Edwina Robinson was driving through the brown landscape of south-eastern NSW in 2019 when she was struck with just how dry it had become.
Inspired to do something constructive, she came up with an idea to future-proof her own inner-north neighbourhood of Canberra by creating a micro-forest, in a bid to offset global warming in her urban environment.
Two years later, $70,000 has so far been raised by the enthusiastic local community, who got behind Ms Robinson’s crowd-funded project.
A micro-forest is now flourishing in the suburb of Downer, while another has been financed for nearby Watson.
Three others are also now on the cards for Holt, Casey and Kambah.
The project is being watched closely by climate scientists looking for ways to help us cope with a warming planet.
From Japan to Australia, with a twist
The size of a tennis court, micro-forests were originally devised by Akira Miyawaki, a botanist who wanted to restore biodiversity in urban environments.
Since the first tiny forest was planted in Zaandam in the Netherlands in 2015, the Miyawaki method has been growing in popularity, particularly in Europe, as communities work to mitigate the “urban heat island” effect.
The method replicates mature ecosystems, but on a small scale, with each plant, grass and shrub chosen carefully to complement the others.
Advocates point to research that shows the important role of forests in storing carbon and helping to fight climate change.
They say tiny forests grow 10 times faster, become 30 times as dense, and are 100 times more biodiverse.
Ms Robinson, who is a landscape architect by trade, said she adapted the Mikawaki model to the Australian climate, but worked off the same core principle of building in dense layers of vegetation.
“You’re trying to really improve your soil, get air into your soil, but also organics into your soil,” she said.
“You’re giving those plants the best possible start in life.”
Unlike the Miyawaki method, however, they were not trying to replicate the natural environment, instead trialling plants that were native to different parts of Australia, to see what would best cope with warmer temperatures.
They also employed a “water harvesting” method, building underground trenches that enabled the water to get to the plants’ roots, where it was needed most.
She said thanks to the initial efforts of about 30 volunteer gardeners and the rainfall that came with La Nina, the Downer micro-forest was thriving.
And while the overall goal was to lower the temperature by installing micro-forests in every neighbourhood, she said there were other motivations too.
“By providing a project in the local community, you’re providing something that people can take part in and get to know more people,” she said.
“They also get a sense of ownership of that place, so they’re more likely to participate in maintaining it — they become stewards of those places.”
She said while the ACT government had expressed some concerns about her plan initially, they were now behind the project.
“I think at first they were a bit like, ‘this is a weird idea’ because it wasn’t traditional plantings. At first, they didn’t like the idea that everything was so closely spaced, particularly the trees. They put some caveats on it,” she said.
“But they seem much happier now they’ve seen what we’ve built at Downer … that’s government’s role, to be cautious.”
She said the group was now receiving some government money in addition to what they had crowd-sourced, in a collaboration she said was positive.
“When you’re working outside of government, it can work more quickly, more nimbly,” she said.
Potential to lower temperatures, but more forests needed
Australian National University Professor of Forestry Peter Kanowski said micro-forests had the potential to lower temperatures in urban parts of Canberra.
“I think we should expect to see more of these as part of the sort of diversity of ways that we add greenery to our cities, and that we use that greenery to deliver multiple benefits for the environment, but also for urban residents and communities,” he said.
“I think the big picture is that we sort of need all hands on deck in our urban areas, because of the increasing average temperatures and the increasing frequency of heat waves.”
He said as cities became more densely populated, they lost the benefits of backyard gardens on the urban temperature.
“But then, you know, there are little pockets of land in in our densifying suburbs where micro forests could be a great solution,” he said.
One example, he said, could be putting a micro-forest to the west of a children’s playground, which could directly cool that space.
He pointed to a CSIRO study that showed on a February day the difference between a shaded and unshaded Canberra street was as much as 15 degrees Celsius.
But he said they would need to see a bigger number of micro-forests across the urban environment to properly measure their effects.
A team of researchers at the ANU would be watching closely to see the impact of those under development in Canberra.
“Anything that we can do that increases the carbon stocks in our cities, like a micro-forest, and many micro-forests, will help be part of that overall solution of pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere,” he said.
Ms Robinson said she hoped her model would become a blueprint for more forests in Canberra and beyond.
“When you look at what some of the statistics tell us about climate change, they say we have until 2030, and so if that’s the case, I’d better get my skates on, and keep building micro-forests,” she said.
“And so I suppose what I’m trying to do is set up a model where I don’t have to be the only one who does this.”