Southwark’s Tiny Forests – Cllr James McAsh

When I was younger, I used to love climbing trees. I don’t know whether it’s the risk of falling, the expectation of the view from the top, or the feeling of connection to nature, but there’s something unique to climbing trees.

These days, I don’t climb many trees but since taking on the Climate Emergency portfolio at Southwark Council, I’ve grown to appreciate their other qualities. Their leaves are our planet’s lungs, replacing carbon dioxide with oxygen, cleaning our air and combatting climate change. Their roots protect us from flooding and water pollution. Their canopies cool our streets, providing much needed shade when the sun is at its hottest. They improve biodiversity, hosting a range of animal species. And something about them makes us feel good too: reducing depression, anxiety and fatigue, and improving wellbeing.

Given all these benefits, I was worried to read the research that Friends of the Earth published last month on tree coverage in England. We’re lagging far behind our European counterparts: just 10% of the country is woodland, compared to 38% of the European Union. Tree coverage more generally is just 12.8%. Unsurprisingly, the areas with the lowest coverage are in urban authorities and neighbourhoods with the highest levels of social deprivation have far fewer trees than their wealthier counterparts.

With that being said, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Southwark’s canopy coverage is above average, at 17.2%, and in the top third of urban authorities. However, this has to improve if we are to tackle our climate and ecological crises and that might mean thinking creatively in inner London areas.

So, the week after this research was published, I helped to plant not one but two new forests in Southwark. How is this possible in inner London? They’re not quite what you might expect from a “forest”. These are Tiny Forests, comprising 600 native trees in a plot no bigger than a tennis court. The trees are planted thirty times more densely and grow between five and ten times faster than conventional tree plantings. This mean the benefits of the tree coverage are condensed into the small available space we have in urban areas. Each Tiny Forest attracts over 500 animal and plant species and absorbs carbon dioxide at up to thirty times the rate of other plantation types. When space is at a premium, Tiny Forests maximise the benefits we enjoy from woodland.

The Tiny Forest project is supported by environmental charity, Earthwatch. In Southwark, the council contributed two thirds of the funding, identified the land, and provided officer support. Earthwatch provided the rest of the finance, along with the equipment and materials. The planting was carried out by 125 community volunteers and the pupils from two local schools. Despite the torrential rain, everyone loved it.

This community engagement outlives the planting process. The forest provides an outdoor classroom for people to connect with nature and Earthwatch will deliver education and citizen science sessions over the next two years. A lasting legacy is the recruitment of Tree Keepers who will continue to study and look after the forest for years to come.

If we’re going to tackle the climate emergency we need to use every strategy available. Reducing our carbon emissions are a big part of this but we cannot neglect the role that our natural environment can play in cleaning up our atmosphere. As large swathes of land across the globe undergo rapid deforestation, we have a responsibility to expand tree coverage wherever we can. In places like Southwark, this means relying on creative initiatives like Tiny Forests which maximise the trees’ benefits in a small space.

And who knows, maybe in a few years they’ll be big enough to climb.