Micro Forests Across the Metropolis

May 16, 2024
Bram Gunther
Vice President of Science and Development, Plan It Wild

by Bram Gunther, VP at Plan It Wild, & Jeff Rothfeder, Co-founder of Plan It Wild 

Across the world’s densely populated metropolitan areas, small-scale open spaces dot the landscape: vacant lots, private yards, housing complexes, public parks, campuses, and commercial lots. Often filled with turf, weeds, and rubble, these places rarely add environmental benefits to the community — and in many cases, they are eyesores. 

At Plan It Wild, an ecological restoration company based in the New York City metro area, we’re restoring these neglected sites by applying a decades-old idea that is suddenly very much in vogue: Micro Forests. This approach turns blighted and unused areas into beneficial environments — attractive and robust natural habitats with enduring ecological improvements. 

Forests designed for an urban landscape

Our Micro Forest designs stem from a method developed by Japanese landscape architect and botanist Akira Miyawaki in the 1970s. Miyawaki focused his career on natural vegetation restoration of degraded land. He observed how stands of native trees in metropolitan areas grew much faster and were more resilient when planted closely together — as much as ten times more rapidly than other forests with more space. And as these densely packed trees mature, invasive plants are shaded out.

The environmental benefits of this arrangement are immense. Micro Forests created using the Miyawaki method absorb stormwater and rarely wash out. They provide immediate sources of food and shelter for birds and insects, and they capture carbon through the trees, shrubs, and soil. Perhaps most importantly, they create cool spots in communities with little tree canopy cover, where the urban heat island effect is most intensified, and lower surrounding temperatures. 

Forest designs are customized to the site, taking into account factors such as native plants, microclimates, natural history, the built environment, and terrain. The success of these forests is based on two fundamental things. First, the trees and shrubs must be packed together as tightly as possible — as many as 1,400 saplings in one basketball court–sized space. Second, soil amendments, in the form of compost and organic fertilizers, should be added to restore the soil and meet the plantings’ need for nutrients.

Small forests with big impact

To date, Plan It Wild’s largest project has created Micro Forests at schools in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the state’s largest city. For this project, we partnered with Aspetuck Land Trust, a local organization, to help us develop relationships with the schools and educate school officials on how returning turf to forest will bring environmental benefits and local beauty to the campuses.

At one school, we designed a 600 square foot Micro Forest of 12 canopy trees, 96 understory trees, 196 shrubs, and 600 groundcover plants. We amended the soil with compost. Because Bridgeport sits on the Long Island Sound, we used tree species adapted to windy and salty conditions, like hackberry and willow. The school’s students helped us plant — an approach that Miyawaki recommends to create a personal bond between the school and the forest.

The Micro Forest immediately changed the school’s landscape. A baby forest, clear from across the campus, had taken root. In a sea of turf, the stems, branches, leaves, and varied heights of the plants stood out. For a city with low percentages of canopy cover and green space, the new forest created a sanctuary.

Supporting this project was a Climate Smart Forestry Grant from the State of Connecticut. Climate-smart forestry is a new strategy to design and build forests in urban and suburban areas as a way for communities, many in environmental justice neighborhoods, to mitigate the impact of climate change. In cities like Bridgeport, Micro Forests that use principles of climate-smart forestry can bring big improvements to quality of life. 

Bringing the conservation movement into the city

American conservation has traditionally focused on our unique wild landscapes. But the majority of Americans live in metropolitan areas now, and we know from decades of science that the environmental benefits from trees — clean air and water, and biodiversity — are good for our individual and community health. Micro Forests bring not only these benefits to urban areas, but also nearly instantaneous beauty in areas with little green space. 

The evolution of the conservation movement into metropolitan areas is accelerating. This is reflected in the federal Infrastructure and Inflation Reduction Acts, which have allotted billions of dollars for forest restoration, particularly climate-smart forestry. New York State recently passed a $4.2 billion environmental act, with hundreds of millions allocated for forest restoration, including climate-smart forestry. 

Most of the public money available is earmarked for public land. Although Micro Forests can and should be planted anywhere, the private sector is lagging behind in the ecological restoration movement. 

To incentivize private landowners, from homes to campuses, Plan It Wild has partnered with the Vermont Center for Ecostudies to develop an interactive assessment tool that gives a rating and score to a plot of land — a backyard, a campus, a retail site — to reflect its current and potential environmental health. 

The tool is based on multiple ecological metrics, from numbers of trees and pollinators to the types of plants and a site’s location in the landscape. This will provide benchmarks and goals for individual factors like the amount of carbon capture or biodiversity. In addition to its ratings, the tool will include a set of rewilding recommendations to improve the score. These recommendations almost always include a Micro Forest.  

Momentum for Micro Forests

Although the concept of Micro Forests is still relatively new to many people, word is spreading about their value for climate-smart forestry. New York City recently announced plans to put a Micro Forest on Roosevelt Island in the East River. Plan It Wild will plant at up to eight more public schools in Bridgeport this year, and we recently partnered with another small environmental justice city and its local land trust to turn a deteriorated basketball court, situated in a pocket park with little shade, into a Micro Forest. 

For the millions who live in urban environments, Micro Forests hold great promise to make cities greener, healthier, and more resilient to climate change. At one Bridgeport school, a newly planted Micro Forest stands at the building’s entrance, transforming what was an unwelcoming space of flat concrete into a rich, open, and friendly native habitat. Our cities need more of this — much more. It’s time for governments and the private sector to make climate-smart forestry a priority.

Bram Gunther
Vice President of Science and Development, Plan It Wild
Bram Gunther is the Vice President of Science and Development for Plan It Wild.
About the
Who Will Speak For The Trees?

At a time when human economic development is prioritized over the needs of nature, the Who Will Speak for the Trees? series features top reforestation leaders with a broad range of restoration expertise, including climate tech, monitoring, science, finance, media, and more. These diverse voices offer expert viewpoints to instill confidence in how humanity can support nature to deliver a forested future for all living things on Earth. Join us for this ongoing series to learn more about the science of reforestation and how restoring ecosystems is part of a comprehensive climate solution.

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