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Building tiny forests

Enrique Gili
May 31, 2016

As cities keep growing around the world, the destruction of wild forests continues unabated. One solution: Put forests inside cities. Impossible? Not if an engineer puts his mind to the job. Meet Shubhendu Sharma.

Afforestt founder Shubhendu Sharma among some trees
Image: Afforestt
Shubhendu Sharma was just 22 years old and at the start of a promising career as an industrial engineer at Toyota, when an encounter with some saplings and a renowned botanist led to a change in toolset.
Akira Miyawaki had arrived in the area to plant a forest near the car production plant in Bangalore, and Sharma volunteered to help. It opened both his eyes to the fact that city-dwellers need trees, and his mind to a different way of life.

"I was inspired to take up forestry as a full-time profession, and just go for it," Sharma said.

He started with a small plot of land in his backyard - and within two years, had established a dense stand of shade-bearing trees.

Since then, he's turned small tracts of land among the concrete jungles of Bangalore into tiny forests of native trees and plants.

A before and after shot showing rapid growth in just five months
What a difference five months can makeImage: Afforestt
He has also established Afforestt, a small company that is being commissioned to build forests for others. Now in its fifth year of operation, it employs six people and has access to groups of volunteers who are willing to brave the searing heat to plant trees. But there is plenty of room for more helping hands.

"The challenge is finding the right people, because it is really hard work," Sharma said.

And there is plenty of it to be done. As Sharma is at pains to point out, the planet is losing the equivalent of 36 football fields of woodland every minute of every day.

And in cities, which are predicted to continue growing over the coming decades, the pressure to build on empty space is unrelenting - despite the fact that #link:http://canopy.org/about-trees/the-benefits-of-trees/:trees provide environmental services# such as shade, which cools the city, and they absorb rainwater, preventing flooding and helping to replenish aquifers.

How green should our cities be?

But Divya Gopal, a specialist on landscape ecology based in Berlin, says it's important to take a measured view. "The city is the city - one cannot expect it to be as green or as eco-friendly as we would like it to be," she said, adding that once trees are in the ground, they are often left to fend for themselves. "After initial enthusiasm, [interest in trees] tends to die out."

And that leaves the urban saplings exposed to environmental stresses, such as pollution and water shortages. Enter Sharma and his team.

While a forest can typically take up to a hundred years to mature, the owner of Afforest says his approach requires just 2 to 3 years to yield tiny plots of trees as tall as 10 meters. And as he explained in his 2014 TED talk in Vancouver, his process has the added benefit of absorbing ground-level pollution and sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere at rates 30 times higher than conventional forests.

In addition to speeding up tree maturity, Sharma applied knowledge he acquired on the factory floor to standardize the process of planting trees - reducing the time frame for getting a forest into the ground to just eight days.

"We're enabling our clients to make forests just like us," said Sharma, who offers interested parties consultations - both on-site and online. Afforest's woodlots average 100 square meters, comprising tennis court-sized islands of green that provide shade and support native species. Thus far, his budding business has built 75 micro-forests in 25 cities around the world.

Organic solution to a manmade problem

Sharma's urban forestation process, which incidentally is entirely organic, is quite straightforward. It starts with a trench, from 20 to 30 centimeters deep, from which topsoil is mixed with readily available organic materials - such as rotted manure, and bagasse and coconut husks - to create compost for the saplings.

Several people planting trees
Many hands make light work - but there is a lot of it to be doneImage: Public Domain:
This supercharged dirt provides nutrients that accelerate the growth rate of the trees, and allows them to create a microhabitat where they absorb water and nutrients, which in turn makes them more resistant to disease and drought.

And because Sharma is keen to see our cityscapes dotted with as many pockets of woodlands as possible, he posts every project online, providing step-by-step instructions and sharing his clients' experiences.

Thus far, his foray into the world of trees has proved fruitful in terms of reforesting cities. It also underscores the inherent power of nature: though complex technologies designed to thwart rising temperatures might have their place in the fight against climate change, there is plenty to be said for applying sound ecological principles to fundamental problems.

"A lot of issues can be resolved by planting trees. We need to plant trees in the cities - and to make them grow," Sharma concluded.
A tree on a sidewalk
Trees in the city provide an invaluable serviceImage: Public Domain