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Welcome back, woods

The commitment of the institutions with measures that focus on the protection of wooded areas and the redistribution of green spaces in urban centers.

by Maria Pia Rossignaud
22 September 2020
5 min read
byMaria Pia Rossignaud
22 September 2020
5 min read

If we’re to combat CO2 emissions, which are the main cause of climate change, we need not just targeted policies and radical changes, but trees. Forests and woods are among our main allies in this fight. It’s no coincidence that all over the world people are looking more carefully at their natural heritage.

While alarm grows elsewhere, in Italy the year 2020 has marked a historic date: the country hasn’t been this wooded for centuries. This is revealed in a report, Global Forest Resources Assessment, also known as ‘FRA 2020’, written by the Italian authorities and recently published as part of a five-yearly review of the world's forests by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). According to the cross-sector group of bodies involved in the study, from the Ministry of Agricultural Policies to ISTAT, woods and forests are gradually creeping back over abandoned countryside, and now cover 300,000 hectares more than they did. To give an overall picture, to date these occupy almost 40% of the national surface area. In the last five years the increase in percentage was 2.9%, but in the previous 30 years it was 25% and in the last 80 as high as 75%. In other words, before the Second World War, Italy was two thirds less green than now. How is that possible? First off, because the countryside was abandoned. Until the middle of the last century, Italy was mostly a peasant society, 60% of whose people lived in the countryside, and most fruit and vegetables were grown in home soil. Later, with the advent of the so-called economic boom, Italian people began to desert the countryside in favour of towns and cities, and the land left behind went slowly from wasteland back into woods and forests. According to some estimates, you would have to go back several centuries to see the peninsula so green.

A biodiversity which helps Italy

It should be noted that these “new” woods often spring up near urban areas and are therefore more prone to pollution or fire. They’re not yet systematically managed and they’re often natural areas without direct control or protection mechanisms. Fortunately though, again according to the ‘FRA 2020’ report, our forests are very rich in biodiversity. They are more sustainable for all forms of life than, for example, Central European forests, where species diversity appears to be lower. In the last few years, too, they’ve been of great help to climate, having made a big contribution to absorbing CO2 and getting Italy within the limits set out in the Kyoto protocol.

But even a flourishing ecosystem like this isn’t immune to the big climactic shifts the planet’s been through recently. Rising temperatures and extreme weather have led to devastating droughts and fires destroying wide areas, like Storm Vaia in 2018. The wave of fires in 2017, for example, produced so much carbon dioxide as to cancel out its absorption by Italian forests. We’re witnessing interesting phenomena, what you might call migrations, for the same reason. Some plant species are moving to new latitudes and altitudes, in search of fresher and wetter climates.

Preserve the vitality of the woods

Italian woods, about two thirds of them subtropical, with oaks, pines and other Mediterranean trees, and the other third temperate, with beeches, are proving dynamic and adaptable. Our woods are just as keen to stay alive as the animal species we tend to think more of. To protect our woods is to protect the air we breathe, and therefore ourselves. Fortunately initiatives aren’t lacking. The EU has come up with a series of economic and regulatory measures to protect and improve the biodiversity of natural areas in the bloc.

This ambitious plan rests essentially on three guidelines: transforming at least 30% of the EU's land and sea into well-managed protected areas; restoring degraded ecosystems across the EU, creating the conditions for profound change; and based on that change, ensuring member states make policies and partnerships to support centres for educating people on biodiversity.

Urban forestation also plays a leading role according to the Italian Minister of the Environment, Sergio Costa, who told the news agency SIR: "The municipal governments are the garrisons for local areas throughout Italy, progenitors of a new way of looking at urbanisation.” His words will help spread the idea of bringing greenery into urban areas, of planting trees for reasons other than making squares shadier or city streets more beautiful. Happily there is already great awareness in some places, as evidenced by the many projects in Italian cities, like “Forestami”, which plans to get three million new trees and shrubs planted in the city and municipality of Milan by 2030.

Often the main problem in towns and cities is the availability of land. That’s why projects like the architect Stefano Boeri’s are increasingly important. For example, the Prato Urban Jungle relies on a new concept of open spaces and green areas for the city, where nature helps actively protect its citizens’ health.

The municipal governments are the garrisons for local areas throughout Italy, progenitors of a new way of looking at urbanisation

by Sergio Costa, Italian Minister of the Environment

More green in the cities

As Enrico Pompei, head of the national and international forestry policy office of the Ministry of Agriculture, noted in an interview with Il Sole 24 Ore: “Space can be found in urban and semi-urban woods for creating so-called ‘bio-cities’. It’s a big effort that will see millions of trees planted and alleviate heat waves in urban areas, as well as create new job opportunities”.