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Tiny Forest: Biodiversity Hotspot in your City

While forests and cities often seem to be mutual exclusive, there are more and more examples that prove the opposite. Slowly forests, in many of their vibrant forms, find their way into our cities and our everyday life. This post looks at one of the forms that help biodiversity return to our cities, while involving the local communities and kids – the Tiny Forest.

About one third of the world’s land mass is covered by forests [1]. When we think of forests we usually think of vast green areas with lush vegetation and full of life. But with increasing urbanisation, forests are in stark contrast with the ever-growing urban areas. And as opposed to urban spaces, forests are declining in many parts of the world.

However, all over the world tiny forests slowly conquer our cities. Not bigger than a tennis court, tiny forests are yet full of life and true biodiversity hotspots ([2],[3],[4]).

Tiny forests also aren’t just small forests. The word tiny forest usually refers to a special kind of forest. These forests follow a forest management method originally developed by Japanese botanist Miyawaki (hence, tiny forests are also often called Miyawaki forests) [2].

Despite their small size, tiny forests have a huge potential in boosting the quality of life in urban areas by transforming grey cities into thriving and healthy green cities [4].

Tiny forests – How does it work?

The Miyawaki forest design aims at creating dense little forests composed of native species. To mimic a ‘real’ forest, tiny forests consist of 4 main categories [5], [6].

Structure of a Tiny Forest
Canopy Layer15 – 20%
Understory40 – 50%
Shrub Layer25 – 30%
Herbaceous Layer8 – 12%

Planting the forest involves the following 4 basic steps.

Create a Tiny Forest in Just 4 Steps
Soil AnalysisAnalyse the soil and improve the soil quality with locally available and sustainable amendments.
Species SelectionSelect 50-100 native species distributed over the above mentioned 4 categories.
PlantingPlant seedlings randomly (like they would in a ‘normal’ forest) and very densely (about 3 plants per square meter
MaintenanceMonitor, water and weed the forest for the first 2-3 years. Afterwards the tiny forest manages itself and can be left alone.

A lot of attention needs to be paid to the perfect specie’s combination [7]. This is important to make sure that the symbiotic relationship between them will make the forest survive without any human interference after the initial 2-3 years [8].

Planting seedlings very closely forces them to compete with each other. That way they grow up to 10 times faster than they would in a normal forest ([7],[5]). This is great in areas where people want to see results quickly and thus great for (re-)greening urban spaces.

Tiny forests are designed in such a way that they manage themselves. Therefore, artificial fertilizers, insecticides, pesticides or fungicides would cause more harm than benefits and aren’t used. The same applies to pruning or removing branches or leaves from the forest floor [7].

Tiny forests are small but functioning ecosystems that add a lot of value to the urban environment and human wellbeing. In urban areas where space is limited, tiny forests are a great opportunity to enhance the quality of life [2].

They increase the liveability of cities and help tackling environmental challenges related to climate change and biodiversity loss.

Climate change adaptation: Resilient cities

With climate change, weather becomes more extreme. As a consequence, many cities become unbearable during summer heat waves.

At the same time strong wind and extreme rainfall become a regular problem too. And these are just a few of the environmental challenges many cities face these days. Like a normal forest, tiny forests help to buffer these effects and help urban areas adapt to changing conditions.

They cool down the surrounding areas, provide clean air and reduce strong winds ([2],[5]). That way they improve the local climate. During heavy rainfall the forests act like a sponge. They absorb water and increase the city’s resilience against flooding.

When it comes to climate change adaptation, nature is our ally. In the future we will have to adjust to a changing climate and make our cities climate-proof.

For that matter working with nature-based solutions that are basically self-sufficient isn’t only interesting from an environmental point of view, but also from an economic point of view.

Biodiversity hotspots

For many living creatures, urban areas are like a wasteland. Suitable habitats are scarce and living conditions are poor.

Tiny forests, with their large variety of native tree and plant species, are true biodiversity hotspots [2]. They provide food and shelter to a large variety of animals including small mammals, birds, insects, butterflies, snails, amphibians, bugs and grasshoppers [7].

In a 2017 study, ecologists from Wageningen University took a closer look at the biodiversity of Dutch tiny forests. They found that compared to other forests in the area, both the number of species groups and the number of individual species was higher in the tiny forest.

This finding highlights the natural quality of tiny forests. However, it also speaks for the natural quality of the regular forests. Many European forests are monocultures, or heavily managed and from an ecological standpoint in a poor state.

Tiny forests are small. Yet they are self-sufficient functioning little ecosystems. And especially in highly fragmented urban areas they bring more benefits than just rich local biodiversity. If planned carefully, tiny forests can act as wildlife-corridors and thus positively impact biodiversity on a larger scale too. That’s how the tiny forests springing up around Europe can play an important role in urban rewilding efforts too [7].

Human wellbeing

Intuitively most of us know that spending time in nature makes us feel good. We are fascinated by wildlife and untamed nature. However, cities often lack sufficient green spaces. Many of us live their lives in concrete jungles far away from such untamed nature.

Of course, tiny forests cannot really fulfil our cravings for wild nature. But they still are little oases contributing to a healthier living environment. Tiny forests are as wild as nature can get on such a small scale. And even though they are small, they allow people to reconnect with nature.

They create refuge for safe recreation and support the physical and mental wellbeing of local communities.

Social aspects

Apart from environmental and health benefits, the tiny forest movement has a strong focus on social wellbeing too. That’s why tiny forests are often initiated and realized in close collaboration with the local communities ([2],[3]).

Being involved in the whole process makes people feel more attached to their little forests. Planting a tiny forest is a great way to increase awareness and it’s a hands-on way to show people how nature can positively influence our everyday life.

In 2015 one of the first European tiny forests was planted in the Dutch city of Zaandam. Young and old worked together to realize their common vision of a tiny forest right in the centre of Zaandam. They got to know each other and the project connected the local people and created a communal spirit [9].

Youngsters and older generations come together to enjoy the outdoor spaces they created together. It binds the community together. People use the spaces for outdoor classes about nature, or they formally or casually meet there for leisure. It’s became a vibrant place for the community to re-connect and learn. It’s something they created together, something they care for together ([10],[7]).

More and more people realise the importance of nature and with increasing awareness and climate change effects the demand for green urban spaces grows. Tiny forests are a way to make cities greener and get people more in touch with nature.

And it seems like the tiny forest movement is gaining momentum with organisations all over the world picking up the idea [10].







[6] Bruns, Maarten, et al. Handbook: Tiny Forest Planting Method. Edited by Merel den Otter and Lieke Kragt, IVN Natuureducatie, 2019.