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Urban Reforestation, Lost in Statistics

ISFED's Blog
Tbilisi Mayor’s pre-election pledge to plant million trees was met by mixed reactions at the time of its unveiling. Some questioned feasibility of the initiative – where should the trees be planted? Who will take care of them? What is more important – quality or quantity?!

In light of the high public interest in the million trees initiative, ISFED applied to Tbilisi City Hall two times, requesting access to information about works undertaken within the project. Letters from the City Hall state that as of December 10, 2015, total of 426,524 trees have been planted, while two days before, on December 8, Tbilisi Mayor Davit Narmania announced during his presentation of the one-year progress report that about 480 thousand trees were planted within the million trees project. There is a significant discrepancy between the two statements made just days apart (53,476 trees, to be exact). 

Although since 2014, Tbilisi City Hall engaged in various greening activities, the Mayor’s statement about the scale and the timeframe of fulfillment of the initiative further intensified already existing doubts among the public. The first letter received on October 29, 2015, states that from fall planting in 2014 to October 22, 2015, total of 208,324 tree saplings were planted, while according to the second letter, 218,200 trees were planted from October 29 to December 2015. This suggests that far more trees were planted during a month and a half period in fall 2015 than throughout the period of one year, from 2014 to October 2015. 

In terms of rough estimates, from October 29 to December 10, i.e. in 42 days including weekends, at least 5,195 trees had to be planted to achieve those numbers. In addition, the first 208,324 trees were planted by the Plant Protection Enterprise Ltd. and six other contractors, while subsequent 218,200 trees were planted by the Plant Protection Enterprise Ltd. and two other companies only. Although the number of companies involved in the greening program decreased, the number of trees planted in the month and a half period was two times the number of trees planted during the period of one year by twice as many companies. 

There are questions about the program budget as well. Within the “million trees” program, City Hall’s Ecology and Greening Service purchased 1,093,647 laris’ worth of 452,180 plants in 2015, while the budget 2016 allocates 900,000 laris for purchasing 180,000 plants in 2016. 

Reforestation is the key to solving ecological problems in the city; however, the statistics and the quality are clearly at odds. Although the companies that won tenders announced by Tbilisi City Hall are contractually responsible to ensure 100% survival rate of the trees, upon expiration of the contract, these companies will no longer have any responsibility to take proper care, while the plants will remain under the ownership of Tbilisi City Hall. We examined trees planted within the program in several areas in Tbilisi and found that some of them were withered – e.g. on territories outside schools, even though the administration is likely to be more able to take care of the greenery there. Therefore, it is even more likely that the trees will be killed as a result of improper care on larger areas of reforestation, like those near Gldani Landfill, Tbilisi Sea. The fact that the City Hall plans to arrange irrigation systems in parallel with planting of the trees will likely increase the chances of survival; however, for more effectiveness, the authorities should have considered this ahead of time. 

As confirmed by examples from many developed countries, including Germany, it is very difficult to maintain and properly care for reforested areas. It took Germany 70 years to restore the green space in Berlin following World War II. 161 000 trees that survived the war were increase to up to 439 000 by 2014. 

The million trees program is not the invention of Tbilisi Mayor; rather, similar initiatives have been announced by City Mayors and non-governmental organizations in many countries. These projects are the result of environmental activities. Within these activities, cities like Los Angeles, New York, Shanghai, Denver and London (Ontario, Canada) have committed themselves to planting one million trees. 

It is interesting to take a look at how ambitious the million tree initiatives undertaken by these cities are. In 2006, Mayoral Candidate in Los Angeles made million trees one of his campaign promises, and started implementing the project after he won the elections. It was planned to fulfill the pledge by 2012. Similar initiative was unveiled in 2006 by Denver Mayor during his pre-election campaign, who pledged to plant million trees by 2025. It took eight years to realize the million-tree project in New York by 2015, while Shanghai finished the program in 2012 but continued to plant another million trees. In London (Ontario) total of 270,012 trees have been planted over the period of five years since 2011. While it takes about 5-8 years and a mix of donations and charities for developed cities like these to plant million trees, according to Tbilisi City Hall, about half a million trees were planted in Tbilisi in about a year. Clearly, the speed of planting doesn’t necessarily imply effectiveness of the initiative. 

As illustrated by the websites of the greening projects in these abroad cities, special emphasis is placed on involvement of citizens in planting, maintaining and monitoring reforested areas. Special education programs have been designed for schools, and workshops are held. In addition, people can sign up to become tree caregivers and take care of planted trees for a lengthy period of time. 

Such campaigns help raise awareness among population and contribute to improving ecological conditions in the long run. Regrettably, no such activities have been planned within Tbilisi million-tree program; the program does not foresee any educational campaigns for volunteers. 

The fact is that trees require considerable care and no sustainable results can be achieved by simply planting them. Within the million trees program, funds should be allocated for taking care of the reforested areas and implementing information activities, in order to avoid withering of trees as a result of poor caregiving.