What is a Tiny Forest and How Can They Improve Urban Environments?

what is a tiny forest

When you picture a forest what do you see?

You’re probably thinking of a large expanse of natural woodland, tree cover from one side to the other, healthy vegetation under the canopy and all situated in a countryside location.

A tiny forest aims to mimic such natural forests, bringing with it all the environmental and health benefits that a traditional forest can offer, but specifically designed for a small-spaced urban environment.

I live in an urban area and I think the idea of a tiny forest is brilliant. There’s no doubt that greenspace, trees and woodland increase life quality and community health.

It’s a simple idea but one that could have a large impact on city environments, air quality, biodiversity, local climate and people’s health. As I’m sure you know, it’s the simple ideas that are often the best.

What is a tiny forest?

A tiny forest is small area of densely packed, fast growing native trees.

The idea is for a tiny forest, sometimes known as a mini forest or micro forest, to transform a small urban barren plot into one packed with dense vegetation, trees and complex ecosystems. They can be planted anywhere there is the space available – next to a road, at a school, in a park, on brownfield land or in a back garden.

There are three main functions of a tiny forest:

  1. To halt the loss of local biodiversity in urban areas
  2. Decrease the impacts of climate change
  3. Increase the frequency of nature in urban areas for people to enjoy and appreciate
Tiny forest in the Netherlands
Tiny forest in the Netherlands. Source: IVN.nl

As the name suggests, the plot doesn’t have to be big to fit in a tiny forest. An area the size of a tennis court, roughly 200m2 is perfect. This sized space can pack in around 600 trees.

With 2 to 7 trees per square metre, the density of a tiny forest is much greater than normal forests. But there’s still room for the trees to grow and it’s been shown to work at thousands of locations across the worlds.

The mini forests aim to mimic natural forests by having a good mix of tree species – as many as 40 or more different species can be found in the small plot. The prevalence of green vegetation means a tiny forest can have 30 times more green surface area than a meadow.

Not only is a tiny forest great for carbon dioxide capture, it enhances local biodiversity and encourages community engagement during the planting of one and afterwards.

I think you’ll agree that the idea would result in something infinitely more beneficial and enriching to the environment and local people than a barren plot of land.

Major benefits of a tiny forest

There really are a lot of benefits associated with planting a tiny forest in an urban or city environment. Benefits include:

  • Rapid growth – up to 5 times faster than traditional single species tree planting schemes
  • Enhanced biodiversity – a tiny forest can attract 500 species of animals and plants on top of those planted within the first 3 years
  • Carbon dioxide absorption – the fast-growing mini forest can capture up to 30 times more CO2 than traditional tree planting operations after 4 years
  • Reduced air pollution – trees are natural filters and help to improve local air quality
  • Acoustic buffering – a tiny forest can provide up to 30 times better noise reduction
  • More resilient climate – a tiny forest can process 30,000 litres of rainfall helping to reduce the risk of local flooding and may even counter the heat island affect in cities
  • Improve mental health – many studies have shown the link between green spaces and enhanced feelings of long-term wellbeing

In the Netherlands, where the concept of tiny forests has been readily incorporated, researchers at Wageningen Environmental Research studied a mini forest planted in 2017 over the course of a year. They found that they housed greater levels of biodiversity, both in species number and individuals, that nearby native forests.

Tiny forest plot ready to be planted in europe
Tiny forest plot ready to be planted. Source: Urban-Forests.com

What is a Miyawaki forest?

Miyawaki forests is another name for tiny forests.

This name comes from Japanese botanist and plant expert, Akira Miyawaki, who specialises in the study of natural forests and the restoration of natural vegetation and native forests on barren land.  

The concept of a Miyawaki forest was first introduced by Akira Miyawaki after his work on woodland management in the 1970s and 1980s.

Miyawaki showed that rapid restoration of tree cover on poor quality ground was possible with his method of planting native tree species more densely together than usual and equipping them with mycorrhiza fungi on the root system. The result was a fast-growing small forest, with high biological diversity and good ecological resistance.

Use of the Miyawaki method to create tiny forests

The success of the Miyawaki method evolved to form the basis of the tiny forest concept, with the aim of increasing green areas and forest cover in urban areas.

Also playing a substantial role in the creation of tiny forests was Shubhendu Sharma, an Indian engineer who met Miyawaki whilst working at a Toyota factory – Miyawaki was visiting the factory to advise on planting a forest there!

Sharma was so impressed with Miyawaki that he planted his own tiny forest in his 75m2 garden. After a flourishing new forest grew, he went on to form his own company in 2011 called Afforestt, which creates tiny native forests in India. Fantastic. It’s Sharma who has really kicked on idea of a tiny forest. You can listen to Sharma’s TED talk here.

Now over the age of 90, Mr Miyawaki has helped people to plant over 1,700 of these mini forests, firstly in Japan and Malaysia, and now all over the world. It’s said there are now over 3,000 tiny forests worldwide.

tiny forest in the Netherlands planted under the guidance of Shubhendu Sharma
This tiny forest in the Netherlands was planted under the guidance of Shubhendu Sharma. Source: IVN.nl

Will we see mini forests in the UK?

Although the idea of a tiny forest has spread to Europe, it’s been a slow burner in terms of the number of countries taking up the practice.

The idea of a mini forest has grown more quickly in countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium and France who now have organisations, such as Urban Forests and IVN Nature Education, dedicated to the planting of tiny forests.

In the Netherlands, IVN Nature Education has helped to plant almost 100 tiny forests since 2015 and is on track to double that by 2022.

In the UK, it hasn’t quite caught on yet.

But in 2020 the UK welcomed its very first tiny forest! Planted in Oxfordshire and roughly the size of a tennis court, the plot was established in March 2020 thanks to the efforts of Witney Town Council with help from environmental charity, Earthwatch Europe. This first UK tiny forest is home to an amazing 600 trees, including birch, elder, blackthorn and dogwood.

Earthwatch are planning to plant 150 tiny forests in the UK by 2023 and have already secured funding for 15 more across the UK with the help of funding from Bristol-based OVO Foundation.

tiny forest uk in oxford witney first in the uk
The first official tiny forest planting in the UK. Source: Earthwatch

Wrap up on Tiny Forests

The UK needs to massively increase the area covered by woodland to stop species extinction and to meet carbon zero pledges. The main approaches to achieve this are going to come from natural regeneration, an approach favoured by Rewilding Britain, and tree planting, a more common, default approach to increasing woodland.

A tiny forest is different and is not touted as a replacement for native, wide-ranging forests. They can be a supplementation to the goals but will not achieve them on their own.

Instead, a tiny forest can be a fantastic addition to all urban and city areas, helping to contribute to the lower of carbon dioxide levels, increasing local biodiversity and bringing people much closer to nature with all the physical and mental benefits it brings. Trees and forests aren’t special pieces of nature that should only exist in the countryside, they need to be a part of urban life too.

A mini forest can encourage community engagement and help spark environmental passion in children and the young minds of tomorrow. We need this.

Although tiny forests are only just now emerging as an idea in the UK, I hope many councils, landowners, businesses and communities can get onboard and help green up our urban environments.

*Header image – Tiny forest in Netherlands. Source: IVN.nl


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