Fighting Nature-Deficit Disorder by Bringing Trees into Our Cities

Plenary 5, Cecil Konijnendijk van den Bosch: CIty Forests, Forest Cities-Exploring The Liaison Between The Sylvan And The Urban
Plenary 5, Cecil Konijnendijk van den Bosch: CIty Forests, Forest Cities-Exploring The Liaison Between The Sylvan And The Urban

Plenary 5: City Forests, Forest Cities – Exploring the complex liaison between the sylvan and the urban

Urban forests bring a range of benefits to cities. They can cool the air, clean the atmosphere, and provide shade on hot summer days.

But according to Cecil Konijnendijk van den Bosch, perhaps most important of all is the fact that they can make us smile. “I would argue that we as urban foresters are in the business of creating happiness,” he said. “And that is a very good goal to have.”

Konijnendijk is Head of the Department of Landscape Architecture, Planning and Management at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. He presented the fifth and final plenary session of the 2014 IUFRO World Congress. He is author of The Forest and the City: The Cultural Landscape of Urban Woodland. He also is the founding editor-in-chief of the journal Urban Forestry and Urban Greening.

At the beginning of his academic career, Konijnendijk initially had studied forest ecology, but felt that something was missing. The catalyst for his interest in city forests came when he led a group on an urban forestry tour. “Urban areas, population, trees, and cultural issues—they all came together for me then,” he said.

“As we know, most of the world’s population lives in cities, so much of the world’s experience with forests comes from that interaction,” he said. “Focusing on growing forests in cities is increasing in importance as the world’s population continues to urbanize.”

This urbanization may make many aspects of life better, but it also carries with it unfortunate consequences. “We are not as mobile as we once were,” he said. “As a result, obesity is on the rise, which has an impact on public health.”

Fortunately, even though encouraging urban forests might not be as common as it could be, it is not a new concept. “There is a long tradition of cities connecting to their natural heritage by embracing and conserving trees. If there are no trees, they plant trees,” he said. “People bring the forest into the city.”

According to Konijnendijk, the benefits of urban forests go beyond the traditional environmental considerations. “People move to cities to find livelihoods and economic opportunities. Urban forests can serve many communities and needs. For example, urban agriculture is important in providing food. A sense of community also is important. We flock to cities to build communities, and when we create new green spaces, we have to build communities around them. We establish a connection between people and place.”
Urban forests also enhance biocultural diversity, resiliency, creativity, and happiness. Trees can even, he said, help us reach self-actualization, the top level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Calling to mind the work of writer Richard Louv, Konijnendijk noted that our society has developed “nature-deficit disorder.” “Our society today relies heavily on technology. We are losing connection between ourselves and nature,” he said.

What can we do to help people re-connect with nature? Or to help children connect with nature for the very first time? Perhaps by using the same technology that has caused the problem in the first place, according to Konijnendijk. Communities can bring WiFi access to public parks to encourage people to take their technology outdoors. In addition, he said, some communities in Norway are using apps that turn smartphones into tools that allow users to learn about the natural history of their surroundings.

There are other barriers to bringing forests to the cities. “We have to convince policy makers that trees have value. We need to have people who argue our case. We also have to play the economic game,” he said.

Konijnendijk noted there are groups and tools available to help urban foresters overcome those barriers. In particular, he highlighted “8-80 Cities,” a Canadian non-profit organization designed to make cities healthier and more sustainable, and “i-Tree,” which is software developed by the U.S. Forest Service to help urban foresters quantify the aesthetic and environmental benefits that trees provide to communities.

“The premise behind 8-80 Cities is the idea that if you make a city that is healthy for an eight year old and for an 80 year old, you will have created a city that is livable for everyone,” he said. “i-Tree is crucial for the future. It is the best tool we have to make a full assessment. If we can bring the social component into i-Tree, it will be even more powerful.”

Finally, one key area in which Konijnendijk would like to see more emphasis is the creation of forests in urban areas in developing countries. “Clearly there is a need for urban forestry in developing countries,” he said. “We need to become more engaged.”


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