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Optimising trees and forests for healthier cities

Traditionally, cities and urban areas were perceived as being in some kind of competition with the hinterland and rural areas. It is now clear that they are all connected.
The majority of the world’s population now lives in urban areas and even India, a country predominantly viewed as rural, will be overwhelmingly urbanized in another 30- 40 years. Urban forests do not just provide non-timber products but also clean air, clean water and recreational services.
As we come to grips with the reality of the urbanized world, we must look not just at the technical solutions, but also pay attention to developing robust institutions. “These are necessary to address the future needs of dynamic and concentrated places we call ‘cities’, while taking into account the experiences of traditional forest management and fostering community-based bottom-up approach for planning and management, said Peter Kenmore, American agricultural entomologist at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), at an international forum in New Delhi.
Urban areas depend on products and services provided by surrounding and distant landscapes while they provide numerous services that are essential to keep rural economies going.

Optimising trees and forests

Urban green spaces do not have to exist merely to support a distinct and unique function. Green areas in urban settings can be used to pursue a multiplicity of objectives through systematic planning and integrated management. “Planting Jamun trees along Delhi’s avenues is an example of merging urban food production with landscape aesthetics and comfort,” according to Manoj Dabas, (Ex-officio) Executive Director, AFE, New Delhi, India.
Communication and education initiatives play an important role in overcoming attitudinal and behavioural barriers. Land-use planning processes need to recognize urban and peri-urban forests as critical green infrastructure while fostering alliances and partnerships that bring about transformative changes benefiting these forests. Management of urban and peri-urban forests should be an integral part of local governance processes.
This is not as common as it may appear. For instance, India’s National Forest Policy (1988) document does not have the word “urban” written anywhere in it because the Indian Forest Service do not so far consider urban forests as a key issue that needs attention.
This may be risky as more than 50% people in the world (and 30% in India) now live in cities and as their first interface with nature is through urban forests.
There is an urgent need to curb the tendency to privatize urban green areas development under the garb of eco-tourism or eco-development projects based on Public Private Partnership (PPP) models, which often promote civil construction.
“Forest departments, who often own such lands in urban areas, should refrain from planting these areas very densely as it restricts user groups who interface with these urban green spaces for recreation and other needs,” says P. J. Dilip Kumar, Former Director General of Forests and Special Secretary, MoEF, Government of India.  For example, recreational uses usually need a more open forest cover. University campuses across India are examples of this overplanting issue, as dense plantation of trees on campuses makes the landscape oppressive and unhealthy.
There is an enormous opportunity for combining institutional land ownership with habitat conservation in urban areas, and for beefing up the capabilities of city administrations to take up challenges for urban forests and other urban green spaces development.