London’s urban ‘forests’ can store almost as much carbon as tropical rainforests

Trees in Hyde Park, London. Image: Getty.

Most people would never think of London as a forest – yet there are actually more trees in London than people. And now, new work by researchers at University College London shows that pockets of this urban jungle store as much carbon per hectare as tropical rainforests.

More than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and urban trees are critical to human health and well-being. Trees provide shade, mitigate floods, absorb carbon dioxide (CO₂), filter air pollution and provide habitats for birds, mammals and other plants. The ecosystem services provided by London’s trees – that is, the benefits residents gain from the environment’s natural processes – were recently valued at £130m a year.

This may equate to less than £20 a year per tree, but the real value may be much higher, given how hard it is to quantify the wider benefits of trees and how long they live. The cost of replacing a large, mature tree is many tens of thousands of pounds, and replacing it with one or more small saplings means you won’t see the equivalent net benefit for many decades after.

The trouble with measuring trees

Trees absorb CO₂ during photosynthesis, which is then metabolised and turned into organic matter that makes up nearly half of their overall mass. Urban trees are particularly effective at absorbing CO₂, because they are located so close to sources such as fossil fuel-burning transport and industrial activity.


This carbon storage potential is an extremely important aspect of their value, but is very hard to quantify. A 120-year-old London plane tree can be 30 metres tall and weigh 40 tonnes or more, and some of the carbon in its tissues will have originated from Victorian coal fires.

Measuring the height of a tall tree is difficult, because it’s rarely clear exactly where the topmost point is; estimating its mass is even harder. Typically, tree mass is estimated by comparing the diameter of the trunk or the height of the tree to the mass of similar trees (ideally the same species), which have been cut down and weighed in the past. This process relies on the assumption that trees of a certain species have a clear size-to-mass ratio.

But a fascinating property of trees is how variable they can be, depending on their environment. So inferring the mass of urban trees from their non-urban counterparts introduces large uncertainties.

Lidar over London

The UCL team use a combination of cutting-edge ground-based and airborne laser scanning techniques to measure the biomass of urban trees much more accurately. Lidar, which stands for light detection and ranging, sends out hundreds of thousands of pulses of laser light every second and measures the time taken for reflected energy to return from objects up to hundreds of metres away.

When mounted on a tripod on a city street, lidar builds up a millimetre accurate 3D picture of everything it “sees”, including trees. The team are using lidar methods, which they pioneered to measure some of the world’s largest trees, and applying them to trees in the university’s local London Borough of Camden.

The UCL team used publicly available airborne lidar data collected by the UK Environment Agency, in conjunction with their ground measurements, to estimate biomass of all the 85,000 trees across Camden. These lidar measurements help to quantify the differences between urban and non-urban trees, allowing scientists to come up with a formula predicting the difference in size-to-mass ratio, and thus measuring the mass of urban trees more accurately.

The findings show that Camden has a median carbon density of around 50 tonnes of carbon per hectare (t/ha), rising to 380 t/ha in spots such as Hampstead Heath and Highgate Cemetery – that’s equivalent to values seen in temperate and tropical rainforests. Camden also has a high carbon density, compared to other cities in Europe and elsewhere. For example, Barcelona and Berlin have mean carbon densities of 7.3 and 11.2 t/ha respectively; major cities in the US have values of 7.7 t/ha and in China the equivalent figure is 21.3 t/ha.

A story to tell

Trees matter, to all of us. Recent protests in Sheffield, Cardiff, London and elsewhere, over policies of tree management and removal show how strongly people feel about the trees in their neighbourhood. Finding ways to value trees more effectively is critical to building more sustainable and liveable cities.

Measuring trees in new ways also helps us to see them from a new perspective. Some of these trees have incredible stories to tell. Just one example is an ash, tucked away in the grounds of St. Pancras Old Church, one of London’s – and indeed Britain’s – oldest Christian churches. 

The tree has an extraordinary arrangement of gravestones around its roots, placed there when the railway was built from St Pancras in the mid-19th century. The job of rehousing the headstones was apparently given to a young Thomas Hardy, working as a railway clerk before going on to achieve literary fame. The UCL team’s 3D lidar data are helping monitor the state of this “Hardy Ash” tree in its dotage. This is just one of the ways new science is helping tell the stories of old trees.

Mathias Disney, Reader in Remote Sensing, UCL.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.