Problems in urban forests the social interface

Humans have been influencing other animals and their environment for a very long time, as the recent discovery of a 400 000-year-old skeleton of the ancient elephant Palaeoloxodon antiquus at Ebbsfleet, Kent, demonstrated yet again. It was surrounded by crude flint tools used for stripping flesh, and appears to have been consumed raw by modern human's ancestor Homo heidelbergensis, after being driven into a bog or becoming stuck at the edge of an ancient lake accidentally. Today few forests are more strongly influenced by humans than those in urban areas. A large number of woodlands are affected, not always for the best, by nearby centres of population. However, in far-sighted countries, there is a growing realization of the value of urban forests, most often defined as forests near urban centres used for the cultivation and management of trees for their contribution to the psychological, sociological and economic well-being of the urban society. These are distinct from cultivated green spaces with trees such as gardens and parks, distinguished by urban forests being used for timber production and their uncultivated understorey vegetation.

Unfortunately many urban woodlands, as well as being used as adventure playgrounds by local children who frequently damage the trees, are also often visited by undesirables including burglars and drug dealers. Nevertheless there can be an abundance of wildlife amidst a great deal of waste, which includes beer cans and bottles as well as larger debris such as burnt-out cars and three-piece suites. These woodlands are frequently used for the illegal grazing of horses, especially in cases where the council has fenced off the woodland. There are many other places where urban woodlands are better treated, and there is no doubt that in virtually all instances they do give town and city dwellers an opportunity to see something of local wildlife.

In an area centred on Sheffield, Gilbert (1989) deals with the ecology of the whole gamut of urban habitats. His sections on private gardens and cemeteries have much of value on trees, while that on woodlands considers a number of individual cases in detail. These include the archaeology of a small urban wood, the ecology of an ancient semi-natural woodland, plantations on the sites of ancient woodland, the use of 'naturalistic' plantations and the bird life of urban woods. In many ways it is sensible to consider urban wildlife as a whole, bearing in mind the fact that many animals move into and out of the local woodlands and that many successional wasteland sites are on their way to becoming new woodland.

Many of the plants and animals - including slugs - encountered in towns and cities are introduced species, while many of the native taxa live in communities quite different from those they are found in elsewhere. Some animals adapt less well than the birds, although several rodent species do so all too well. The life expectancy of town foxes Vulpes vulpes is short, averaging 14 months in London and 18 months in Bristol, while large family groups fail to develop. As with hedgehogs Erinaceus europaeus, many of these animals become road casualties. Gilbert advises us to accept and enjoy town wildlife for what it is, and is not over keen on attempts to create ecological parks with small areas of particular habitat types in the middle of cities.

An exemplary attitude to urban forests is found in Sweden. In the 1960s and 1970s new housing developments were supplied with cultivated green areas since they were believed 'to be superior to ''virgin and raw'' nature, and nature was not trusted to ''stand the wear'' of the urban citizen's recreational use' (Rydberg and Falck, 2000, p. 3). But in the 1980s, an interest arose in combining the green spaces and traditional forestry areas into multiple-use areas. Rydberg and Falck (2000) point out in their review of Swedish urban forestry the numerous benefits of these forests in terms of amenity, aesthetics, health (mental and physical) and recreation. In 1985 Swedes made more than 200 million forest visits per year, 55% of which were to urban forests.

Similar statistics are found elsewhere; for example, there were 222 million woodland leisure trips in England in 2002/3 (Anon., 2004) and 67% of adults in the UK made a leisure visit to a woodland in recent years, 50% of which were to woodlands in and around towns (Anon., 2003). Trees in urban forests are also beneficial in that, being large, they are excellent at filtering out particulate pollution (Beckett et al., 1998). Despite the benefits of urban woodlands, they are not immune to the effects of visitors. Littlemore and Barker (2003) have shown that oak woodland in the English Midlands can be remarkably sensitive to trampling. Bluebells Hyacinthoides non-scripta were particularly sensitive; the equivalent of 500 passes of a person on foot over one summer prevented the trampled plants from producing any seeds even 2 years later. Brambles Rubus fruticosus, with their tough, woody and flexible stems were very much more resistant.

In England, two major initiatives have been built around the need for urban forests. The National Forest (started in 1995) is a central government initiative to link two old forests (Needwood and Charnwood Forests) in central England, aiming to increase woodland cover from 6% to 33%, planting on farmland, derelict land and conurbations over an area of 50 200 ha (200 square miles). Emphasis is very much on recreation: 74% of the area will have public access. The other initiative was to set up Community Forests, starting in 1989. The aim of these is to improve degraded landscapes and provide for recreation and education in the countryside close to 12 major English towns. While this discussion has been on urban forests we should not ignore cultivated parks. Frederick Law Olmstead, landscape architect of New York City's Central Park, is said to have proclaimed that a city park was to 'provide a natural verdant and sylvan scenery for the refreshment of town-strained, men, women, and children'.

Despite the desire to visit woodland, many people live in places where access to natural woodlands is difficult, often due to ownership constraints. This is driven near major population centres by concerns about the likelihood of damage to the understorey vegetation from trampling. How are these beautiful natural ecosystems to be made available and how are they to be protected? A splendid example is provided by the seven miles of Wenlock Edge owned by the National Trust (NT) in the West Midlands of England. Access to this geologically interesting wooded escarpment is via a footpath leading from an NT car park in the village of Much Wenlock, Shropshire. The walk takes you over a series of Silurian rocks dipping towards the south-east (Toghill, 1990). A lane leads up over the Aymestry Limestone, down the Lower Ludlow Shales and up the dip slope of the Wenlock Limestones of the major escarpment. The two limestones have both been extensively quarried in the past; the soils to which they give rise are species-rich with some notable orchids in the woods and grasslands of the reserve. Well-situated notices draw attention to the geology, biota and the various routes available through the area. One of the most interesting woods here is Blakemore Coppice, whose upkeep is supervised by Forest Enterprise and in which repeated visits in spring are rewarded by a fine illustration of an aspect society, with huge vistas - and indeed the local air - dominated by ramsons Allium ursinum in late May. The paths are metalled with local stone and so many people can walk through the woods without damaging the delicate ground flora. This provision is expensive but vital for the continued biodiversity of a wood visited by people from Birmingham and further afield.

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