The value of a tiny forest

How much does it cost to build a tiny or micro forest?

From a simple accounting point of view, the answer is around $500 per square metre. This figure is based on a $40,000 budget and an area of 800 square metres for the Downer pilot project.

However, the value of a community micro forest can’t be measured solely in dollars spent. Its value is far greater than its physical assets.

The Climate Factory’s micro forest model draws community together with a sense of purpose. Further it empowers communities to make change at a neighbourhood scale. As it grows, the micro-forest will store carbon, reduce park temperatures and provide habitat.

Shown below are the physical assets and the community assets. Typically community assets are harder to measure with numbers.

Physical assets

The physical assets are easy to measure and can be given a dollar figure. Over 2020-2021 we built:

  • 20 lineal metres of water harvesting trenches
  • 6 square metres of bog
  • 450m2 of shrub beds with enhanced soil
  • 1800 native plants
  • a recycled timber bench
The Cole St, Downer park in 2019 prior to building the community micro-forest was weedy and dry.

Community assets

The project has activated the local community. They now take pride in their local park. This has resulted in the:

  • Creation of the Downer Parkcare Group
  • 1 community consultation to give residents a say about changes to their park
  • 1 informal on-site consultation
  • 4 community working bees (all held during Covid19)
  • Additional working bees led by the Downer Parkcare group.

Community connectedness

Just looking at the cost per square metre of a tiny forest is too simple. This method ignores community wellbeing and connectedness. This is because wellbeing and connectedness are harder to measure in dollars and are often ignored.

However, the leader of the Downer Parkcare Group, Amit Barkay provides a sense of how his community wellbeing has improved.

I like the fact that it brought the community together more than I envisaged, everyone coming to help, kids, young and old. And the fact that the place has changed in a matter of six months. To the point, that two weeks ago there was a couple who just came with a picnic table and glasses and a bottle of wine, to cuddle on the bench just over there. It was absolutely lovely.

Amit Barkay, Downer.
Amit Barkay, volunteer leader of the Downer Parkcare group.

His neighbour, Leah Moore describes how the creation of a micro forest or tiny forest has enhanced the Downer community. She talks about the physical and community changes that occurred. Leah says,

… there’s been a miraculous transformation. This park used to be quite bare of trees in the middle part here and through the drought got very dry and now we’ve got this flourish of growth and it’s very very green and our communities got behind it. So we’re all in this together. I like that too. I like interacting with my neighbours like that.

Leah Moore, Downer.
Mother and daughter at a planting bee at the Downer tiny forest
The community planted the entire Downer tiny forest during COVID 19.

A model for the future

This project demonstrates a new way of regreening public spaces. Rather than competing for scarce grant money, projects like the Downer and Watson Micro-forest are funded via crowdfunding.

Maintenance expenses

All public landscape projects will require some maintenance in the future. Under The Climate Factory model the community commit to maintain the tiny forest for its first two years. The main job is hand weeding and disposal of weeds.

The micro forest also saves local authorities on mowing costs. By turning grass into garden beds at the Downer Micro-forest, there is 450m2 less grass to mow.

Eight steps to build a community tiny forest

The Climate Factory has built two community micro forests in the ACT. And the vision is to create a micro forest in every urban hotspot in Australia.

Founder of The Climate Factory, Edwina Robinson says she created the eight step method to show others how to create a tiny forest. In fact, the method can be applied to almost any community revegetation project. She says,

The 8 step method can be applied to any community regreening project. You could use this method to create a food forest or a pollinator garden, it doesn’t have to be a micro-forest – the principles and the stages are the same.

EDWINA ROBINSON, FOUNDER, THE CLIMATE FACTORY

The Climate Factory run regular workshops on making tiny forests.


Ground covers cool the earth in tiny forests

When you think of a forest, you probably think of trees. Whilst trees are essential to a forest, there are other plants that are important too. Some of these plants include shrubs, climbers and ground covers.

If you look closely at a forest, you will notice plants jumbled together. These plants are randomly spaced and compete for light, nutrients and water. And plants are a range of different heights, some have just germinated, some have died and some are in their prime.

Tiny forests popping up in Canberra

The Climate Factory works with community leaders to build climate cooling micro or tiny forests. Over 2020-2021 we built the Downer and Watson Micro-forests. We are trialling a range of native groundcovers in our tiny forests.

Groundcovers a living mulch in the tiny forest

At the bottom of our forests are the groundcovers. They have a special role to play. They cool the ground and provide habitat for beetles, skinks and lizards. Eventually the forest will become too shady for many of them and leaf litter may take their place.

Below are three groundcovers we are trialling at the Downer and Watson micro-forests.

Hardy Hardenbergia

Hardenbergia violacea (False sarsparilla) is an understorey plant of native forests and woodlands. It grows as a groundcover or twines itself through shrubs. It’s in the pea family and bears purple flowers. You will often see it flowering in the bush at the same time as wattle. This signals winter is almost over.

Purple flowering Hardenbergia growing amongst wattle.

False sarsparilla has leathery dark green leaves and once established is drought and frost hardy.

ACT for Bees says, Hardenbergia flowers provide food for butterflies, European Honey bees and native Leaf-cutter bees.

This groundcover can be grown from pre-treated seed. To pre-treat seeds, soak overnight in hot water. This should break the seed dormancy. Then plant the seeds in a mix of 50:50 coarse river sand to native potting mix. Depending on conditions, seed should germinate within 10 days to three weeks.

Marvellous Myoporum

This is a fast growing groundcover that comes in two forms. Plants can have either a fine leaf or broader leaf. Myoporum parvifolium is also known as Creeping boobialla. The plant bears small white or pink flowers and creates a living mulch over the ground.

At the Watson Micro-forest we planted it at the forest edges. This is so it gets enough sun to grow happily.

Myoporum parvifolium is easy to grow from cuttings.

Creeping boobialla can be grown readily from cuttings.

Tasty Tetragonia

This sprawling groundcover, Tetragonia tetragonoides is also known as Warrigal greens. It is has edible leaves. Captain Cook is rumoured to have used its leaves to stop his crew getting scurvy. 

silver saltbush on the left contrasts with Warrigal greens
Warrigal greens on the right in this Edible Micro-forest, Lonsdale St, Braddon.

It’s leaves are high in oxalic acid and should be blanched prior to eating. In Canberra, its best grown in a sheltered position with adequate water. Warrigal Greens were planted as a groundcover in the Edible Micro-forest display in Braddon.

It can be grown from seed or by cuttings.

Climate ready trees in tiny forests

2019 was Australia’s hottest and driest year on record.

Studies show trees significantly reduce temperatures. So by planting more trees in our cities and towns we can adapt to climate change.

Urban areas get hot

Urban areas are typically hotter than the countryside. That’s because when we build cities we remove trees and pave over waterways. And the building materials we use, like concrete and asphalt, absorb heat and release it slowly at night.

A study by the CSIRO found in summer Canberra’s urban areas were up to eight degrees hotter than surrounding rural areas.

Tiny forests battle climate change

In 2020, The Climate Factory built its first tiny forest or micro-forest in Downer in the Australian Capital Territory. This weeny forest occupies just 450m2 of suburban parkland.

The tiny forest is modelled on the Miyawaki method. The Miyawaki method plants native plants densely which leads to fast growth. The layers of native plants improve local biodiversity.

Young leaves of a Kurrajong in the Downer tiny forest in Canberra.

However, Edwina Robinson founder of The Climate Factory, realised she needed to take a different approach to climate change. Robinson decided not to use local native trees in the tiny forest. Instead she experimented with growing trees from hotter and drier climates. Plus she integrated simple water harvesting methods to direct water deep into the soil.

Australian National University tree study

In 2019, the Australian National University released a study showing the trees most likely to survive a hotter, drier Canberra. Top of that list was the Kurrajong, Brachyciton populneus.

Kurrajong the signature tree of Canberra’s tiny forests

In 2020, Robinson worked with local community to build a second mini forest – the Watson Micro-forest. The Kurrajong has become the signature tree in both the Downer and Watson tiny forests.

These Kurrajongs are planted at
the Banksia St, O’Connor wetland and are around 10 years old.

The Kurrajong is a sturdy evergreen Australian native tree with green glossy foliage. It grows slowly and may only reach four metres high in 10 years. Although this tree grows naturally in the Canberra region, The Climate Factory sourced plants from a nursery six hours north of Canberra. This nursery experiences temperature extremes of 49°C in summer and -9°C in winter. So these trees are likely to thrive in hot and dry urban environments.

As well as planting Kurrajongs, a number of other native trees are being trialled. The list includes the Queensland Bottle Tree, She-Oak, Allocasuarina and Silky Oak.

Ngunnawal use of the Kurrajong

The Ngunnawal people have lived in the Canberra region for tens of thousands of years. They used the bark of the Kurrajong to make string and rope. Kurrajongs have hard dark brown seed pods. The pods were turned into children’s toys. And inside the pods are seeds which are edible when roasted over a fire.

Does planting densely cool the landscape?

Robinson says she ordered temperature and humidity loggers to install into the micro-forests in 2022. Data from the loggers will be retrieved with smart phones. She will test if the dense planting of a micro-forest cools local temperatures.

To compare different planting approaches, one logger will be placed within the micro-forest and another one in a mature park tree with grass underneath. Time will tell if the dense planting cools the landscape. Robinson, says the inclusion of water harvesting should help keep temperatures down.

Plants with tree guards, surrounded by mown grass and recycled timber bench

Collaboration needed to regenerate Canberra’s parks

2019 was Australia’s hottest and driest year on record. Parts of the country were so dry it culminated in the Black Summer bushfires.

Tiny forests tackle urban heat

In response to 2019, I started The Climate Factory to take action on climate change. At The Climate Factory we collaborate with communities to build tiny or micro forests. And we choose parks with low biodiversity. These forests are targeted at reducing urban heat.

A CSIRO 2017 report showed Canberra’s summer urban temperatures were up to 8°C hotter than the surrounding countryside. Based on this report I realised that regenerating urban areas was a priority.

Miyawaki Method

In September 2020, The Climate Factory built the first micro-forest pilot project in an unloved park in Downer, Australian Capital Territory. There we trialled dense planting loosely based on the Miyawaki method. Akira Miyawaki describes himself as the inventor of man made forests.

However, this dense planting has raised some eyebrows. More on this later.

Urban oasis

The aim of a micro forest is to cool the landscape. To do this, we combine simple water harvesting methods with soil improvement. This is followed by dense planting of natives. One young resident said we’d turned a dustbowl into an urban oasis.

Downer Micro-forest, December 2021, 14 months after planting. Photo: Jarra JosephMcGrath

Tiny forest trees

In developing a list of trees suitable for the micro or tiny forest, I relied on Australian National University (ANU) School of Forestry research. This 2019 study was commissioned by the ACT Government to help the city adapt to climate change. Researchers consulted with councils in hotter, drier regions to develop a list of trees likely to thrive in a hotter, drier future.  

First on the tree list is the Kurrajong, Brachyciton populneus. This plants has become the signature tree for Canberra’s tiny forests.

Tiny forests align with the ACT Government goals

Canberra’s new tiny forests align with the ACT Government’s goals on climate adaptation. The ACT Government’s 2019 Living Infrastructure Plan states, “As we continue to face the challenges of climate change, in particular increased temperatures and more frequent heatwaves, it will become increasingly important that our parks are able to adapt to the impacts of a changing climate. This includes ensuring appropriate planting, shading, provision of water features and suitable paving and surface materials. By upgrading our parks, we will support our community and ensure these valued public spaces will continue to remain attractive, useable and functional spaces for our community, and provide oasis in times of heat stress.” p28.

The Government also recognised the important role the micro-forests play in canopy regreening. In September 2021, the ACT Government announced it was committing to planting an additional 54,000 trees by 2024. This action will help the Government reach its target of 30% canopy cover by 2045.  Furthermore, they announced they were extending the Adopt-a-Park program by three years and specifically mentioned micro-forests initiatives.

National attention

The Climate Factory’s micro-forest concept is regarded by many as innovative and attracted considerable media attention. In an ABC article, 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.”

Handsome evergreen Kurrajong at the Banksia St O’Connor wetland. These trees are slow growing and tough and are the signature tree of Canberra’s tiny forests. Photo: Edwina Robinson

Criticism

But the micro-forest movement has its critics. A number of the capital’s grassland ecologists and allies are unhappy. They claim the micro-forest plantings are overly dense, a waste of resources and will negatively impact biodiversity. They also suggest that micro-forests give the wrong impression to the community. They say the community will think forests once covered Canberra’s plains. Which they didn’t. Instead, they would rather see grassy woodland restoration happening throughout Canberra’s public lands, using endemic species.

However, the challenge with endemic species is that it is unclear whether they will be resilient in an uncertain future.

Measuring heat in tiny forests

To assess if micro-forests cool the landscape, temperature loggers will be installed in the Downer tiny forest in 2022.  Information will be accessible with a smart phone and an app. This will provide an unique dataset for planners for the future.

Regenerative thinking

Recently I participated in a course on regenerative, living systems thinking. The course was led by Dr Dimity Podger of Barasa Consulting Group. It’s based on thought leader Carol Sanford’s book ‘The Regenerative Life’. Sandford’s book focuses on regenerative principles and ways of thinking about societal transformation. Her approach recognises that our places and contexts are continually evolving. And as humans we can unlock and develop the potential that arises in living systems.

In the book, Sanford enourages us to recognise the inner obstacles that stop us from developing regenerative solutions.  One common internal obstacle we face is fear. Another obstacle, is inflexible thinking.

Sanford says, when we are in problem identification mode we break a system into parts and struggle to realise its true potential.  We are more likely to compete with one another rather than collaborate. If we are stuck in problem identification mode we perceive resources as scarce, not plentiful. And fail to identify the opportunities.

To adapt to climate change in our urban areas by 2030 we need to transform the way we think about our activities, beyond repeating business-as-usual. Business-as-usual won’t help us respond to rising temperatures and urban wellbeing.

Collaboration needed

Our approach to parkland regeneration, needs to be collaborative not competitive. We must consider the potential of what our parks could be in a hotter world.

The Downer Micro-forest is located in a highly modified neighbourhood park. The tiny forest plantings cover 450m², a mere 5% of the park. This leaves oodles of room for a display of other ecosystem types, like grassy woodlands or other features the community values. And plenty of room to have a conversation about how grassy woodland advocates can get involved. It shouldn’t be an us or them approach.

Eight Step Method

At The Climate Factory, we developed an Eight Step Method to help people create climate-cooling micro-forests. The process is powerful in that it invites ‘non-experts’ to step up and create a volunteer team. Together they lead the community to develop a tiny forest over a 12 to 18 month journey.

The Eight Step Method acknowledges the potential in all of us to stretch ourselves and do something we’ve never done before. In Step 2 it uses crowdfunding to circumvent the notion of a scarce money pool.

For every micro or tiny forest, the public can attend a community forum where they vote on what’s important.  At Downer, the community focused on water harvesting, habitat and nature play. At the Holt Micro-forest they will include a food forest. So far, over three community consultations, no-one has expressed a desire to include grassy woodland alongside their tiny forest.

Tiny forests provide inspiration and hope

It’s easy to snipe at those daring to break new ground. Dr Grey Coupland, Ecologist and Urban Forest Maker, Murdoch University points out the positives of the Miyawaki method.

“The work that Miyawaki forest makers do will not solve the climate crisis or the biodiversity crisis. The work is part of broader action and a ground swell movement. Perhaps the most important aspect of these forests is that they provide people with the capacity for hands on action and the ability to see that their actions can make a difference at the local level. The forests provide inspiration and hope.”

In 1910, former United States President, Theodore Roosevelt gave this speech about critics. Roosevelt said:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

By offering community leadership to create a healthier society, The Climate Factory, is acting in what Sandford calls a regenerative citizen role. Furthermore as a regenerative entrepreneur, we provide a blueprint to make community tiny forests. Our tiny forests address one of society’s most pressing problems – urban heat.

It’s time to stop sniping and problem identification and collaborate to create solutions that benefit people, animals, plants and the planet.

Leading women – Holt resident, Jennifer Bardsley starts micro-forest initiative

In March 2021, after hearing a radio interview about Canberra micro-forests springing up in the inner north, Jennifer Bardsley started the Holt Micro-forest initiative. Supported by a number of other keen residents they’ve been visiting potential sites, creating social media accounts and writing grant applications. They will run a crowdfunding campaign in June 2021.

The Climate Factory chats with Jennifer about her busy family life and why she wants to create a micro-forest.

TCF: What’s your day job?
I am currently on maternity leave with our 7 month old baby. I also have a 10 year old and 8 year old son. Family keeps me pretty busy!  When I’m not on leave, I am a public servant working in Information Technology.

TCF: What’s a ‘typical’ day look like for you?
At the moment night and day merge into a blur, we are still up through the night quite a lot with bub. Generally the morning focus is getting the children ready for school, followed by school drop-off, housework, walking the dog, school pick-up, afternoon sport activities, dinner and bed routines. In between that I try to spend some time with family and on writing, books and the micro-forest initiative.

When you are passionate and persistent, so many things are possible.

JENNIFER BARDSLEY



TCF: Why are you passionate about volunteering to create a micro-forest in your suburb?
My family and I love being outdoors. We love being surrounded by nature. It brings such a sense of fun, adventure, happiness and peace. It’s good for our mental and physical health. We are also worried about global warming and threats to biodiversity. We want to play our part in combating climate change and nurturing the natural world around us. 


TCF: What’s a surprising fact about you?
Two of my other passions are writing and martial arts. I have recently published my first children’s book ‘A land of muddy puddles’ and I am assistant instructor at a local Tae Kwon Do club.

TCF: Do you have any words of advice about being a leader? And if people are hesitant to have a go at being a ‘leader’ what would you say to them?
Be the change you want to see in the world. When you’re passionate and persistent, so many things are possible! 

If you want to know was is involved in starting a community micro-forest attend The Climate Factory’s 8 step workshop. Find out more.