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The Urban Forest of the Future: How to Turn Cities Into Treetopias

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The Urban Forest of the Future: How to Turn Cities Into Treetopias
The Vertical Forest high-rise complex (Bosco Verticale) in Milan, as viewed from the Porta Nuova Gardens on October 28, 2019. Miguel Medina / AFP / Getty Images

By Alan Simson

The 21st century is the urban century. It has been forecast that urban areas across the world will have expanded by more than 2.5 billion people by 2050.

The scale and speed of urbanization has created significant environmental and health problems for urban dwellers. These problems are often made worse by a lack of contact with the natural world.

With research group the Tree Urbanistas, I have been considering and debating how to solve these problems. By 2119, it is only through re-establishing contact with the natural world, particularly trees, that cities will be able to function, be viable and able to support their populations.



Future Cities

The creation of urban forests will make cities worth living in, able to function and support their populations: Treetopias.

This re-design will include the planting of many more urban trees and other vegetation – and making use of new, more creative methods. Although we didn't fully realize it at the time, the 1986 Hundertwasserhaus in Vienna, a building that incorporated 200 trees in its design, was the start of more creative urban forestry thinking.

This has been carried on in Stefano Boeri's Bosco Verticale apartments in downtown Milan, which incorporates over 800 trees as part of the building. Similar structures are being developed around the world, such as in Nanjing in China and Utrecht in The Netherlands.

The urban forest needs to be designed as a first principle, part of the critical infrastructure of the whole city, not just as a cosmetic afterthought. We know for example that in 2015, urban forest in the UK saved the NHS over £1 billion by helping to reduce the impact of air pollutants. In 2119, we may well look back on this present time as the equivalent of the Victorian slum.

Trees can create places which can greatly improve our health and well-being. Our urban forest can give us the spaces and places to help manage our mental health and improve our physical health. Research has indicated for example that increasing the canopy cover of a neighborhood by 10% and creating safe, walkable places can reduce obesity by as much as 18%.

Cities Built on Trees

As rural areas become less productive as a result of climate change, cities – which previously consumed goods and services from a large hinterland – will have to become internally productive. Trees will be at the centre of that, contributing to the city energy balance through cooling, regulating and cleaning our air and water flows, and ensuring that our previously neglected urban soils function healthily.

Urban forests could also provide timber for building. We have a history of productive woodlands in the UK, yet alternative construction materials and a growth in an urban population with less knowledge of forest management means that the urban forest is rarely viewed as productive. We are now recognizing the potential productivity of the urban forest, as campaigns to stimulate homegrown timber markets and achieve more efficient management efficiencies are proving to be successful.

Furthermore, economic growth is still deemed to be the prime symbol of the effectiveness of a city, but we need to be equally aware of other invisible values. This will open up new approaches to governance. Governance needs to embrace all forms of value in a balanced way and facilitate a new vision, considering how trees can help create livable cities.

New Opportunities

As the urban population rises, we need to get better at understanding the breadth and diversity of the values held about our urban forest. Individual people can hold several distinct values at once, as urban forests may contribute to their wellbeing in different ways.

The current guardians of our urban forest, mainly local authority tree officers, spend much of their time managing risks rather than maximizing the opportunities of trees. They often receive complaints about trees and tree management, and it can sometimes be difficult to remember that people do care about trees. We need to develop viable partnerships between tree managers, community members and businesses to support trees in our cities.

Although the canopy cover of cities worldwide is currently falling, this is not the case in Europe, where it is increasing. Many European countries are acknowledging the fact that we have over-designed our towns and cities to accommodate the car, and now it is time to reclaim the public realm for our people – either pedestrians on foot or on bicycles.

Creative developments like the Hundertwasserhaus are not the only answer to creating Treetopia. We are and will continue to plant more street trees, urban groves and informal clusters of trees in our parks and green spaces. Treetopia has begun.

Alan Simson is a Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urban Forestry at Leeds Beckett University.

Disclosure statement: Alan Simson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

This story originally appeared in The Conversation and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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