So is the north of England really getting an enormous new forest?

A forest in Scunthorpe. Image: Getty.

The dendrophiles of northern England have something new to be excited about. The Northern Forest is a green megaproject which will see the planting of 50m trees over the next 25 years, creating a forest stretching from Liverpool to Hull along the M62 corridor.

Projects of this kind are long overdue. Forest cover in the UK is one of the worst in Europe at an estimated 12 per cent, compared to an average of 36 per cent across the rest of the EU. In the last few years, what’s more, levels of planting have been abysmal: the Woodland Trust claims that 2017 saw the lowest levels of new trees planted in England for years.

So the need is clear – and the benefits many. First up, deforestation is the world's second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. A new forest will thus help combat climate change.

The forest will also open up space for the reintroduction of wildlife long since absent from the north of England, like beavers and even lynxes, an indigenous British wildcat. (Perhaps we could have a lynx on the Royal Crest rather than the wildcat we pinched from the colonies?)

Trees also do wonders for soil protection and mitigating of flood risk: with all this green infrastructure, the Woodland Trust hope to reduce flood risk for 190,000 homes. That’s especially good news for the residents of beleaguered towns such as York, which have been hit repeatedly by flooding.

For those living in the great cities of the north, the trees would improve the quality of the air. At present, thousands in the region die every year from pollution (630 per year in Manchester; 1,000 across Yorkshire and Humberside).

In the US, where they have the money to test this sort of thing, it was found that trees deflected $6.8bn in healthcare costs. For the cities that will be enveloped by the Northern Forest, lives will literally be saved by these trees – and it will certainly alleviate pressure on the ever embattled NHS.  


On top of all that, the new forest would provide an estimated £2bn boost to the local economy through tourism, recreation and timber production. Oh, and it’d provide a lovely space for the 15m inhabitants of northern England, too.

Hold on though northerners, don’t start putting your walking boots on quite yet.  

Despite very keen to throw their names behind the project Theresa May and environment secretary Michael Gove have so far committed only £5.7m of government funds to the £500m project. This is going to pay for little more than a thin line of trees on either side of the M62 – more of a ‘Northern Hedgerow’ than the great forest imagined.

The rest of the money is to be raised through charitable contributions. That means raising a little under £20m a year, every year for the next quarter century: if it’s to succeed, the Northern Forest project will have to step up into the top 1.3 per cent of charities in terms of income, which sounds pretty challenging.

As Austin Brady, Director of Conservation at the Woodland Trust, wrote: “It’s not a government led initiative – it’s a bottom-up initiative.” The bottom will have to really step up to make this woody pipe dream a reality.
Planting 50m trees, though, is plausible. In 2016,the residents of Uttar Pradesh in India planted that same number in a day – we’ve got 25 years. 

 
 
 
 

Eritrea’s Modernist architecture: a striking reminder of years of oppression

Asmara’s futuristic Fiat Tagliero Building (1938) was built to resemble an aircraft. Image: David Stanley/Creative Commons.

Those with an eye for architecture will notice something peculiar when visiting Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. Dotted around the city are exceptional examples of Modernist architecture, a style that emerged in Europe during the interwar period. Rejecting gratuitous ornateness in favour of minimalism, function and rationalism, the style grew to dominate 20th century design. But it didn’t arrive in an east African country in a remotely benevolent way.

The huge continent was carved up in the span of just a few decades, in an era of history known as the “Scramble for Africa”. Described in German as torschlusspanik, meaning “panic of a closing gate”, European powers grabbed as much as they could to prevent their rivals gaining the upper hand.

Having consolidated his power in Italy, fascist dictator Mussoulini looked to Africa to expand what he saw as the new Roman Empire. It was in this context that the country seized this stretch of coast along the Red Sea that became Eritrea. And it was Asmara that was going to be the new African capital, La Piccola Roma – Little Rome.

Standing at 2,000m above sea level, the capital’s location was chosen in part because it was cooler than the brutally hot coastal regions. As was commonplace across European colonies, the colonisers wanted to avoid the extremes of the lands they conquered and find places more comparable to the climates they had left behind.

Where the colonial money arrived, the locals followed and Asmara became a city of contrasts. Intermingled with the Tukul’s, round huts of stone or mud topped with conical roofs that are indigenous to East Africa, are hundreds of buildings in the modernist style that were erected by the Italian colonisers from 1935. Many such buildings, including the Fiat Tagliero petrol station, the Town Hall and the Cinema Roma, came to represent East African Modernism. But why was there this push towards the style?


Peter Volgger, an academic who studied the impact of the modernist architecture in post-colonial Eritrea, has a theory. “Colonial cities were often projection screens for modernist fantasies and were built as futuristic visions for European cities.” So what couldn’t be done back home could be done in the colonial setting. Fantasies could be fulfilled.

The fall of fascism in Europe after WWII didn’t mark the end of colonialism in Africa, as the losers’ colonies were transferred over to the winners. Britain governed the colony for a while before power at a federal level was handed over Ethiopia. It was only in 1993 that Eritrea finally gained independence from its larger neighbour; a hundred years after the Italians first conquered the region.

Yet the Modernist buildings continued to be built long after the Italians had left. The IRGA garage, for instance, which is often held up as a key example of Eritrean modernism was built in 1961.

It’s in part due to such constructions that in 2017, Asmara was recognised as by Unesco as a site of particular cultural importance and included in their world heritage list. This not only brings in money from Unesco directly, but also induces international interest and tourism. The inclusion of Asmara in the organisation’s heritage list marked a shift towards inclusivity, having often been criticised for its lack of sites in Africa. Of the 845 cultural sites worldwide, Asmara is one of only 52 that are from Sub-Saharan Africa. In Germany alone there are 41 sites and Italy 49.

Long overdue, the significance of Asmara and its modernist buildings has been recognised. Despite their architectural interest they cannot and should not be divorced from the grim historical reality of their existence. For the millions who call the city home they stand monument to the arrogant dreams of empire that consumed the country for over a hundred years.