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Tiny forests are shooting up all over the world


Global Goals & Global Society
Tiny forests are shooting up all over the world


On a November morning, Deema Assaf enters a tiny forest in eastern Amman. Like a foreign body, it nestles in the concrete desert of the Jordanian capital: delicate shrubs and trees surrounded by a wire mesh fence and plastic garbage. In May, Assaf and her team planted nearly 800 seedlings in the neglected park. Now, six months later, they tower up to the petite woman's knees. "Pistacia lentiscus," Assaf says. "This is what a forest would look like in Jordan if we humans hadn't interfered with nature." With mini-forests, the civil society wants to bring displaced greenery back into the city. Or, as the architecture graduate puts it, "rewrite urban space. "


Assaf follows the method of Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki. This involves planting native shrubs and trees in a confined space. On average, there are three seedlings per square meter. Because they compete for sunlight, they strive to grow upward at a rapid pace. Nutrient-rich, moist soil gives the seedlings an extra jump start.



Miyawaki proponents claim the method can accelerate tree growth tenfold. In other words, in just ten years, a supposedly hundred-year-old forest is created. Miyawaki had already invented the method in the 1970s. Now that the world is looking for quick solutions to climate change, the number of his followers is growing almost as rapidly as the trees themselves.


From Latin America to Canada, from Southeast Asia to Europe, tiny forests are shooting up all over the world. In Germany, too. In and around Hamburg, for example, the Citizens Forests association is planting mini-forests. These are intended to provide a home for birds, small mammals and insects, bind CO₂ and thus mitigate the climate crisis. Why wait, advocates ask, when growth can be accelerated? To which critics like environmentalist Yellappa Reddy counter, "It's not a good idea to force plants to photosynthesize so quickly." His native India is now a Miyawaki stronghold.In the Arab world, Deema Assaf stepped forward in 2018 as a small forest pioneer. In a private garden in Amman, she planted the region's first tiny forest. Skeptics expected her to fail in arid Jordan.


After all, the Miyawaki method had been developed for Japan's rather humid climate. Assaf was not deterred by this. She relies on trial and error, coupled with confidence. So did Miyawaki himself. In his essay "A Call to Plant Trees," he wrote, "Anyone serious about this endeavor can start anytime, anywhere." The key, he said, is to focus on native species. So a Miyawaki forest is always effectively a virgin forest. "No other man-made forest is as natural," Assaf says. She's not just concerned with rapid growth. Miyawaki, to her, means first and foremost returning to her roots.



"My big wish is that Miyawaki becomes mainstream".


Jordan is one of the driest countries in the world. According to Global Forest Watch, its tree cover is a minuscule 0.03 percent of the total land area. But where mostly desert spreads today, elephants or Asiatic lions once lived in dense forests. Assaf learned about this while working on architectural projects in national parks. Shortly after, she watched a “TED Talk” by Indian engineer Shubhendu Sharma. The title: "How to grow a forest in your backyard".For Assaf, it was a pivotal moment. She had always been interested in green architecture, she says. "But I was really obsessed with mini-forests from that moment on." She traveled to India, took a course from Sharma. From him, she learned how to enrich the soil with natural nutrients and microbes, and how to choose the right species for the forest. And how to divide it into different stories so that every plant and tree can survive - despite competition for water and sunlight. All the building blocks are important to the Miyawaki community, Assaf says: from the tiny microbes in the soil to the large mother trees that provide nutrients to seedlings through a network of fungi and roots. "Trees are smart creatures," she says.


On the way to the next of her forests, Assaf talks about her childhood in Amman. Back then, the Jordanian capital seemed like a village to her. Chains like Starbucks and McDonald's didn't exist yet, and drivers had to slow down again and again because flocks of sheep were roaming the streets. Now she steers her Mercedes through the densely built-up east of the city. "Concrete and asphalt, that's Amman today," she says. Arriving at her destination, she smiles. Omar Sharif smiles back and opens the gate to a park. He has worked here for more than twenty years. When they planted the Miyawaki Forest two years ago, he says, his place of work transformed. With the greenery came back the birds, insects and animals. Sharif has even seen a family of foxes in recent weeks. "It was like magic," Sharif says.


In the Netherlands, scientists have made similar observations. For a year, they documented species diversity in two Miyawaki forests and compared them with control forests in the surrounding area. Their result: species diversity was 18 times greater on average in the Miyawaki forests. In addition, they convert CO₂. According to calculations by the Belgian organization Urban Forests, 100 square meters of Miyawaki forest can store the annual carbon emissions of an average European.


Critics say that this is far too little to do anything about climate change. In general, the scientific foundation is still too weak, and too many questions remain unanswered. For example: What effects will accelerated growth have on the long-term health and quality of trees? Can they actually benefit rainfall, as other forests do? How does competition affect the diversity of mini-forests? Assaf is aware of these gaps in knowledge. Instead of letting them deter her, she's gathering new knowledge.


Her team has planted five tiny forests so far. Each time, they have learned something new. The seeds for the tiny forests” are stored in a greenhouse on the outskirts of Amman. The seeds come from the wilderness of Jordan and are now growing into seedlings in hundreds of pots. Together with agricultural engineer Fadwa Al-Madmouj, Deema Assaf surveys their progress this morning. There are no manuals or scientific data on raising the native species in Jordan. Assaf's team is collecting and sharing their newfound knowledge. "My big wish is for Miyawaki to become mainstream," she says. A few days ago, an acquaintance called her; he is planting mini-forests with volunteers in nearby Lebanon. "The country is sinking into trouble and chaos, but they're not letting that stop them," Assaf says. For her, that's one of the Miyawaki forests' greatest strengths: They can withstand even the biggest crises.


Urban areas are being affected by environmental problems including flooding, heat stress, and biodiversity loss more and more. It is a significant challenge to develop thriving, climate-resilient urban communities that promote economic growth while simultaneously increasing livelihoods and wellbeing and achieve several Sustainable Development Goals at the same time. Tiny forests can help in overcoming this obstacle. They offer the advantages of a forest—including boosting awareness, re-engaging people with nature, reducing the effects of climate change, and providing patches of habitat rich in nature to support urban wildlife—right into the center of our cities and urban environments.




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