Afforestt, creating urban forests
In 2011, Shubhendu Sharma, an industrial engineer from India, began teaching people how to create forests in their own homes. Now, Sharma is working to reforest cities all around the world
In 2009, Sharma met with Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki, an expert in reforesting areas of degradation, during a visit to the Toyota factory, where Sharma worked. The botanist was planning to create a small forest at the facility using his own method.
The impression and interest that Sharma was left with was so great that before long he had created a forest in the backyard of his own house. Later, he ran a test and saw that the quality of the air in the area had improved. At that moment he made a decision: to improve the Miyawaki method and launch his own project, a plan known as Afforestt.
Today, Sharma has planted more than 400,000 trees in countries such as the United States, the Netherlands, France, Pakistan, India and Nicaragua. All of them in green belts, industrial areas, hotels and even a zoo. Our country is now the next set firmly in his sights.
He has already visited Madrid with the goal of creating the first urban forest at the Matadero. “The first forest we create in a country is always the most important. By using only locally sourced materials in a space equivalent to six parking spots and for the price of an iPhone it is possible to create a tiny wild forest of 300 trees”.
How to successfully create an urban forest
The first thing to do is to identify the local vegetation. “It is crucial to make a list of native species in the surrounding forests”, the founder of Afforestt said. Usually, native forests have fertile soil, rich in nutrients and ideal conditions for growing. “If we want to use the nutrient deficient soil of a city, the first thing we must do is go to a native forest and take a soil sample as to identify the microorganisms and other features it contains. This way, we can improve its retention capacity, make it softer and strengthen its roots” he affirms.
Sharma explains what can go wrong, using Australia as an example.They’ve planted trees native of India while at the same time, India cultivates trees from China. “Everybody wants what they don’t have. They choose what they grow based on ornamental criteria instead of making use of local vegetation”, he reports.
Furthermore, he maintains that in most cities these projects lack sustainability. “In El Retiro, for example, there are hardly more than two kinds of trees and a lot of wasted space”.
The Miyawaki Method to create urban forests
“With the Miyawaki method we plant 50-100 species of different sizes in the same forest. As a consequence, oxygen and pollution absorption are 30 times higher than monocropping. Trees bring clouds full of rain as their moisture facilitates the creation of clouds”.
One of the greatest challenges we face is obtaining native species. “Usually seed banks are hard to come byand we waste a lot of time we could be saving. In India, we are compiling our own seed bank. Our goal is that every country has their own, that’s why we need to focus on the science of reforestation”, he said.
Once the seeds have been selected and the land is conditioned with a mixture of local biomass, it's time to order the species into four layers depending on their height. “We plant short and tall varieties side by side so that they grow together.
This way we create a forest with different levels that, when it becomes tall, will be green and dense”. Thanks to this, the species planted develop up to ten times faster than species in a traditional forest. The trees grow a meter every year and in a decade, they are comparable to a century old wild ecosystem.
“If the same trees had been planted separately, they would have never grown so fast” he says. Using this method, the forests go on living without the need for human intervention. What’s essential is that “we never prune or cut them down”.
Their roots intermingle, they help each other mutually and grow as if they were one living thing”. In just two years, they are so dense that they block the sun, keeping the forest ground unspoiled. Furthermore, fallen leaves return to earth as natural fertilizer. Effectively eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers.
“To keep the soil moist, its surface is covered with a thick layer of grass. This way, when it's warm, latent water does not evaporate, and when it’s cold, only the grass freezes, leaving the seeds intact”, he explains.
One of the questions we ask ourselves is: how do we control their expansion? Sharma explains: “we introduce the mixture of local biomass aimed at getting the land to breathe again, but the seeds can only grow where there is earth. If one seed falls out of the area of plantation, it won’t be able to germinate”.
Benefits of reforestation in urban forests
Reforestation offers enormous benefits for people: “People living in cities are disconnected from the environment. Urban areas become so warmthat it hardly rains and it is too hot. As a result, health problems like respiratory diseases or depression arise.
“Our work saves millions of euros because the forests sustain themselves and we make use of wasted space to generate a positive impact on the microclimate”, Sharma says.
What about his contribution to the battle against climate change? The founder of Afforestt answers the question from a local’s perspective: “Everybody talks about climate change at a global scale. However, if we are not able to solve local warming, we will never be able to think in global terms. Let’s transform land into forests; public spaces, industrial areas and our homes into green belts! We needlessly waste chemical fertilizers, water, human resources and money on sterile lands. Just three years is enough to generate a significant impact and reduce the effect of greenhouse gasses and warming of cities”.
As a result, the forests of Afforestt around the world have brought back healthier environments and higher standards of living. It rains more, hot weather diminishes, and air quality is better. Akira Miyawaki says that a forest is a place so full of trees that you almost can’t walk through it.
Dimensions don’t matter because a forest can even grow in the home backyard. Since Sharma met the scientist, he’s spreading his message and wants everybody to get on board: “Thanks to ideas like this and reaching out to our abandoned forests, we can make the planet a better place to live, and thus our lives better too”.