How Miyawaki "Pop Up" Forests Spread Across The Urban Jungle Of Lisbon
Two years ago, forests planted according to a method invented by Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki, began to spread across in urban spaces in the Portuguese capital. It's a way to bring real enclaves of nature to urban realities in record time.
LISBON — António Alexandre still remembers the the first lines that formed in front of the FCULresta forest, back in March 2021. Those were times of masks and disinfectant gel, with only one person entering at a time.
But many people were excited to visit the tiny forest, right in the center of Lisbon.
Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki created the concept, which involves native species planted in high density and allows the creation of new forests born in record time — just 20 or 30 years.
On the campus of the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Lisbon, locals came together to break ground and sow the seeds of what will become, in the near (but not so near) future, a true forest. Two years later, what started out as an unprecedented experience has taken root. Neighbors from Bela Vista and Areeiro parks got their hands dirty, starting a forest in their neighborhood. More and more cities and schools are now asking for help to create them.
Treading new terrain
For David Avelar and António Alexandre, both with the Horta FCUL team at the University of Lisbon, the idea began to germinate in 2020, when the internet world dragged them to the Miyawaki forests, which were already spreading across Europe, with examples of success in the Netherlands and the UK.
When they became aware of their existence, they realized that it might not be difficult to bring them to Lisbon. “Actually, there was nothing so unbelievable about this methodology, since we are biologists and have experience in permaculture, in vegetable gardens,” says Alexandre.
Still, it was uncharted territory: none of this had been tested in Portugal, where climatic conditions are different from those found in the Netherlands or the UK.
They covered the soil to promote moisture retention and dropped seed bombs.
First, they picked a spot, a forgotten lawn on the campus. Afterwards, they studied it: the sun exposure, type of soil, angle of the slopes. From there, they mapped out the forest, with its accesses, ponds and ditches.
Finally, it was time to go into the field, planting the species in sections. For this, it is necessary to know each section well, planting the most suitable set of species in each area – when placing these plants in their various strata, pockets of humidity are created very quickly in the space.
They decided to reduce the number of plants per square meter, since people are not used to such dense plantations.
They covered the soil to promote moisture retention and dropped seed bombs. The FCULresta was created. Now, it was necessary to maintain it.
Keep a living space
The long-term goal is for this space to be self-sustaining, but in the early days, weekly maintenance is required, which involves mediating between human interaction and the natural process.
On the one hand, you don't want to influence the soil of the plantation, but you also don't want exotic and invasive plants to compete with native ones. Therefore, it is necessary to prune some plants to free up space, and think about replanting to make the space even more diverse.
Watering is also fundamental at the beginning. Over time, watering is more intense but less frequent, then slowly decreased, until it is no longer necessary thanks to the pockets of humidity created in the forest.
Alexandre summarizes: “We know that, when plants are babies, we have to give them affection, but the idea is not to spoil them too much, because they are essentially wild species that would be in the middle of the Portuguese bush and would not have human intervention; some would live, others would die."
As plants begin to grow, this maintenance can be spaced out more, but care must be taken with weeds, especially in spring and summer, when they can grow to the point of overcoming existing plants.
Three quarters of plants survived; tens of thousands of liters of water saved
Two years later, what is the result?
The last survey, done every six months, indicated a 75% survival rate for the new forest. Some plants, like myrtles, are now growing after two years.
“There are more and more plants, and the ability to become resilient is becoming better and better, which is great, because we don't always have to intervene in the space," says Alexandre.
Many oak seeds have also finally started to germinate. Other unexpected species which were not planted have also taken hold, which is normal, says Alexandre: “We have been controlling exotic plants, but it is also natural for them to appear, so it is management.”
But it's not just about biodiversity here. A ton of water has also been saved here. Alexandre estimates that a forest like this needs just a fifth or even a tenth of the water a lawn would need. Adding it all up, there could be tens or even hundreds of thousands of liters of drinking water saved.
Lisbon of community forests
After FCULresta sowed the seed, the organizers immediately started getting requests for help to plant more Miyawaki forests. Today, there are Miyawaki forests at the Alfredo Reis Silveira school in Seixal, at the Instituto dos Púpilos do Engenheiros in São Domingos de Benfica, and also at the Lisbon Naval Shipyards in Setúbal. And thanks to City, a social collective, these forests were implemented in Bela Vista park and Areeiro.
Among the main concepts of the Miyawaki forests, which makes them more economical, is community involvement.
Among the main concepts of the Miyawaki forests, which also makes them more economical, is community involvement. This has also facilitated the sometimes turbulent relationship between the municipality and residents.
“There is sometimes some difficulty on the part of municipalities in relating to people and making green spaces work,” explains Alexandre. In Areeiro and Parque da Bela Vista, the community came together to bring an idea to life: “In Areeiro, there are many people who come from the interior, where they had land, and come here and don't have it."
The creation of a Miyawaki forest allowed them to return to their roots, to get in touch with a nature that they thought they would no longer find in Lisbon.
Bring the forest to school
More recently, the duo has been working with schools in the municipality of Sintra. They have also developed a guide for creating Miyawaki forests in a school context, allowing forests to become true classrooms.
For Alexandre, these forests can become a learning space — sometimes even a place for lessons as simple as learning to wait.
“As much as the growth of these spaces is faster than the traditional one, when I get older, many of the plants will still not be in their most adult phase,” says Alexandre. “It is important for us to unlock this need for instant satisfaction, and necessary to create this connection with the future.”
António hopes that these lessons can change his city, and the way its citizens interact with nature: “I think these spaces play a role in the training of our citizens, and — who knows — for us to have a greener society in the future."
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