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Pocket (Forests) Full of Change

📷 Ricardo Cardim (left) stands with a volunteer planter among an already rich array of biodiversity which has taken hold in the Potato Grove pocket forest.

There are amazing things going on around the world to restore urban forests. Knowledgeable people are making it possible for thousands of locals to participate in regenerating ecosystems in their own backyard, not just for a fun day of tree-planting, but to create better, safer and more productive spaces to enjoy within the city.

Ricardo Cardim of São Paulo, Brazil is an example of this movement. He has a Masters in Botany, and he heads up the landscape design firm, Cardim Arquitetura Paisagística. While his company delivers landscape architecture projects for corporate and private clients, he has reached near celebrity status in São Paulo for his work to bring back the native forests of Brazil’s southeastern region, the Mata Atlântica or the Atlantic Forest. This highly biodiverse biome spans parts of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina and has been significantly deforested, as illustrated in this map (see below) that shows the boundaries of the natural forest before European settlement.

The Atlantic Forest has been deforested by as much as 85%, and significantly more within the city of São Paulo. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, this rich natural landscape has a hope of significant regeneration in one of the world’s megacities thanks to the efforts of knowledgeable and dedicated defenders of the forest such as Ricardo Cardim and the dedicated funders and volunteers.

I had a chance to interview Ricardo recently about his unique approach, which includes planting what have become known as Florestas de bolso (“pocket forests”), to understand the impact this initiative is having, and to inspire others to get involved in São Paulo and beyond.

Following are highlights of our shared conversation.

B. Lorraine Smith: You have created quite a lot of excitement about planting pocket forests in São Paulo. What is a pocket forest and approximately how many have you planted so far?

Ricardo Cardim: The pocket forest is an urban reforestation technique used to reintroduce native biodiversity by reproducing the natural dynamic of a forest, including a high degree of species competition and diversity. The result is a native forest that grows quickly – up to eight meters in three years! – and that requires very little maintenance or irrigation. In cities, the pocket forest approach can be applied in a space as small as 15 meters square.

Since 2013, we have already planted nineteen pocket forests including on building roofs, bridges, public parks, boulevards and private lots, comprising a total over 7,400 newly planted native trees in São Paulo. These pocket forests have been resourced by generous private supporters, and planted largely by volunteers, including older community members as well as children, with hundreds of people participating in these planting events. And I should also note: this urban reforestation effort hasn’t cost the local government one penny – it is all covered by private donations.

BLS: If someone wanted to see a pocket forest in action in São Paulo, which place would you recommend?

RC: I would suggest the Bosque de Batata (the “Potato Grove”) in São Paulo’s Pinheiros neighborhood located at the intersection of Rua Pais Leme and Rua Padre Carvalho. This 600 square meter pocket forest in a public space is now a young representative of the Atlantic Forest – the original forests that grew here – replacing what was an abandoned lot full of litter and construction debris, where the only greenery was an invasive, foreign grass species. This land had very dry soil, essentially a type of clay with very little organic matter, so we brought in excavation equipment to remove the litter and poor soil, and exposed the fertile, dark earth hidden beneath, which was nourished over centuries by the river that flowed there before the city displaced it.

In May 2017, 400 people planted 400 trees native to the Atlantic Forest, ranging from 50cm to 3m in height. And now the forest is very green, with more than 2.5 meters of growth already (see banner photo above; pictured below is the "Potato Grove" shortly after planting).

BLS: What was the state of the Atlantic Forest before European settlers came to Brazil? What happened after that?

RC: It was a very different forest from what the present generation has inherited. It was an extraordinarily biodiverse forest, with giant, centuries-old trees that reached 40m in height and 12m in diameter at the trunk.

Before European settlement, the Atlantic Forest comprised as much as 1.5 million square kilometers whereas today that has been vastly reduced – especially in the city of São Paulo where less than 3% of the original forest covers remains. Almost all of this was destroyed leading up to the 1960s, and today it is very difficult to see old growth Atlantic Forest – we have now but a shadow of what it was, unfortunately.

There were different cycles of economic forces through the history of Brazil’s settlement, principally plantations of coffee and sugar cane in the 1500s, and then coffee in 1800s. These industrial waves represented an early pattern of deforestation that has continued with other human activities since then. Urbanization is also a factor, where São Paulo has grown from a city of approximately 250,000 people in 1900, to two million in 1950. And now in 2017 there are over 20 million people. This combination – industry plus urbanization – has put huge pressure on the Atlantic Forest.

BLS: What motivated you to work towards bringing back the Atlantic Forest?

RC: The main thing was that 90% of Brazilians today live in cities, and in these cities – even in green spaces and gardens – 90% of the vegetation is comprised of non-native species, imported through production centres in the Netherlands, Japan and the United States. Brazilians don’t have their own native greenery – their biodiversity, which is the richest in the world – as part of their daily lives anymore.

The species of the Atlantic Forest in the city have been swapped for constructed spaces and foreign plants. And I believe that what we don’t recognize and understand, we don’t preserve.

For this reason, I came to the idea of restoring the Atlantic Forest in the everyday lives of Brazilians.

BLS: Is there another model for this in other cities/ecosystems that you have seen working well?

RC: In New York City, I was very impressed to see the work being done with native species on the High Line, in Central Park and in public spaces. Although I noticed there are mostly foreign species in the majority of private gardens in New York, too. This is a global challenge we have.

BLS: Like any major urban center, São Paulo has a lot of different forces at play. How do you navigate all the different local issues to create pocket forests?

RC: The biggest challenge is that the governments don’t formally support us, which means they don’t enable us with new regulations and they don’t authorize new areas to be planted. If the government helped to authorize new pocket forests, we would already have many more of them – this is something that we hope will change over time. All the pocket forests we’ve already planted have been done through donations from people as a gift to the city, and we also have great support through the media – both television and newspapers. So, all this support from many actors – even without the government on board – makes it possible.

BLS: In your most hopeful vision, what does São Paulo look like 25 years from now?

RC: Twenty-five years into the future, I hope that São Paulo is a city that has changed in a way that harmonizes the comforts of modern life with the biodiversity that was here long ago. It has changed from being a city that incentivizes the use of more cars at any cost as was the norm in the 20th century, to being a city that has regenerated the richness of its original biodiversity, and in doing so, it has improved the health and well-being of all who live here.

BLS: For those outside of São Paulo, what message would you have for them about their own local forest or biodiversity heritage?

RC: I believe that anyone can come to truly understand forested and naturalized urban spaces for aspects that are far beyond their beauty, encompassing the function they carry out, providing a connection with – and an education about – local native species, and providing community and ecosystem services through biodiversity. We would like to see people let go of the idea that gardens are for decoration, like a shop or a living room. Gardens are a means of rebalancing the native vegetation with our built environment, providing a fundamental link between the natural and the artificial.

BLS: What's next for pocket forests in São Paulo, and how can others get involved if they're interested?

📷 Aerial photo of the abandoned gas station in the Pinheiros neighborhood of São Paulo, soon to become a pocket forest, with the recently planted Potato Grove in the background.

RC: We are very excited about an upcoming planting event in the middle of a very dense urban neighborhood in São Paulo, right near the successful Potato Grove.

On December 16, we will create a pocket forest on a site that was a former gas station, a 600 square meter lot that had been badly polluted (see photos, above). We will be transforming this into a beautiful public space with trees from the Atlantic Forest including many araucarias (known as “monkey puzzle” trees), as well as the Brazilian pinheiro which is a native species threatened with extinction and very rare now in the city, although ironically it is the tree that gave the neighborhood its name.

We have succeeded in getting a generous private donation to fund the removal of the old, underground fuel tanks, and then to further decontaminate the area, and to rebuild the walkways. We have invited citizens to help us plant upwards of 200 rare trees to convert this neglected space into something that contributes to the wellbeing of the neighborhood.

Anyone interested in getting involved can find out more on Ricardo Cardim’s Facebook page. And for those lucky enough to join in the transformation on December 16, the location is Rua Butantã, 02, Pinheiros.

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Left: The author visiting another pocket forest in São Paulo in August 2016, where I had the pleasure of spending time learning about pocket forests with Ricardo Cardim at the Floresta de Bolso in the Parque Cândido Portinari.

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