How micro-forests are bringing nature back to Jordan's cities

Ultra-dense forests are springing up in Jordan as part of a movement aimed at restoring native ecosystems

A three-year-old micro-forest at a private property in Amman. Photos: Marta Vidal
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Asphalt and concrete spread across the densely-populated eastern neighbourhoods of Amman. Only a few trees dot a dry, dusty park tucked away in the suburb of Marka.

But over the last year, the local park has been receiving unusual visitors.

“We are seeing a lot of bees, butterflies, many different birds,” says Omar Sharif, who has been working at the park as a guard for more than two decades. “A hoopoe came to visit, the king of birds,” he says excitedly, scrolling through his phone, pausing to show a blurry photo of a fox he also spotted in the park for the first time.

In November, 780 seedlings of 18 different species were planted on about 250 square metres of the park, as part of an initiative to create dense micro-forests in Jordan. Animals used to be a rare sight in the arid park, but this small patch of lush green is bringing a few surprising changes.

“I’ve been working here since 2004, and I’ve never seen so many animals coming,” says the park’s director, Sami Shawarba.

The tiny forest is an initiative by Jordanian architect Deema Assaf and Japanese forester Nochi Motoharu. The duo received support from the German development agency GIZ to create green infrastructure and improve living conditions in disadvantaged areas in east Amman, in partnership with the city’s municipality.

To design the forest, Assaf and Motoharu used a method based on the work of the Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki, who planted over 3,000 rapid growth forests in Japan, Malaysia and other countries around the world. “The method restores original vegetation, and requires minimal irrigation and maintenance,” explains Assaf.

A plant ecologist, Miyawaki pioneered a method to quickly regenerate native forests on degraded land. Based on the concept of potential natural vegetation – the greenery that would exist in an area without human intervention – the method involves selecting a wide variety of native species adapted to local conditions and planting them closely together on soil enriched with natural fertilisers.

Planted closely together in layers that recreate a natural forest, the saplings compete for light and grow faster. Designed to accelerate the establishment of a mature and self-sustaining forest, this method can be reproduced anywhere.

“In the beginning, most of the seedlings were only about 30 centimetres. They grew so much in just one year,” says Sharif, who is responsible for inspecting the soil’s humidity and watering the plants whenever it gets too dry.

But regular irrigation will only be needed for another year. “After the first two to three years, the forest will become self-reliant and will no longer require maintenance,” says Motoharu.

Even though it was developed in the 1970s, Miyawaki’s method to accelerate the restoration of natural vegetation was only popularised in recent years. In 2009, Miyawaki created a forest at a Toyota factory in India. Impressed by its rapid growth, Shubhendu Sharma, who worked there as an engineer, decided to try the method in his own backyard. The results encouraged him to start a company, Afforestt, aimed at creating similar forests around the world and guiding others with instructions on starting their own greening initiatives.

According to Sharma, Miyawaki forests can grow 10 times faster, become 30 times denser and have 100 times more biodiversity than conventional plantations.

Recent studies have shown that natural forests can store 40 times more carbon than single-species plantations. Besides improving biodiversity and sequestering carbon, urban forests can also help balance water cycles, cool surrounding areas, improve air quality and boost the health and well-being of city dwellers.

“The people who live near the park are very happy,” says Sharif, who is also from the area. “At first they didn’t believe the plants would grow so quickly, but now they are seeing how just after a year they are already so big,” he says, pointing to a pistachio tree almost two metres high.

The Middle East is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, according to the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, and seeing a dramatic increase in air pollution, which could make many cities in the region uninhabitable before the end of the century.

As one of the world’s most water-scarce countries, Jordan is particularly vulnerable to climate change. Prolonged droughts and flash floods are becoming increasingly common. In 2018, disastrous floods swept the country, killing more than 30 people.

“Native forests can help prevent flash foods, and counter heat in cities,” says Motoharu. Because of their potential to retain water, forests can buffer the effects of heavy rainfall and drought, and help tackle extreme weather events.

Studies have also shown that forests are the best way to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Aware that forests are simple but effective tools to combat climate change, Assaf and Motoharu decided to join forces to restore Jordan’s vegetation cover. After attending a workshop on Miyawaki forest creation organised by Afforestt in India, the duo became determined to try the method in Amman.

In November 2018, they created the first Miyawaki forest in the Arab world. The pilot project was developed in the backyard of a private home in Amman whose owner decided to support the initiative. What used to be 107 square metres of lawn was planted with 380 trees and shrubs of 23 different indigenous species.

“Instead of growing short-lived species, it’s better to invest in long-lived native plants that build soil, attract rain, provide habitats for different species and are adapted to the local weather,” says Assaf.

Since local nurseries had very few native saplings and there was a lack of available documentation on native ecosystems, Assaf and Motoharu started conducting their own research, surveying forests in Jordan to identify native species and harvest the seeds. So far, they have collected over 40 local species. Several of them are endangered.

To get more people interested in native biodiversity, they also started hosting workshops and inviting volunteers to take part in seed harvesting and seed processing. They say the purpose of these activities is to share knowledge about native species.

Volunteers joined the initiatives to plant hundreds of saplings. By involving local communities in the efforts to green the landscape, the project also aims to foster cooperation and responsibility for shared spaces. “The method is labour and resource-intensive in the beginning when compared with conventional greening models, but it is a worthwhile investment,” says Assaf.

Implementation costs in Amman reached about 70 Jordanian dinars ($98) per square metre. But Motoharu says that in the long-term, the method is a better investment than conventional plantations because it doesn’t require maintenance, and can sustain itself.

“We’re creating a natural ecosystem that will regenerate for thousands of years,” says Assaf. “It’s a forever forest.”

In only three years, most of the saplings planted in the private backyard in Amman have grown into trees over three metres high, and the forest no longer requires maintenance.

Although micro-forests cannot replace the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions, and can never replace large tracts of natural forests, restoring greenery is one of the easiest, cheapest and most effective solutions to tackle the environmental problems of urbanisation and climate change. "By restoring indigenous forests, we are creating more sustainable cities,” Motoharu says.

“We are losing hundreds, if not thousands of trees every year,” says Assaf. “Our work is about bridging the gap between us and nature. It’s about inviting nature back to the city.”

Updated: December 15, 2021, 7:09 AM