In building the cities of the future, urban planners will have to think green.

Urban forestry and eco-sustainable infrastructure have become essential in the development of global cities, as researchers and governments explore new solutions to fight air pollution and climate changes in densely-populated areas.

According to United Nations' data, cities consume 75% of the world’s natural resources and account for more than 70% of global CO2 emissions and by 2030, 60% of the global population is expected to live in urban areas.

That’s why urban forestry becomes a key and smart investment. Recent studies by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) list the reduction of air and noise pollution, the positive effects on human health and wellbeing, the boost to local economy and the mitigation of extreme climatic events as only some of the beneficial effects of a well-developed network of parks, forests, street trees and other greens spaces.

Among the Far East countries, China has taken a great leap forward in planning eco-friendly urban solutions, as the government has made eco-cities part of its newest five-year plan. The Chinese leadership showed a sound management in urban planning and the country offers futuristic examples of how urban forests and green spaces can play a critical role in making cities and their inhabitants happier, healthier and resilient to global change.

China’s Liuzhou Forest City – designed by Italian “archistar” Stefano Boeri -- embodies this futuristic vision and turn it into reality.

It will be built in the north of Liuzhou, in the mountain area of Guangxi, the southern part of China, in an area that covers 175 hectares along the Liujiang river. The project, whose works will start by 2020, designs a city where offices, houses, hotels, hospitals and schools are entirely covered by plants and trees. The new forest city, entirely wired, will be connected to the city of Liuzhou through a fast rail line used by electric cars and will host various residential areas, commercial and recreational spaces, two schools and a hospital.

Once completed, the new city will host 30,000 people, absorb almost 10,000 tons of CO2 and 57 tons of pollutants per year, and produce approximately 900 tons of oxygen. The real innovation of Boeri’s project is the presence of plants and trees over every building, of all sizes and functions: Liuzhou Forest City will host a total of 40,000 trees and about 1 million plants of over 100 species.

Plant won’t be confined to parks and gardens or along the streets, but they’ll be all over building facades and will allow the energy self-sufficient city to contribute to improve the air quality, to decrease the average air temperature, to create noise barriers and to improve the biodiversity of living species, generating a natural habitat for birds, insects and animals living in the Liuzhou territory.

“For the first time in China and in the world, an innovative urban settlement will combine the challenge for energy self-sufficiency and for the use of renewable energy with the challenge to increase biodiversity and to effectively reduce air pollution in urban areas,” Boeri says. “This is really critical for China, thanks to the multiplication of vegetable and biological urban surfaces,” he adds in his description of the project.

With his "Vertical Forest" built in his hometown, Milan, Boeri has already tested his concept of “vertical densification of nature”, launching a model that has attracted great interest in China, where air pollution is a crucial problem.

Simone Borelli, agroforestry and urban forestry expert at FAO, notes that it is increasingly recognized that green infrastructure has a high -- tangible and intangible -- value.

“Every urban planning decision should take into account the overall benefits and costs of choosing one land use over another,” Borelli says in an interview with Infrastructure Channel. “Public administrators should view their urban forests as crucial infrastructure providing tangible benefits and values that enhance quality of life, safety, and public health,” he adds.

Borelli reminds that trees improve air quality by removing air pollutants; they cool cities by shading roads and buildings; reduce energy and air conditioning’s consumption and save money. Many tree species also produce edible products, contributing to urban food security and nutrition. And planting trees in public spaces and gardens can increase the aesthetic appeal of neighborhoods and the economic value of houses and properties.

In fact, the return on investment in urban forests far exceeds the cost of installation and maintenance compared with so-called grey infrastructure (human-engineered solutions that often involve concrete and steel) and should be considered a “smart deal” for decision-makers, administrators and citizens.

“Governments around the world have finally understood that urban green is a way to attract investments and tourism, boosting the attractiveness of cities for both inhabitants and visitors,” Borelli said.

However, planning ahead and fully integrating green infrastructure in large scale urban projects remains a critical issue.

“In the planning process, green infrastructure is often left in the end, it’s the last thing that architects and urban planners think about,” Stephen Sheppard, professor in urban forestry at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, tells Infrastructure Channel. “We need to plan green infrastructure from the beginning, especially in case of new or massive development projects. Otherwise, many good solutions risk being lost and the resilience of the project may be compromised,” he adds.

In Vietnam, where heavy investments in modern infrastructure have boosted the economy and attracted foreign investment, the government has also pushed forward with policies aimed at facing the impact of climate change on humans and eco-systems. The situation is particularly alarming in the Asian country: Extreme weather and snow in the North, with drought and salinity intrusion in the South Central and Mekong Delta regions, has seriously affected production and the daily activities of millions of people.

The Northern port city of Hai Phong is an example of how smart infrastructure can boost local and national economy and fuel international trade, but also raises risks for eco-sustainable and green urban development.

With its huge infrastructure investments, port access, and proximity to export markets, the city is now one of the major manufacturing and logistics hub in Vietnam and has become one the favorite destinations for foreign and domestic investors. In the first half of 2018, foreign direct investments have reached $1.26 billion, growing by more than 153% compared to the same period in 2017.

The Tan Vu-Lach Huyen highway and bridge are one of the biggest infrastructure projects in Hai Phong. It’s a 15.4 km highway, which also includes a 5.44 km sea-crossing bridge, one of the longest in Southeast Asia. The highway will link the Hanoi-Haiphong Expressway to the new Lach Huyen Port, a deep-water port in Cat Hai Island. The new port, whose estimated costs will top $1 billion, will double the region’s shipping capacity, putting it on a par with the Ho Chi Minh City’s port in the South.

Studies by experts and international organizations, however, warn that massive urbanization and economic growth in Hai Phong can pose serious environmental risks including: increased greenhouse gas emissions from industry and transport; rapid depletion of underground water sources; pollution of water sources from untreated commercial, medical, domestic and agricultural waste water and inefficient waste management. Furthermore, Hai Phong ranks among the 20 cities most vulnerable to coastal flooding due to climate change.

A 2016 study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on green growth issues in Hai Phong called for cross-sectoral planning to tackle environmental issues comprehensibly and suggested that to achieve its green growth objectives the government needs more citizen engagement in decision making.     

To address some of those challenges, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has recently approved adjustments to the master plan on socio-economic development of the Hai Phong city, with a vision to 2030.

Under the master plan, Hai Phong will be developed into a modern “green port city” with breakthrough economic growth and a competitive service and industrial center. The project is to transform it into a key coastal economic area for the country and a center of education and training, health and science-technology, and also serve as a crucial traffic hub.

By 2020, the city’s population is expected to reach 2.1 million people with an urbanization rate of 50% to 55%.

The city plans to focus on promoting the development of the service, industry-construction, agro-forestry and aquaculture sectors. Particular attention will be paid to developing seaport services, logistics, airlines, finance-banking, trade, tourism, education-training and healthcare.

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