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The importance of Urban Forests

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Picture: Supplied – Urban forests are exactly what they sound like: forests that are planted within cities. They’re not necessarily massive swaths of land with towering trees, but rather carefully cultivated pockets of greenery that provide all sorts of benefits to the people who live around them, the writer says.

By Dominic Naidoo

The concrete jungles of city and town centres can be a pretty rough place to live. Between the smog, the noise, and the general chaos of city life, it’s no wonder that so many of us feel like we need a break from time to time. Luckily, there’s a solution that’s both beautiful and practical: urban forests.

A few weeks ago, I came across a post on social media about the eThekwini municipality removing a row of established trees in order to expand road infrastructure in an already congested concrete and glass laden Umhlanga, north of Durban.

I was utterly gobsmacked. Not only has it been proven that making roads wider does not solve traffic congestion, but I could also not believe that the city would approve the removal of these beautiful, well-established trees that provided more than just aesthetic beauty to the area.

Now the road is even more congested than before as people have decided to park where the trees used to be. I suggested, on the social media post, that the city should invest in safer and more efficient public transport and effective policing which will encourage locals to walk instead of using a car for short trips.

Urban forests are immensely important, especially in places like Umhlanga where tar, glass and concrete are the order of the day. Urban forests are exactly what they sound like: forests that are planted within cities.

They’re not necessarily massive swaths of land with towering trees, but rather carefully cultivated pockets of greenery that provide all sorts of benefits to the people who live around them.

First and foremost, urban forests are great for the environment. They’re natural air purifiers, absorbing all sorts of pollutants that might otherwise make their way into our lungs. They also help reduce the so-called “heat island” effect that cities can suffer from, where all that concrete and tar absorbs and reflects heat, making the city hotter than the surrounding areas.

This can be a real problem, especially during heat waves, when urban areas can become unbearable. But urban forests can help mitigate that effect by providing shade and cooling the air around them.

Urban forests play a critical role in supporting biodiversity, even in the midst of the concrete jungle. By providing green space and habitats for a variety of plant and animal species, urban forests help maintain the balance of ecosystems within the city.

Urban forests also help support biodiversity by providing food and shelter for a wide range of animal and plant species. Trees and other vegetation provide a habitat for birds, insects, and small mammals, all of which play an important role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem.

By providing nesting sites, food sources, and shelter from predators and the elements, urban forests create a thriving environment for a diverse range of wildlife.

Trees, shrubs, and other vegetation found in urban forests provide food, shelter, and a place to reproduce for a variety of plants, including wild flowers and other native species. This helps maintain genetic diversity, which is important for the long-term survival of plant populations.

Trees and other vegetation in urban forests help prevent soil erosion, reduce runoff, and promote nutrient cycling, which helps support a wide range of soil organisms.

These organisms play a critical role in breaking down organic matter and cycling nutrients back into the soil, which helps maintain the health of the ecosystem as a whole.

Another way urban forests support biodiversity is by providing a natural corridor for wildlife to move between different habitats. This is particularly important in urban areas where development and fragmentation of natural habitats can make it difficult for animals to move between different areas.

But it’s not just the environment that benefits from urban forests. People do too! Studies have shown that spending time in nature can have all sorts of positive effects on our mental health. It can help reduce stress, boost creativity, and even make us more generous and compassionate.

And while it’s true that not everyone has easy access to natural wilderness, an urban forest can be a great way to get your nature fix without having to leave the city limits.

Now, of course, not all urban forests are created equal. Some are little more than a few trees planted along the side of a street, while others are large, protected parks. But even the smallest urban forest can make a big difference in the lives of the people who live nearby.

Imagine walking to work every day along a street lined with trees, instead of dodging traffic and inhaling exhaust fumes. It might not solve all our problems, but it’s a start.

Urban forests are at risk. Between development, climate change, and other urbanisation factors, it can be tough to keep these little oases of green alive and well. That’s why it’s important for cities to invest in them, and for all of us to do our part to protect them.

Whether that means volunteering at a local park, supporting green initiatives in your city, or just being mindful of how much you’re driving and how much you’re walking, every little bit helps.

And if you’re still not convinced that urban forests are worth your time, consider this: they’re just plain gorgeous to look at. There’s something magical about walking through a grove of trees, even if it’s in the middle of a city. It’s a reminder that we’re not just cogs in a machine, but part of something bigger and more beautiful than ourselves. Plus, let’s face it: they make for great Instagram photos.

So next time you’re feeling overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of city life, take a break and find your nearest urban forest. Whether you’re looking for a quiet place to read, a spot to have a picnic with friends, or just a change of scenery, you might be surprised by what you find. And who knows?

Maybe you’ll end up becoming an urban forest advocate yourself, spreading the word about the importance of these little slices of nature in the heart of the city.

Dominic Naidoo is an environment activist and writer.

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.