Why Cariocas don’t want trees

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The following is a great longread I translated titled “Reconciling Rio’s residents and trees”, by Vozerio from late 2015

It is estimated that there are between 800 thousand and 1 million trees in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Although the quantity is not known with certainty, their importance to the city’s climate is indisputable: according to experts, a single tree can lower the temperature in a way that’s equivalent to five air-conditioners.

At the same time they make the climate less threatening, trees end up causing problems for citizens: broken or dirty sidewalks and falling hazards. All this creates disagreement among city residents, and many of them are often opposed to planting new vegetation.

In order to reconcile these two types of individuals – humans and, in technical language, arboreal – the city’s technicians have developed a study that promises to make the relationship between the parties more friendly: the first Plan for Urban Forestry in Rio de Janeiro (PDAU), a document of more than 400 pages that establishes guidelines for the “implantation, monitoring, evaluation, conservation and expansion of urban afforestation” of the capital.

The document was open for public consultation until the beginning of December 2015 and is forecasted in Rio de Janeiro’s Sustainable Urban Development Master Plan, which aims to improve the climatic and environmental conditions of the city.

The relevance of such a plan could not be greater in the present context: as if it weren’t enough to have a winter in which the thermometers in the city were often above 30 degrees (86F), including reaching a record high for the season, summer promises to be one of the hottest ever registered in the country.

In the medium and long term, as in the case of the planet, Rio also becomes increasingly hot: in his doctoral thesis, geographer Andrews Lucena, of the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ), found that the average soil temperature of the metropolitan area increased by more than 20 degrees between 1984 and 2010. It’s currently approaching 70 degrees in some areas.

According to Flávio Telles, a forest engineer from the Parks and Gardens Foundation (FPJ), a single tree can increase the thermal comfort perceived by a person in its shadow by up to 4 degrees. When combined, the benefit is even greater: the Lucena study found that the soil surface temperature in parks was on average ten degrees lower than their surroundings.

In addition to these thermal benefits are others such as the prevention of respiratory and skin diseases, the prevention of floods by the absorption of rainwater, the improvement of air quality, sheltering of wild animals and the reduction of noise pollution – in addition to obvious scenic advantages.

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Trees, however, are far from inert entities in the urban landscape. “The wrong tree in the wrong place,” to overturn the experts’ formula, may involve problems ranging from sidewalks broken by roots to sidewalks where heavy fruits fall on the heads of passers-by, including leaves that do not break down and clog manholes and even vegetables that produce strong rotten odors (such as Stereophony Foetida, common in some parts of the city).

For problems like these, the population’s dissatisfaction with the vegetation along their public roads is usually high. In the June 2014 bulletin of Sistema 1746, a city hall service that takes note of criticism and praise for the city’s administration, tree-related complaints were the three most frequent – pruning, removal and risk of falling, respectively.

The science of urban afforestation investigates the best ways to prevent and mitigate these problems. Their analyses determine which species should be planted in public areas, how pruning should be done, which areas should be prioritized at the time of planting, and what plans can be made to avoid falling down in extreme weather events, among others.

All this, however, requires planning and coordination – tasks that the PDAU, precisely, intends to fulfill. The motto of the plan is – according to forest engineer Telles and the architect Roberto Rocha, from the Department of Environment and working for the FPJ –  “the right tree for the right place”. The technicians refer to plantations that harmonize with urban life, respecting the specificity of each situation, maximizing the benefits and minimizing the complications caused by trees.

And when you listen to Telles talk about the present state of afforestation in the capital, the approval of the plan acquires a character of urgency: “Today we do afforestation by walking through the city. And we walk a lot.”

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Trees left to their own luck

The main public administrators of urban afforestation in the capital today are FPJ and Comlurb. The main attributions of the first are the planning and afforestation projects, while Comlurb is responsible for the conservation and maintenance of the garden beds, squares and parks and for the pruning of trees.

Afforestation management was divided up in 2008, when a municipal decree, considering “economy of scale that will increase productivity and effectiveness”, and that conservation and weeding work were already partially carried out by Comlurb, transferred to them competences historically undertaken by FPJ.

This has been one of FPJ’s losses of competences over the years. In addition to this, there are also analyses for the removal of vegetation, transferred almost entirely to the Secretary of Environment in 2004, and others, such as the maintenance of parks and squares, transferred to Comlurb in 2009.

In addition to these organs, Light is also participating in public afforestation, performing the pruning of trees in conflict with the electric grid, and planting concessionaires, which are planted in places determined by FPJ. Currently, all the trees planted in the city are due to two legal mechanisms. One is a law that binds the ‘Habitat’ grant to the planting of trees. This determination today is responsible for 85% of the planting carried out in the city. Another law stipulates planting as a compensatory measure, like, for example, in case of the removal of some vegetation.

The fragmentation of tasks among so many actors brings with it unwanted consequences: research carried out at the request of the City of Rio with technicians from Comlurb, FPJ and the Department of Environment pointed out the lack of integration between municipal agencies and concessionaires as the major obstacle of the city’s public afforestation.

“Sometimes a tree is removed by Comlurb and the plot is empty for months, without a replacement, because we don’t know that we need to plant there,” exemplifies Telles. The removal of waste and poor-quality pruning performed by Light are other problems pointed to as a result of the difficulty of communication generated by the compartmentalisation of responsibilities.

More than that, FPJ’s gradual loss of competencies corresponded to an emptying of the agency, which is still responsible for the planning of public afforestation. Founded in 1869, the institution currently has 35 people on its Board of Arborization and Plant Production, of which only 10 have higher education. The most recent technical team was put together in 1988 and can retire as a whole in 2019, while the foundation’s percentage of participation in relation to the city’s total budget fell from 0.23% in 2005 to 0.05% in 2013 .

Without planning, the city trees are left to their own devices. As it was said at the beginning of the story, no one knows for sure how many trees there are in Rio. Just as it isn’t known which ones need pruning, they are in conflict with electric wiring or sidewalks, require phytosanitary care or need to be replaced. Speaking on a wider scale, no one knows which neighborhoods and streets need the most trees. Questions that PDAU intends to embrace in its entirety.

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Individual tree census is the backbone

The first measure that the Master Plan establishes is the coming together of afforestation management skills in a single body, seeking greater efficiency and effectiveness. The plan doesn’t determine whether centralization of management corresponds to the recovery of competencies by FPJ or to the creation of a new body, but its objectives are to integrate policies and to appraise urban arborization planning, with a unified budget and structure.

From then on, it becomes technical. According to forestry engineer Isabella Lobato, who was loaned to the FPJ from the Department of Environment, the priority is to make a complete inventory of the city’s trees. “Without it, we could not move forward. The census completely changes the management of the city’s trees,” she said at the first public presentation of the plan, held at the Casa de Rui Barbosa in Botafogo.

The plan foresees that, over two years, all trees on public roads, in the city’s squares and parks will be classified, including with qualitative and quantitative information. The expectation is to know the conditions and location of each of the city’s trees exactly. This data will be gathered into an integrated system and then made public through a virtual tool.

The app Un alcorque, un árbol, that’s to inventory Madrid’s trees, is taken by the technicians as a model. In it, users can know where each tree is, its species, size, sex, the shape of its crowns and when they were last surveyed, among other data. Should any “individual” need any intervention, it’s possible to fill out an online application.

From the inventory, another 13 programs will be implemented, covering various stages of afforestation, from tree conservation to support for research and environmental education.

The seedling production program, for example, aims to produce plants with diversity and quality, capable of withstanding planting. Specifically due to vandalism, 26% of the seedlings planted today are lost – the index surpassed 50% by 2007. According to Telles, the seedling of a rare plant can cost up to 10,000 dollars.

The importance of diversity, in turn, is a health issue for the trees themselves: to prevent epidemics, no species can exceed 10% of the amount of trees in a city. Currently, it is estimated that only three species – monguba, oiti and almond tree – account for more than 50% of the trees in Rio.

Other programs and subprograms foresee the execution of prunings in order to guarantee leafy forms, as well as to ensure harmonious living together with the urban environment, the expansion of municipal gardens, the creation of tax incentives, and the encouragement of the adoption of squares and parks, among many others.

One of the subprograms that deserves special mention is the use of waste, for the production of seedlings or commercialization as firewood. A study determined that waste that’s currently unused, if sold, could generate annual revenue of over US$637,000.

The amount corresponds to about one-third of the annual costs foreseen by the Master Plan: its budget is around US$1.89 million per year. With an expected duration of 10 years, the PDAU organized activities for the first five years of its implementation, with the idea that, after this time, goals be reviewed and evaluated.

In order to be valid, after public consultation is finished, the plan will depend on a normative act that grants it the power of law, as a governmental decree. In order for its effectiveness to take place rapidly and without the document being altered to deform it, an ally would be important, which up to now has been the greatest obstacle to the plan: a large part of the population itself.

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The difficult relationship between individual trees & humans in the city

“If city hall wants to cool down the city, it should install air conditioning inside buses. If I have to, I’d even cross the desert on foot. For me, they could knock down all the trees.” The statement by Denier Ramos, a resident of Méier, is not just a provocation.

Ramos was one of the residents of Rua Coração de Maria that, about a month ago, rejected the planting of trees in that region. There were two reasons for this: firstly, in an emergency, an ambulance could no longer come onto the sidewalk in front of her building; Secondly, a tree could serve as a hiding place for robbers.

Several of her neighbors have also claimed that criminals could hide behind trees, which, while suggesting that robberies there are in fact very common, also exemplifies the kind of reason used to reject vegetation in the city .

FPJ technicians say they are finding resistance to a recent afforestation project in the Zona Norte neighborhood, where out of more than 500 seedlings planned, only a little more than 50 have been planted so far. Officials would have legal autonomy to plant them against the will of the people, but their experience says that when tree planting is imposed, vandalism is common later.

The reasons alleged by the residents are many: ranging from obstructing the visibility of a business to fears about possible sidewalk destruction and electrical problems.

On the other side of Meier, on the most tree-lined and busiest crossroads of Dias da Cruz, however, conversing with more than ten people, several opposed planting trees, but none argued that the plants would serve as a hiding place for thieves. Nor does it seem likely for residents of Rua Paissandu in Flamengo who used a similar argument to refer to their imperial palms, or the inhabitants of Dias Ferreira in Leblon – which indicates that there is no relationship, at least a positive one, between criminality and afforestation (a study conducted in the United States, however, found that trees reduce crime by up to 7% – no similar investigations were found in Brazil).

Everything indicates that one of the greatest challenges for the execution of the PDAU will be the prejudice of the population, which finds imaginary motivations for old problems that no longer exist. “People remember how tree planting was done wrongly, and they don’t let us try a new way,” says Telles. “The tree that people like most is always the one in the neighbor’s yard,” adds architect Rocha.

Because of these obstacles, the Master Plan includes an education program, which pervades all other project activities. An example of how this program can be successful is today in Freguesia, on Três Rios road.

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Reforestation of the road was one of the winning projects of the Rio 450 Contest, which rewarded initiatives to improve the city. According to Professor Alice Giannini, who enrolled the project in the contest, her intention was to recover a characteristic of the neighborhood that was lost:

“Formerly, the slogan of the buildings here was ‘Come and live with nature!’. So many came that the old, large, tree-lined plots were almost all replaced by buildings and the neighborhood became very hot,”she said.

The project thus provided for the planting of 185 trees along the road. In its first stage, however, only 53 were planted. Rejection came mainly from shopkeepers, who wished to use the sidewalks as a parking lot – illegally.

Since then, an intense effort has begun on the part of the inhabitants of the region, not only for the planting, but also for the adoption of seedlings, which in their first year, need to be watered three times a week.

The mobilization, which included door-to-door visits and panflets, brought results: after months of work, the 185th seedling was planted in September. – Source (PT)

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