EFUF 2016 Spotlight: Interview With Pieter Wieringa

In our new blog post we present Pieter Wieringa, the winner of the #EFUF2016 blog competition! In this short interview you can find out all about the background of his winning blog, his visit to EFUF 2016 and what he has been up to lately.

First of all Pieter, congratulations on your excellent blog. Was it a new research you have done for the blog or have you published it before?

The research was done in the framework of writing a new masterplan for the city of Ploiesti. Romanian cities are obligated to renew their masterplan every 10 years. In the first phase of the masterplan I visited every area of the city in search of green resources. I really wanted to have a proper picture of urban greenspaces irrespective of ownership, functionality, accessibility and quality. After identifying and mapping these green resources we realized the city has vast green resources, especially near railway infrastructure and brownfields. So in the first phase we recommended the city council to look for solutions on how to incorporate and harvest this green change. The blog was in fact a condensed version of our background study in Ploiesti. So far the city council has not published our recommendations on their site or anywhere else.

We hope your work is recognized by the city authorities for the good of the city. We are curious – has your life has changed in any way due to publishing the blog and winning the EFUF2016 blog competition? If so, what did it bring?

As a result of the blog competition I was able to attend EFUF 2016 in Ljubljana. Otherwise I would not have been able to visit Slovenia. It was very refreshing to meet so many people active in urban forestry from across Europe and Asia. It was fascinating to hear about the current developments in urban forestry, especially about the different types of problems and solutions regarding nature in cities across Europe. On a personal level it inspired me to think bigger and perhaps set up an urban forestry platform in Romania where research and best practices can be collected and are freely accessible to everyone.
Furthermore, the city of Ploiesti has a new mayor and already we look forward to be working with him in the second phase of the masterplan. Thanks to the EFUF recognition of the Ploiesti blog I can demonstrate that planning for nature is a common practice in many other countries and that urban nature is an asset, not a disadvantage.

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Pieter Wieringa at EFUF 2016 in Ljubljana

We are really glad to hear that. In your blog you wrote about abandoned industries (brownfields). What would your ideas or suggestions for their management in the city of Ploiesti and elsewhere be?

This is something we will have to explore in the second phase of the Ploiesti masterplan. I would like to see a partnership between the city and the oil refineries in creating and/or enlarging micro forest protection belt encircling them. The industrial forest protection belt would be multifunctional – reducing noise and pollutants as well as producing biomass.
The industrial forest protection belts and brownfields could become a source of renewable energy production. The trees on these sites could be harvested for the purpose of producing biofuels and/or contributing directly to the local state heating infrastructure through clean incineration. The city could put financial incentives in place through which factory owners could be persuaded to create a start-up company in biofuel production. Another use of low quality timber harvest could lay in plastic production. Wood fibres are an excellent alternative for plastics as opposed to petroleum based plastics.
Furthermore, some of these brownfields are genuine pleasant places to be. I am sure sporting events could be organized on the sites proven to be safe from pollution. The industrial heritage green run perhaps?

You really see a lot of potential uses for brownfields that mostly just stay untapped. What are the main challenges facing you in the field of urban forestry?

One of the main challenges in urban forestry is the lack of awareness of its potential. In Romania’s larger cities nature is starting to receive more attention, but in regional cities like Ploiesti that is simply not on the agenda. When there are funds, the city council prefers to spend them in health care, road infrastructure, employment and waste management.
Another problem is pollution. During the communist era the main theme was production at any cost. Consequently, some areas in the vicinity of chemical factories are probably polluted, but there is not enough publicly available data on that. There is still a large number of polluted former factories in Romania that need investments to be decontaminated.

One of the EFUF 2016 messages was that if there was any better time to invest in urban forestry, it would be now. We hope it gets accross. What are you currently working on and what is your plan for the future?

Very soon we hope to found The Făgăraș Research and Policy Institute. The institute would conduct and develop relevant research related to the Făgăraș area, such as pushing for the creation of a new natural park in the nearby Făgăraș Mountains (Romania’s tallest mountains) with sustainable forestry and ecoturism in mind as well as experiments in urban forestry in the city of Făgăraș.

That sounds wonderful, good luck with the institute. Now that we have come to the end of the interview, what is it that will you remember most about EFUF 2016 and your visit to Slovenia?

What I will remember most about Slovenia is her nature and appreciation for it. As I have seen in Ljubljana and Celje, it really is possible to employ nature as an equally important tool for progress and development. I was really happy to meet so many people from different backgrounds at EFUF 2016 who are passionate about urban forestry. The format of the conference was also really good – with very interesting presentations in the mornings and with informal discussions over a pint of Slovenian beer in the evenings. This allowed me to fully understand the work and research involved! I really enjoyed meeting so many people at EFUF 2016 and I would like to thank the Slovenian Forestry Institute and Slovenia Forestry Service in Celje for the support. Perhaps one day I can return the favour and see all you urban foresters in Romania!

Thank you Pieter, we wish you all the best in your future work!

Pieter Wieringa was interviewed by Anita Mašek (Slovenian Forestry Institute). You can read Pieter’s winning blog here.

#EFUF2016 Blog Competition Winner

We are happy to announce the winner of the #EFUF2016 blog competition – it is Pieter Wieringa! Pieter’s contribution stood out for its originality, content and relevance. It represents an unique approach and analysis of most of the main themes that will be discussed at the forthcoming EFUF 2016 conference. We feel Pieter Wieringa’s contribution will make a significant impact in raising awareness and opening discussion about the importance of urban forest conservation, in his own country and beyond.

We would also like to congratulate Naomi Zürcher and John Gallagher, the finalists of the blog competition, for their highly commendable entries!

The winner wins a free full EFUF 2016 conference package, while the finalists will be rewarded with a free Saturday excursion. All three authors also get an opportunity to present the story behind their post at the EFUF 2016 conference, either by oral presentation or by a poster.

The #EFUF2016 blog competition received many diverse and fantastic blogs addressing the challenges of urban forestry. We would like to deeply thank you all for participating and we hope you will be joining us in Ljubljana!

Be sure not to miss our next blog post on the #EFUF2016 blog – we will present the authors of the best blog posts in more detail!

The Winner

“Nature Takes Over: Unexpected Green Change in Ploiesti, Romania” – Pieter Wieringa

Urban forestry in Romania is in its infancy. There are no present discussions taking a more holistic view at urban green spaces in Ploiesti. Based on field research and existing information I was able to create the above map and gather data. (Pieter Wieringa)

Read the whole post

The Finalists

“Resilience” – Naomi Zürcher

Now that most of us are living in cities, we’ve decided we want to put these Forest trees back into our urban landscapes, not the way they were before, not the way they have evolved to exist, but according to our needs and our designs. (Naomi Zürcher)

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“It’s a walk in the park” A green solution to lower air and noise pollution” – John Gallager

Have you ever thought about the route you take to work? Could you take a better route? What is a better route? I ask myself these questions when I make my commute to work every morning.(John Gallagher)

Read the whole post

Photo credit: Paxon Woelber

Urban Children Need (Urban) Forests

This time we present a very special blog – a child’s perspective on urban forests! Find out what 5-year old Jan has to say about urban forests in this blog written down by Natalija Györek, initiator of the Slovenian Network of Forest Kindergartens and Schools.

I hope this contribution will not surprise you. It is not a scientific blog about urban forests, but it is true to life. It is about (urban) children – their journey into the world, their development, learning, and their view of the world around them. An urban forest should be a place they experience positively, because it is generous, encouraging, infinitely surprising and pleasing to the senses. It should be a world that invokes the memory of forests and nature, all the way from childhood to adulthood.

My name is Jan. I’m five years old. I live with my mum, dad and my younger brother in a big city called Ljubljana. Every day my mum and dad take me to a nearby kindergarten, where I play with my friends, go for many walks and have a good time. In kindergarten I like playing outside the most. I’m also very happy when teachers Marjeta and Tanja take us for a walk. I like climbing over fences, up the slide and climbing the trees, which are my favourite. But my teachers say we mustn’t climb the trees growing in playgrounds and in the city, because we could break the branches and hurt them. We’re also not allowed to tear leaves off trees, even though I sometimes want to put one in my pocket and show it to my mum. That’s probably why they’re closed in iron boxes, from which I can’t even pick the pebbles I love so much. Marjeta and Tanja also explained to us that these trees decorate our city and clean our air. But I don’t quite understand how trees can clean our air.

One day Marjeta and Tanja told us we were going for a walk to a nearby forest. That’s where the “real trees” grow, unlike the ones that are put in boxes. We took a bus to Rožnik Hill on the other side of the city. There’s a big urban forest there and children can get lost in it, but Marjeta and Tanja let us play there. Oh my, the things we did! We could climb over slippery stumps – I fell a few times, but I didn’t cry. With my friends, Tomaž and Peter, we drilled holes into the ground and hid behind bushes. You can hide so well in the forest that no one can find you. We found three snails and two spiders, which is as many as the fingers on one hand, and we just couldn’t stop looking at them. I might have been a little afraid of them, but I won’t tell that to anyone but my mum. We also built the best house out of forest sticks. Why do we find so many sticks in the forest, but there aren’t any in the city? Maybe adults pick them up at night.

I was happy to finally see real trees – the kind you can climb and no one gets angry. Marjeta and Tanja too came back from the forest in a good mood. That day we ate all the macaroni and quickly fell asleep.

When we came to the kindergarten the next day Marjeta and Tanja explained to us that from then on we would be visiting the forest on Rožnik Hill once a week and that we would become a forest kindergarten and join other kindergartens in the Network of Forest Kindergartens and Schools of Slovenia. I like that a lot. I like going to the forest because there we can get ourselves dirty and no one gets angry. I can’t wait for next week when we go to the forest again!

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This blog was written down by Natalija Györek, founder of the Institute for Forest Pedagogics, on behalf of Jan and all the children.

 

 

Green Divides in Cities Are Also Health Divides

What is the cost of losing everyday contact with natural spaces in favour of more urban development? Find out more in this blog by the #EFUF2016 invited blogger, Tara Zupančič, MPH.

I was twelve years old when I first visited Slovenia. I spent my summer on the mountain where my father grew up. Among 300 acres of trees, I would love to watch the mist lift from the valley floor into the ether. My soul felt alive there, and like many people, I have grown to depend on nature to hoist my spirit, provide refuge from the heat, and restore my sense of home on this planet. So when I tell people that I study the relationship between nature and health, I’m often met with an incredulous look. Isn’t it well established that nature provides the very foundation of human health? My head bobs yes, as I explain myself.

The push for research on the health benefits of nature is related to our increasingly urban existence. Competing needs for roads, houses, and industry can easily overtake greener pastures. Nature is typically viewed as something beyond urban borders and not part of our daily city life. As cities expand their borders to house the majority of the world’s population, we need to ask, what is the cost of losing everyday contact with natural spaces in favour of more urban development? In the face of competing land use needs, is a stand of trees that important?

Despite advances in health care, our lifelong health is largely determined by our social and economic position and the settings where we live, work, and play. A strong and growing body of evidence shows that everyday contact with urban nature is critical to our well-being and is significantly associated with healthier births, as well as reduced mortality, obesity, chronic disease, depression and anxiety. Access to nature is especially important for children and is significantly associated with increased play, physical activity, and cognitive and motor development.

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Unfortunately, the ability to enjoy the benefits of nature often falls along social and economic divides, deepening health inequalities in cities. This means that poor health, disproportionately borne by those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, is compounded by greater environmental burdens where they live. For example, a European systematic review showed that socially disadvantaged children commonly suffer from multiple and cumulative health burdens related to poor quality housing, greater exposure to traffic and industrial pollution, and a lack of healthy, natural spaces where they live. These children are more susceptible to harm from adverse environmental conditions because they often lack protective factors such as adequate nutrition, opportunity for play and essential health care.

Tackling health inequalities is a major global health priority, and ensuring equitable access to nature must be part of that strategy. While exposure to nature can benefit everyone, there is consistent evidence that the benefits are strongest among socioeconomically disadvantaged groups.

The association between green space and reduced mortality has been found to be strongest in the most socioeconomically deprived urban areas. Increased green space exposure also appears to decrease the effect of income deprivation on all-cause and cardiovascular mortality. Multiple studies on green space exposure and birth have found that the strongest positive associations are found among the most socially disadvantaged. It is not clear why these stronger associations exist but emerging evidence suggests that nature may provide a buffer from difficult life circumstances, and be protective against stress as a setting for emotional, physical, and social support.

The benefits of everyday contact with nature are vast and there is a need to ensure that this nurturing from nature is not determined by a person’s wealth, income, or ability to leave the city. Time in nature is an essential right of childhood and sets a critical foundation for lifelong health. As an increasingly urban planet, we need to configure our cities to maximize nature in every nook and cranny and guarantee everyone is free to benefit from it. Instead of planning the apportioning of trees amid sprawling cites, there is an opportunity to plan vibrant cities amid great forest canopies. Our health depends on it.

Studies referenced:

Bolte, G., Tamburlini, G., & Kohlhuber, M. (2010). Environmental inequalities among children in Europe—evaluation of scientific evidence and policy implications. The European Journal of Public Health, 20(1), 14-20.

Brown, S. C., Lombard, J., Wang, K., Byrne, M. M., Toro, M., Plater-Zyberk, E., … & Pantin, H. M. (2016). Neighborhood Greenness and Chronic Health Conditions in Medicare Beneficiaries. American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

James, P., Banay, R. F., Hart, J. E., & Laden, F. (2015). A review of the health benefits of greenness. Current epidemiology reports, 2(2), 131-142.

About the author: Tara Zupančič, MPH is the Founder and Director of Habitus Research in Canada.

Exceptional Trees: Ambassadors of Nature Conservation

Exceptionality and extraordinariness have always excited us, such as exceptional trees that have survived several human generations. With their special characteristics these individual trees or tree groups stand out from the average, instill respect and arouse admiration. Find out more how protection of exceptional urban trees can contribute to the promotion of urban forests and raise nature conservation awareness in this blog by Janez Kermavnar.

The expression ‘exceptional (heritage) tree’ refers to trees with outstanding traits. There are different categories of exceptional trees, depending on the criteria used. Trees of exceptional dimensions (usually thickness and height) are the easiest to spot. Some of trees can be designated as worthy of preservation due to their age, aesthetic quality, historical and cultural significance, particular treetop shape or unusual trunk form. Other trees stand out due to their exceptional rarity or non-nativity, while some trees are special because of their peculiar position. Many exceptional trees have interesting stories or even secrets. The more a tree’s physical appearance is eye-catching and magnificent, the more spiritual symbolism is attributed to it. That’s why so many exceptional trees are connected to myths and legends.

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A wonderful gingko tree, creating a priceless scenery for citizens.

Exceptional trees can be found in densely forested landscapes and in urbanized areas. Because exceptional trees growing deep inside forests are less noticeable than similar trees in urban spaces (parks, streets), exceptional trees growing in cities could play a more prominent role.

I did a quick research on exceptional trees in the City of Ljubljana. According to the register of the Institute of the Republic of Slovenia for Nature Conservation and the inventory of tree heritage, there are approximately 110 trees recognized as valuable natural features in the City of Ljubljana. Most of them are of exceptional dimensions (beech trees, oaks, non-native species …), officially protected by the municipal decrees from the early 1990`s. Protected trees are divided into those of national or local importance and are located on public or private properties.

The country of Slovenia is intersected by important natural areas. It owns a few truly notable and well-known trees that had been given special attention and importance. One of them is the highest spruce tree in Europe – the Sgerm spruce on the Pohorje Mountains with 62,3 m! Exceptional trees are spatially well-defined spots. Unlike Natura 2000 sites, where some habitat areas are protected, so it seems, just to create disagreement (due to restrictions) between public and private interests. In this I see the biggest problem regarding nature conservation.

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Visiting a remarkable chestnut tree in an urban park.

Taking care of important parts of nature is becoming increasingly popular. Exceptional trees are natural monuments and a living proof how extraordinary nature really is. By highlightning their presence throughout educational trails we can raise public awareness about the importance of nature conservation. Exceptional trees are not only ambassadors of nature conservation but, ultimately, also the interface between conservation and urban forestry.

This blog post is authored by Janez Kermavnar and is a part of the #EFUF2016 blog competition.

Featured photos by The Bode and Tim Sheerman-Chase.

Nature Takes Over: Unexpected Green Change in Ploiesti, Romania

Accidental and surprising as it may be, the city of Ploiesti developed a rich green infrastructure. Find out what happened in this blog by Pieter Wieringa, a forest engineer from Romania.

The city of Ploiesti is the center of oil exploitation and oil refining in Romania, completely surrounded by oil and petro-chemical industries. At the beginning of the 20th century, when Romania was the third largest oil producer in the world, the city counted more than 10 oil refineries. Today only four of them are operational. Vast industries lay abandoned (brownfields), urban air quality is poor and greeneries are few.

Officially, Ploiesti only provides each and every inhabitant with 12,4 m2 of public functional green space, while the Romanian average of urban green space in cities with more than 100.000 inhabitants is 18 m2 per capita[1]. Both are well below the minimum of 26 m2 per capita required by the European Union.

However, it is not as simple as that and the numbers can be deceiving. Working as a forest engineer on the new master plan for this heavily industrialized city, I realized that Ploiesti is actually very green indeed! The oil refineries and supporting chemical companies that have gone bust in the early 90s have turned green. In the 25 years of abandonment, plants and trees have become quite successful in reclaiming the lands. Nature has created urban wilderness woodlands or “nature of the fourth kind” as Ingo Kowarik and Stefan Körner named them so fittingly[2]. The well-developed railway infrastructure was a facilitator in bringing plants and trees to areas of economic decline. The railways functioned as a sort of a transportation highway for exchange of genetic materials between the rural and urban areas.

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Wild urban woodland in southern Ploiesti.

The new wild urban woodlands follow the railways that encircle the city and in many cases connect to the adjoining brownfields. As a consequence, a near perfect unbroken greenbelt of 10 to 600 meters wide has emerged. The greenbelt is highly variable along its route. Its vegetation is in different stages of development and runs through mostly brownfields in the South, towards watershed and residential areas in the north. Furthermore, a South to North-West green corridor, lining the main boulevard, connects the city center with the greenbelt (Figure 2). One of the most important features of green infrastructure is connectivity. Connectivity is what enhances genetic exchange and allows fresh air to reach the interior of cities where urban heat islands are most prevalent.

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Map of accidental green infrastructure in Ploiesti.

Although this network of a greenbelt, brownfields, green rail corridors and existing parks is not managed, studied or even identified, it does not mean it isn’t there. It contributes significantly to the greening and the quality of life in the city by providing advantages such as: pleasant micro-climate, urban biodiversity, fresh (cool) air, shade, pollution uptake, carbon sequestration, etc.

Even though most of the green wilderness woodlands are not open to the public, a lot of them are surprisingly accessible. Recently, people have started to notice the sheer scale of (green) change and are beginning to see opportunities for its alternative use – recreation, adventure, parkour and skateboarding. It provides a space for wilderness experience and a welcomed contrast to the harsh and chaotic concrete urban environment. Additionally, many of these areas are used for pastoral activities and urban agriculture, further adding to urban resilience.

 

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Locals skateboarding at Ploiesti Triaj. Photo: Fritz Schiel

Urban forestry in Romania is in its infancy. There are no present discussions taking a more holistic view at urban green spaces in Ploiesti. Based on field research and existing information I was able to create the above map and gather data.

The greenbelt that surrounds the city occupies an area of approximately 7,2 km2. Together with other green spaces and parks the total surface of green infrastructure amounts to 13.26 km2. In other words, 22,7 % of the city is covered by greeneries. In total, the residents of Ploiesti will now find there is 63,1 m2 per capita of green space, out of which 12,4 m2 per capita of public functional green space. According to a previous study on urban green space coverage in Europe, these numbers rank Ploiesti higher than the Romanian average and the neighboring eastern European countries.[3]

Accidental as it may be, could there be a way to integrate and protect these valuable resources in the future? How to raise awareness for something that is associated with unemployment, economic decline and mismanagement? Perhaps through temporary use of small physical impact, such as creating wilderness parks, community food forests or allotment gardens (urban agriculture)? What do you think the alternatives for Ploiesti’s green urban future can be?

[1] Green space index Romania:  Chiriac D., C. Huma, M. Stanciu, 2009, Urban Green Spaces – A Problem of Contemporary Urbanization, Research Institute on the Quality of Life (in Romanian).

[2]Wild Urban Woodlands: New Perspectives for Urban Forestry, 2005, Ingo Kowarik and Stefan Körner, (Eds.) 1-32.

[3] The scaling of green space coverage in European cities, 2009, Richard A. Fuller, and Kevin J. Gaston.

This blog post is authored by Pieter Wieringa, forest engineer and MKBT: Make Better (urbanism and local development company) and is a part of the #EFUF2016 blog competition.

Aesthetics of Urban Forests: Overcoming the Objectification

The more we are developing into an urban society, the more alienated from nature we are becoming. Not only does departure from nature lead to departure from ourselves, it also changes the way we perceive nature in urban environments. How? Find out more in this blog by Luka Mesec, student of forestry from Slovenia.

Urbanization started after industrial revolution and is still increasing at a rapid rate. People are massively moving from the countryside to cities and drastically changing their lifestyles. If we let ourselves imagine a businessman from a big city, spending most of his days in his office, and an organic farmer from the countryside, who’s in close contact with nature throughout his working day, we can easily see how the process of urbanization is drawing us away from nature.

Human beings lived in the realm of nature for hundreds of thousands of years and human mind developed in the presence of nature. That itself is the reason why we try to stay linked to nature in our day to day reality, otherwise we would live in barren urban environment among buildings and other constructs. To keep the connection with nature alive, we grow urban forests.

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From the earliest stages of human history aesthetic relation of man to his reality and surroundings has been an important part of our society’s development. With urbanization, our perception of nature is becoming more and more ambivalent: on one side nature is the real and good that contrasts the society as the artificial and destructive, and on the other side nature is something wild and threatening which we have to domesticate to protect ourselves.

Furthermore, the more urbanized and alienated from nature we are becoming, the more we’re objectifying it. It seems that nature, especially urban nature, is being turned into an aesthetic object.

Urban trees should not be perceived as aesthetic or art objects. Art objects do not possess features such as metabolism, regeneration and evolutionary history. A tree is a living subject which together with other subjects creates a living, dynamic and complex whole – an urban forest. An urban forest is therefore a living system which includes living subjects. Most of us agree that urban nature is simply beautiful, but there’s so much more to its aesthetic value than meets the eye. There is just something so “primal” that awakens in us when we gaze into the forest.

This blog post is authored by Luka Mesec and is part of the #EFUF2016 blog competition.

Photo credit: Douglas Rodgers