of Forests. This year’s theme is Forests and Sustainable Cities. Take a minute to reflect on how much you depend on these ecosystems, from the park in your neighborhood to the distant Amazonian rainforest.
1. Trees in urban areas make people healthier and happier.
Trees on city streets and parks don’t just raise property values; they provide cooling shade that reduces energy costs and help moderate run-off after storms. They’re good for the mind and body as well. Urban forests help cleanse the air of pollutants, reducing the incidence of respiratory disease. And their presence makes you feel better. One study in Toronto found that an additional 10 trees on a city block improved peoples’ perceptions of their health by an amount comparable to a $10,000 increase in income or being seven years younger.
2. Nearby forests provide urban dwellers with water, energy and protection from weather extremes.
Nearby forests provide many of the services that underpin everyday life in the world’s cities. Many of those cities – including Bogota, New York and Singapore – have invested in protecting forested watersheds to ensure dependable supplies of clean, fresh water for drinking and sanitation. Forested catchment areas also fill the reservoirs behind hydroelectric dams that keep city lights burning.
As climate change increases the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, the role of forests in attenuating the impacts of those events is increasingly apparent. Natural forest vegetation helps mitigate the landslides and flooding that often result from heavy rainfall. Restoring tropical mangroves could help buffer coastal cities such as Mumbai from storms and sea level rise. And in alpine areas, trees on steep slopes can help reduce avalanche risk after heavy snowfalls.
3. Far away forests supply timber and protect the climate.
Cities depend not just on trees in their immediate vicinity. Timber sourced from far-away forests has long been used for urban construction needs, with rot-resistant tropical species favored for outdoor uses such as boardwalks and park benches. A renaissance in the use of wood in urban architecture is underway, combining its inherent aesthetic and structural properties with new technologies to erect efficient, low-carbon buildings. Such “mass timber” structures can stand more than ten stories and offer a renewable, environmentally friendly alternative to concrete and steel.
In addition, scientists are revealing the role of forests in ensuring global well-being, including the sustainability of cities, through trees’ roles in moderating the climate both locally and globally. Forests are now estimated to constitute up to one-third of the cost-effective actions to prevent catastrophic climate change, including reducing emissions from deforestation and enhancing carbon storage through reforestation and restoration. Further, the role of forests in regulating hydrological cycles is now understood to operate not just at the level of local watersheds, but to play a role in generating rainfall across continents, ensuring the continued productivity of the world’s agricultural systems.
What Can Cities Do to Protect Faraway Forests?
Urban consumers’ choices contribute to forest loss – the leading cause of tropical deforestation is conversion of forests to commercial agriculture to serve global commodity markets. Forests are often converted into pastures for beef, cropland for soy, and plantations for palm oil and fast-growing timber.
Many cities already recognize the value of urban and nearby forests, and are actively working to protect and enhance tree density to reap their many benefits. Last year, for example, 17 Asian countries produced an Action Plan for the development of urban and peri-urban forests in the region.
Awareness of what cities can do to protect faraway forests, however, is still embryonic. Urban leaders can do at least three things that would make a difference:
- Enact forest-friendly procurement policies. These would include avoiding the sourcing of products associated with deforestation, unless those products are independently certified as legally and sustainably produced. Providing markets for legally harvested and sustainable timber can provide rural communities with incentives for keeping forests as forests rather than converting them to other uses.
- Provide a market for forest ecosystem services, especially carbon. Many of the world’s leading cities have made commitments to achieve carbon neutrality by mid-century or before. While most emissions reductions can and should be achieved through reduced burning of fossil fuels, the purchase of forest carbon offsets from tropical jurisdictions could be the icing on the cake.
- Raise awareness. Most urban dwellers are unaware of how much their well-being depends on goods and services generated by forests. Environmental education can help citizens make more forest-friendly choices with their spending and voting power.
A version of this post initially appeared in Revolve Magazine.
Frances Seymour is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at WRI.