This is a tale of two ancient cities where the trees determined their fate. In 3000 BC, The city of Warka was more densely populated than New York today. This busy metropolis had to keep expanding the irrigation system to meet the needs of a growing population. In Sri Lanka after 2,500 years, the city of Anuradhapura faced a similar problem. They were constantly multiplying as well. The same way as the city of Warka depended upon their irrigation system, so did Anuradhapura rely on an accurate irrigation system.
As Warka grew, its farmers began cutting down trees to make room for more crops. However, in Anuradhapura trees were considered sacred. Their city includes a branch of the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha himself was said to have reached enlightenment. Religious sanctification slowed logging and even led the city to plant more trees in urban parks. At first the Warka expansion was successful. But without the trees that filter their water sources, the irrigation system in Warka became polluted. The evaporation of the water left mineral deposits which made the soil too salty for cultivation.
On the contrary, the Anuradhapura irrigation system was designed to function in harmony with the surrounding forest. Their city eventually grew to more than twice the population of Warka. Even today Anuradhapura still tends to a tree that was planted two thousand years ago.
We might think that nature is not connected to our urban spaces. But trees have always been an essential part of successful cities. Trees act like natural sponges, absorbing rainwater before it is released back into the atmosphere. Their root networks protect from mudslides while allowing the soil to retain water and purify toxins. Roots help prevent floods, While reducing the need for storm drainage and water treatment plants. Its porous leaves filter the air by trapping carbon and other pollutants. This makes them essential in the fight against climate change.
Humanity has known the benefits of urban trees for centuries. But trees aren’t just important to city infrastructure. Rather, it plays a major role in the health of its citizens as well. In the 1870s, Manhattan had a few trees outside the island gardens. Without trees to provide shade, buildings absorb up to nine times more solar radiation during the deadly summer heat waves. Besides the poor sanitation standards for that period, the sweltering heat made the city a breeding ground for bacteria such as cholera.
In modern Hong Kong, skyscrapers and underground infrastructure made it difficult to grow trees. This contributes to dangerously poor air quality. This can cause bronchitis and reduced lung function. Trees affect our mental health too. Research indicates that having green foliage increases attention span and reduces stress levels. It also showed hospital patients who had wall views recover more slowly than those with tree landscapes.
Fortunately many cities are full of sights like these. This is not an accident. As early as the nineteenth century, city planners began to realize the importance of trees. In 1733, Colonel James Oglethorpe planned the city of Savannah, Georgia. The plans were made to ensure that no neighborhood was more than a 2-minute walk from a park. After World War II, Copenhagen directed all new developments along five arteries, each of them is located between two parks. This design increased the resilience of the city against pollution and natural disasters.
Urban trees don’t just benefit people. Portland Forest Park preserves the area’s natural biodiversity which makes the city home to many local plants, 112 species of birds, and 62 species of mammals.
No city is more tree-preserved than Singapore. Since 1967, the Singapore government has planted more than 1.2 million trees. Including trees of 50 meters high which are called super trees. These structures supply themselves and adjacent buildings with solar energy and collected rainwater. Trees and plants currently cover more than 50% of Singapore’s land area. This reduces the need for air conditioning and low-pollution transport is encouraged.
By 2050, it is estimated that more than 65% of the world’s population will live in cities. City planners can develop an environmentally friendly system. The ball is in the court of the people who live in these urban jungles to make them homes for more than humans.
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