Greening urban spaces is critical for climate change adaptation

Globally, urbanization is advancing at unprecedented pace, with an estimated half of the global population dwelling in urban areas, this trend is projected to increase by over 60% by 2050. The trends are typified by stark contrast between Northern and Southern Urbanisation, with most of the contemporary and projected growth occurring in the Global South. These dynamics, accompanied by massive socio-technical and ecological transitions — consumer and production practices, culture, green and grey infrastructure, policies, business models, air and water quality — present both significant opportunities and challenges for sustainable urban present and futures.

In the context of Africa, emerging pressures that occasion the need to purposively harness the socio-technical and ecological transitions include: 1) the high rates of production to meet the ever increasing consumption; 2) the pervasive environmental imprint of urban production and consumption in the ‘urban’ and its hinterlands; 3) growing population and its need for healthy and amenable environment; 4) the rapid proliferation of informal urban settlements presenting new governance challenges — maintaining the status quo, an estimated 3.5 billion people will live in slums in the global south by 2050; 5) climate change and urban heat island effect. 

The urban pressures are already causing shifts in the socioeconomic and environmental fabric, further entrenching the deep inequalities that exist within the ‘urban’. Southern urbanism should not only harness its own consumption and production systems, but also recognise the pluralistic nature of its development — presupposing flexible solutions that are sustainable and generate socioeconomic and environmental co-benefits for the multifaceted development trajectory — the imperative of urban forestry.

For a long time, urban forestry has been somewhat a ‘step-child’ of urban development — more so in the global south where urbanization is dominated by built infrastructure. However, with the emergence of policy responses such as the New Urban Agenda, the SDG on cities and initiatives such as Tree Cities of the World, the mainstreaming of urban forestry is gaining momentum.  

During the 1st African Forum on Urban Forestry, participants highlighted the value of urban forests in shaping socio-technical and environmental transitions. Some benefits of urban forests include the following: –

  1. Urban household livelihoods: Urban forests — integrated with fruit trees among others — open up opportunities for boosting food security, biomass energy supply among other consumables. This has  the potential benefits of enhancing household income by reducing expenses on energy and food, that  normally underpin urban household expenditure. This is particularly relevant for southern urbanism where a significant fraction of urban development is associated  with the entrenchment of household income inequalities and poverty.
  2. New business opportunities without threatening existing ones: Complementing the exigency for green jobs and employment under the just transitions discourse, urban forestry and green spaces open up opportunities for new sustainable consumptive and non-consumptive business modalities — especially in green urban parks that are accompanied by a pay-per-entry approach. This not only generates revenues for the urban governments but also for private owners of such parks. To boot, It also adds value to existing commercial amenities dominated by built infrastructure — a potential opportunity to attract private sector investment.
  3. Climate change, health and wellbeing: With cities emitting over 70% of greenhouse gases and responsible for the highly polluted environment — urban forestry creates an opportunity to mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration and offsetting the environmental imprints of the ‘urban’ such as air pollution. Green infrastructure also presents an opportunity to mitigate the risk and threats of urban heat islands occasioned by climate change and the engineered infrastructure. Thus, urban forestry effectively creates a healthy environment for the urbanites — there is a lot of research demonstrating the value of urban forests to human health and wellbeing, physically, mentally and culturally. Contrary to many grey and built infrastructure options, Green infrastructure significantly precludes the risk and possibility of maladaptation. 

Despite the immense contributions of urban forestry to urban transitions, there  are still significant challenges that hinders the realization of the full potential of urban forestry in shaping transition to sustainable urban futures. Addressing some of these challenges requires tailored approaches that recognise the contextual disparities in urbanization between the south and north, and the plurality of urbanization in the south — both informal and formal dimensions — without which inequalities in planning, design, benefit sharing and power dynamics will be exacerbated.

Harnessing urban forestry to ensure a transition to sustainable urban futures requires a number of solution-oriented policy and non-policy based instruments woven through planning, design and implementation for any successful urban forestry ventures. First, there is a need to demonstrate the imperative and benefits of green infrastructure in urban spaces and the tragedy of an urban space dominated by grey infrastructure to both investors and urban dwellers. Secondly, an inclusive multi-stakeholder approach is needed in the planning, design, implementation, maintenance and evaluation of urban forest ventures. This owes to the central status of urban spaces as contested landscapes with multiple conflicting priorities and rationalities. Such an inclusivity should capture the influence of the pluralistic nature of the ‘urban’. The multi-stakeholder approach creates a platform to build trust among stakeholders and co-produce knowledge on the needs, possibilities and barriers to mainstreaming urban forestry in urban development plans.

Author: Amanubo Amos

Research Associate — African Centre for Green Economy+

Disclaimer: Some of the views expressed here are those of the author, and are not in any way meant to represent the views of African Centre for Green Economy.