Distraction Free Reading

Climatic Futures and Tree Response-ability: Can Urban Forests Restore Human-Tree Relations?

How do we account for the agency of trees in our anthropocentric worlds? By what methods, representations, and relations of care can these sentient beings claim existence as more than data entry points and statistical figures? In this post, I turn our attention to the problem of the taken-for-granted responsibility of trees as a panacea for climate change and propose instead a practice of “thinking-with” and “becoming-with” trees (Haraway 2016). I focus on the ecological and ethical complexity of transposing tree ecologies as it overlooks questions of justice and climatic futures through the Miyawaki urban forests in Pakistani cities. Attention to “braided knowledge” (Kimmerer 2013) manifests not just in how trees are cared for in gardens and arboretums, but also in how urban forests are planned to make a city more inclusive, aesthetically pleasing, and healthier. Inspired by Haraway’s (2016, 34) insistence to take “response-ability” as “collective knowing and doing, an ecology of practices,” I invite us to “think-with” trees as markers of belonging, emotion, and wisdom for not only times past but for futures to come[1].

Since its launch in 2020, the Government of Pakistan has applauded Miyawaki urban forests as the “best way to fight pollution” based on their efficiency to grow “ten times faster, thirty times denser” (Prime Minister’s Office, 2021).  The development of these urban forests was encapsulated under a nationwide Plant4Pakistan presidential campaign to restore Pakistan’s depleted forest cover and address environmental damage. Amidst the global climate crisis, tree plantation campaigns such as the Miyawaki urban forests are often seen as a panacea to offset the deteriorating effects of climate change in cities. The Plant4Pakistan campaign is more popularly known in media and official discourses as the “Ten Billion Tree Tsunami Afforestation Project.” The use of the word “tsunami” gestures to the intensity by which almost ten billion new saplings will be planted as well as the quickness with which they are expected to transform urban and non-urban landscapes into green havens. However, trees are neither solitary beings nor are they disposable entities without agency. For several decades, ecologists, foresters, and anthropologists have called our attention to the ways that trees communicate with each other and forge a community with other organisms and species (Tompkins and Bird 2016; Simard and Durall 2004; Myers 2015). Whether spurred by the arboreal ability to sequestrate carbon or incentivized by global prestige and recognition under the Bonn Challenge, mass afforestation campaigns fail to acknowledge an essential link of “response-ability” (Haraway 2008; Barad 2007, 394) in more-than-human relations.

Image of two trees to the foreground, and several in the background against a blue sky. On the tree is a steel board with black lettering. The text on the board reads "Golden Rain Tree, Planted: 1995, Origin: Indian Subcontinent South East Asia, Uses: Medical Use." Below this is the botanical name of the tree, not visible in the photograph. Above the writing in English is the name of the tree in Urdu.

Amal Tass or Cassia Fistula is a popular tree found in Pakistan. In this image, a plaque is attached to an Amal Tass, which stands foregrounded in a park setting. Image taken by author.

Miyawaki Urban Forests

I focus on Miyawaki urban forests because of the way they have been imagined as an “instant” and “complete” fix. By focusing on biodiversity in small spaces, the Miyawaki urban forest is constructed as a dense assemblage of indigenous trees and plants (Miyawaki 1998; Miyawaki and Golley 1993)[2]. This model promises to be ecologically self-sustainable compared to other urban greening projects that either emphasized mono-cultured or non-indigenous tree planting. The planting technique derives its name from its founder, Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki. By comparing the vegetation in millennia-old forests around shrines and temples, called “Chin ju-no-mori” with the evergreen broadleaf forest region in Japan, Miyawaki concluded that it was possible to regenerate land through indigenous species (Blue Planet Prize Profile 2006, 251). At its core, the Miyawaki planting method operates under the premise that human activity has changed the “carrying capacity of a landscape”—the ability of the environment to regenerate—and compromised “ecosystem services” such as water absorption, carbon sequestration, and provision of food and timber (Miyawaki and Box 2006, 20). The responsibility to restore the environmental damage caused by centuries of agricultural development, mono-cropping, urbanization, and deforestation is an essential right to ecological integrity and preservation of biocomplexity. Since the success of the first large-scale experiment of the Miyawaki method at a Nippon Steel Corporation’s industrial unit in the 1970s, the Miyawaki method has been adapted to urban environments all over the world.

Encouraged by their quick growth and sustainability narrative, Pakistan’s Ministry of Climate Change announced plans for 126 Miyawaki urban forests across the country, “with 51 in Lahore, 50 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 20 in Islamabad, and five in Karachi” (Kumar 2021). However, this is not only a “tsunami” of trees but also a moment of skepticism and ethical discomforts. Local experts have voiced concerns over the administrative rush to scale this initiative and have cautioned that the Miyawaki model still needs to be tested across Pakistan’s diverse geography and weather pattern (Kumar 2021). Pakistan lies in the subtropical zone with annual rainfalls much lower than the equatorial zones where the Miyawaki technique was developed. This is not to suggest that the Miyawaki plantations may not succeed at all, but instead more research, experimentation, and thought need to be placed on this urban forestry project. Akira Miyawaki (1998) himself had advocated that it is necessary to attend to the different forms of land use and soil qualities to create sustainable environments. Such advice is not unprovoked, considering that earlier this year the government inaugurated the “biggest” Miyawaki urban forest, with 165,000 plants and cultivated over almost twelve acres (Pakistan Ministry of Climate Change Press Release). Before we applaud such projects in anticipation of future benefits, it is critical to question the assumptions under which they are marked as such.

Untangling Present and Future Concerns

The consequences of afforestation projects such as the Miyawaki urban forests are larger than just a failure of scaling up or over-emphasizing effectiveness. The consequences lie at the heart of what we take for granted in environmental projects to encounter climate. Below, I briefly situate some of the ecological and ethical knots that are easily ignored.

Displacement

Borders set up around Miyawaki urban forest sites are meant to protect the new growth during the initial two to five years after which they may become sustainable. Yet, if nature is meant to co-exist and co-create urban futures with humans, these borders displace the public from shared spaces and hinder collective human and nonhuman relating. This has often happened in the gentrification of parks and public spaces (Hasan 2019). However, the Miyawaki urban forest sites signal not only spatial displacement but also relational displacement that isolates trees as a functionalist apparatus in cities. What of the memories of trees that have fallen, forested landscapes that are forgotten, and saplings that are expected to grow without the ecological assemblages of humans, plants, fungi, insects, and animals?  It is only by destabilizing the teleological pattern of urban development that we can open the possibilities of tree-human relations and cities as “ecological laboratories for the tracking of future natures” (Gandy and Jasper 2020). Towards this pursuit of more just and inclusive futures, we must consider whether the Miyawaki forests are just an aesthetic or ideological distraction from the threat to old-growth trees and incumbent green spaces.

A Future in Debt

The Miyawaki urban forest has a high initial cost. One of the reasons is because of the way that the soil must be prepared and treated before planting saplings. Yet, there are still unanswered questions regarding the effects on the water table, soil quality, and land topography. The effects on the hydrological or soil systems could potentially provoke alternate needs (and costs) for engineering the landscape. Relatedly, while the Miyawaki urban forest is supposed to act as a buffer against ongoing climatic changes in urban settings, there is still limited research on how quickly or slowly plant organisms experience spatial urbanization, and how they respond differently to different environmental changes (temperature, moisture, aridity, and other factors). Given these gaps, it is important to locate how species evolve in response to climate change could constitute adaptive and maladaptive responses (Diamond and Martin 2021). Therefore, while accounting for the potential benefits of this method, we also need to factor in the possibility of harm and unintended ill-effects to human-tree relations.

Nature by numbers

It is also misleading to assume that the Miyawaki urban forest can replace existing forested landscapes. Based on observations from Chennai in India, Daniels and Vencaesan (2021) note that even as “the best-preserved natural forests in the Western Ghats have a density of 200–300 trees per acre,” the Miyawaki technique permits more than “4,000 trees and shrubs per acre.” By focusing on density as vertical growth, rather than horizontal growth, officials compromise on the wide canopies and natural maturation of many species. Sole emphasis on density and numbers also overlooks the connection between tree growth and their ability for carbon sequestration. Fares et al. (2017) contend that urban plants face environmental stresses that in extreme cases transform plants from “carbon sinks to carbon sources” and hence exacerbate the climatic effects they were meant to mitigate. To take the effectiveness of Miyawaki urban forests only by the number of trees or number of forests is to ignore that trees need space, time, and a healthy ecosystem to grow before they can undertake the responsibility for the environmental futures.

Belonging

The focus on indigenous species is problematic. At what stage does a tree species become recognized as indigenous to the area? How does climate change influence which of our tree friends will survive and which will only struggle? Shaffer (2018) argues that built environments often harbor optimal conditions for non-native species and as such, a proactive urban management approach should focus on ecological models to predict and populate urban environments with non-natives. This intervention would also lower the ecological damage and number of undesirable species that often spark fear and anxiety when non-natives appear on their own (Shaffer 2018, 727).

Image of a large tree with many thick branches shooting out in different directions. The tree has bright green leaves toward the top. On the ground, below the trunk, are scattered fallen leaves from the tree.

This Katsura-tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) is 116 years and is located at the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia. It thrives in open spaces as can be seen by the expansive networks of roots and branches. Image taken by author.

Concluding Thoughts

The dilemma of doing not enough or implementing a “wrong” approach has tremendous consequences for urban habitats. It is particularly worrying if our proposals for national or planetary scales of restoration or environmental equivocation depend on ignoring the narrative and presence of existing more-than-human relations. What if, instead of climatic futures and tree responsibilities, we can take human-tree relations as an ethical intervention to address urban futures and climatic response-ability? One possibility is to recognize the cultures and ecologies of trees in relation but not contingent on human reference. Kimmerer (2021, xv) gestures us to this possibility through kinship:

The land will teach us restoration, not only of trees themselves, but also of our relationship with them. We need not be passive consumers or companions of trees, treating them as a scaffolding for our aspirations. We could view them as our relatives, as kinfolk we have treated badly and to whom we seek to make amends.

By thinking-with trees and forests as agents who construct their “selves” (Kohn 2007) across communities of humans and other beings, we can acknowledge that the future is not only human or for humans. To recognize that climatic harms continue to impact more-than-human worlds of trees is to acknowledge that our plans and proposals should be about ecological integrity and kinship.


Footnotes

[1] I am also thinking of “worlding” as entanglements of human and more-than-human presences under the Anthropocene, as suggested by feminist scholars (Karen Barad 2007, 2010; Anna Tsing 2015; Donna Haraway).
[2] There is no single image specific to a Miyawaki urban forest. This blog entry under CanPlant, a website operated by an ecological consulting and design firm, is helpful in describing more the precise steps towards a Miyawaki Forest.


References

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Daniels, Ranjit and Anjana Vencatesan. “Why the Miyawaki Method is Not a Good Way to Afforest Chennai.” The Wire: Science, September 7, 2021. https://science.thewire.in/environment/why-the- miyawaki-method-is-not-a-good-way-to-afforest-chennai/.

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—.“PM inaugurates world’s biggest Miyawaki Urban Forest.” Express Tribune. August 9, 2021. https://tribune.com.pk/story/2314702/pm-inaugurates-worlds-biggest-miyawaki-urban-forest.

Wohlleben, Peter. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World. Vol. 1. Greystone Books, 2016.

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