Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home page No. 42, Fall/Winter 1997
Urban Agriculture in Drylands

Urban trees in arid landscapes: Multipurpose urban forestry for local needs in developing countries

by Guido Kuchelmeister

"The street you live on in Tashkent is shaded by grape arbors.... The street is narrow: a connected row of brown-rose, two-storey houses....Across the street are larger gardens. Ideally, as at your home, the garden will be filled with fruit trees. You have mulberries, pomegranates, pears, apricots, apples, three kinds of cherry.... "

--Malcomson, Scott L., 1994. Empire's Edge: Travels in South-Eastern Europe, Turkey and Central Asia. Boston: Faber and Faber, Inc.
pp. 180-181


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Urban development, environmental and social issues

The human habitat is rapidly urbanizing. By 2030, the urban population globally will be twice as large as the rural population (World Bank n.d.). Especially in developing countries, this rapid urbanization is exacerbating serious problems such as availability of food, fuel, water, employment, and shelter. The enormous toll in terms of losses to human health and quality of life, natural resources, and economic productivity, makes a compelling case for action (Bartone et al. 1994).

Too many cities are still designed strictly from an engineering perspective. Urban vegetation is often considered less important than the built structures, roads, and utility layers; yet, vegetation must be included in the planning process if healthy urban ecosystems are to be achieved. (Moll, Macie and Neville 95; Whiston Spurn 84).

Urban agriculture, urban greening and urban forestry

The term "urban forestry" requires some clarification. Many agriculture initiative include forestry in their overall definition of agriculture (UNDP 96; TMSGUA 96; Smit 96). In this context, urban forestry focuses on using trees to provide food, fodder, fuel and building materials.

Conversely, many urban foresters in developed countries use "urban greening" and "urban forestry" interchangeably (Miller 97). In this context, urban forestry focuses on using trees for recreational and environmental benefits (Nilsson and Randrup 97).

This paper considers urban forestry as the planned, integrated and systematic approach to managing urban and peri-urban forests for their contribution to the environmental, psychological, sociological, and economic well-being of urban society. In even simpler terms, urban forestry is the management of urban vegetation to meet local needs (Kuchelmeister 96), while urban greening comprises all urban vegetation management.

Development assistance and urban forestry

Most current urban greening activities in development cooperation are initiated by the agricultural community, which does not yet sufficiently support urban forestry.

The major reason why foresters neglect urban forestry is that most contacts for development assistance in forestry are forest ministries, which are not responsible for development of urban and peri-urban areas. Furthermore, foresters tend to have less influence in cities than do landscape designers and gardeners. There is an urgent need to change this state of affairs.

In developing countries, urban forestry must initially focus on helping to fulfill immediate requirements for basic products. Recreation, although increasingly necessary, is less essential. Assistance in meeting basic needs can best be achieved by promotion of multiple use of urban forest resources (Kuchelmeister 96; Lanly 97).

The value of urban forests in arid lands

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Urban forests improve the quality of urban life in many ways. Tangible benefits include fuelwood, food, fodder, and building materials. Environmental and social benefits relate to public health, recreation, and well-being of the urban population. These benefits include reduction of air and noise pollution, climate improvement, and landscape enhancement. Green areas can also provide habitats for wildlife, erosion control, protection of watersheds for urban water supply and productive uses or safe disposal of urban wastes.

Tangible benefits

Trees can contribute significantly to the food requirements of the urban poor, both on a daily basis and in times of crisis. For example, foods like Baobab leaf, tamarind and processed Parkia seeds are very popular in large towns in the Sahel. Local tree species with medicinal uses are intensively exploited in and near towns (Sené 93). Trees are also an important source of animal fodder, particular during dry seasons. In some arid zones the need for fodder is so great that even amenity trees are lopped (Carter 93).

Many urban residents in the developing world rely on biomass fuels for cooking and heating. Collection of fuelwood has caused extensive degradation around many arid and semi-arid urban settlements; properly managed urban forests can help alleviate this. However, with some notable exceptions such as Ethiopia, to date such plantations (usually of exotic species) have generally not improved fuelwood supply. This is either because higher-priced building materials were produced instead of fuel, or because poor people could not afford the fuelwood. To resolve this problem, "softer" methods incorporating agriculture, agroforestry and smallholder plantations could be adopted (Anderson and Fishwick 84; Cline-Cole 90; Kuchelmeister and Braatz 93).

Finally, urban trees provide shelter and building materials as well as raw materials for local processing industries and for many household tools and utensils.

Environmental benefits

Settlements in arid areas often suffer from sand and dust encroachment. The planting of shrubs and trees for shelterbelts, windbreaks, greenbelts and sand dune fixation has thus become common practice in arid areas (Sené 93; FAO 89; FAO 95), as demonstrated for example by the greenbelts of Ouagadougou (Kuchelmeister 91) and Nouakchott (Sené 93). Properly managed, such resources can provide significant quantities of fuel, building materials and other tree products without jeopardizing their primary function. In addition, hedges planted along contour lines can improve micro-climate and prevent soil erosion (Kuchelmeister 91).

Urban areas tend to be much warmer than the surrounding countryside. Trees keep their surroundings cooler in the summer by providing shade and evaporating water from their leaves. However, energy conservation through strategic tree planting is seldom deliberately included in urban housing projects in low-income settlements (Parker 97).

Urban trees play a significant role in control of global climate change by indirectly decreasing the consumption of fossil fuels for heating and cooling. Urban trees can mitigate pollution through reducing energy use, CO2 emissions, and ground-level ozone, as well as by purifying the air (McPherson and Rowntree 93; Nowak 95).

Trees planted along waterways can protect fragile land. Canal banks constitute a considerable area for timber and firewood production. Growing trees to utilize seepage water may be cheaper than lining canals with concrete and other material. Successful examples exist in Egypt, India and the People's Republic of China (Kuchelmeister 91).

Multifunctional parks and greenways (linear parks) both preserve natural areas and native vegetation and allow basic municipal services, such as solid waste and wastewater management, education, health care, and recreation, to be extended to informal settlements. For instance, multifunctional parks may be used for stormwater catchment or sewage treatment by means of retention ponds or artificial wetlands (ICLEI n.d.). The forest park in Dakar aims to drain the Hann marshland and lowland and protect the aquifer (Sené 93).

Social and other benefits

Tree products, if sold, provide direct cash benefits; if used within the household they provide indirect cash benefits by freeing cash income for other uses. Trees themselves can improve existing savings/investments, secure tenure or increase property value. Tree products are also used for socially motivated exchanges, and parks and other green spaces provide educational opportunities for urban residents (Kuchelmeister 91).

Urban forestry programs can also help to strengthen urban community-building (Sullivan and Kuo 95; Salleh et al. 90). Green areas are important recreation sites in most cities. In general, lower income residents are more likely to frequent city parks in their leisure time than are wealthier citizens (Sorensen 96). Thus, loss of green space for recreation affects the urban poor most directly (Hardoy, Mitlin and Satterthwaite 92).

Attributing economic value

The monetary value of trees is not easy to estimate, and hardly any data are available for cities in developing countries. Prevailing tree appraisal methods (CTLA 92) are insufficient. Valuation techniques must be developed and tested to quantify and assign monetary value to multipurpose urban forest resources. Nevertheless, conventional economic appraisal of urban forests in industrialized countries shows that millions of dollars can be saved annually by reductions in engineering infrastructure costs for water supply, drainage, and cooling of buildings. Urban forests can be part of the urban infrastructure; in fact, whereas most infrastructure depreciates, trees may appreciate with age (Kuchelmeister 96).

Challenges facing urban forest development

Five major constraints impeding urban forestry programs in developing countries are:
  1. Local participation. Preference and willingness, especially of the poor, to invest and manage urban green space has not been sufficiently approached, documented and communicated.
  2. Valuation: Appropriate economic tools to place a monetary value on urban forests have not been formulated in most developing countries.
  3. Land and tree tenure: Insecure or unclear ownership and/or rights to the use of urban forests can impede any involvement of the poor. Insufficient or inflexible tree ordinances tend to discourage participation of low-income citizens in urban forestry.
  4. Institutional capabilities: Lack of coordination, long term planning difficulties, and uncertain sustained budget allocations plague many cities and affect urban forestry development.
  5. Technical constraints: New technologies are needed for matching trees to urban sites. The overdependence on a few varieties/clones for urban tree planting causes great economic and ecological risks.

Some basic requirements for urban forestry programs

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Participation and planning: Many urban forestry projects have failed because they were designed and executed in isolation from overall urban planning. In addition, as history has shown, social conflicts regarding urban forests have often been frequent and intense (Kronijnendijk 97). For urban forestry to be successful, a variety of key players--and above all local residents--must be involved in policy-making, planning and management, and benefit distribution.

Technology: New innovations generated in urban forestry in industrialized countries are not always appropriate for low-income settlements. Wherever locally developed practices exist, they should be reinforced and improved. The use of attractive multi-purpose tree species, natural forest management, multi-purpose small-scale peri-urban plantations, and agroforestry practices like multistory gardens have to be explored and demonstrated more intensively (Kuchelmeister 93).

Currently only a very limited number of species, mostly ornamental, are promoted. For ecological and economic reasons the number of multipurpose species used must be increased (Lists of multipurpose urban trees and shrubs for arid zones can be found in Kuchelmeister 91; Maydell 86; Sené 93). In addition, given the scarcity of water in arid climates, various water-sparing landscape scenarios need to be developed. One such practice is xeriscaping, which replaces lawns and other high-water-use species by drought-tolerant trees and shrubs (Akbari et al. 92).

Information and research: Multipurpose urban forestry research in arid zones is in its infancy, especially in developing countries. Existing information is widely scattered and not easily accessible. There is little published information about the relationship of urban dwellers (particularly the poor) in developing countries to urban green areas; on how they value, use or would like to use these areas; and how urban forests affect health and well-being. Foresters are therefore urged to take part in the current research and development efforts by agronomists to increase urban agricultural production. They can also play a key role in developing multiple resource inventories.

Training and extension: There are very few training and extension programs for arid urban forestry focusing on low-income citizens. In most cases a new kind of urban green manager has to be trained--one who can deal with the multiple dimension of urban forests, handle the different stakeholders' interests, and strike a balance among competing needs.

Networking and initiatives: To date, few global networking initiatives have focused on planning and management of urban forests in low-income settlements. The TREE CITY Initiative (ed note: see URL at end of article) is one such effort. USAID, FAO (Braatz 93) and the Interamerican Development Bank have recently started their own initiatives. The Global Facility for Urban Agriculture and the International Urban Agriculture Network (TUAN) are further initiatives which could be used to promote urban forestry.

Financing: As a rule, municipal budgets are insufficient to fund adequate urban greening programs. Innovative funding must rely heavily on local volunteers, not only to raise funds, but also to provide program leadership and physical labor. Funding strategies might attempt a mix of public funding; cost avoidance, reduction and recovery; and use of trusts and private funds (Sorensen 96). Financial development assistance for urban forestry projects including networking, documentation, development and refining urban forestry concepts, and evaluative research, should also be increased.


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Urban trees should be viewed as an integral part of the urban infrastructure and an asset in arid settlements. The quality of life, especially of vulnerable groups in arid zones, can be significantly improved by better integrating multipurpose urban trees and shrubs in urban design and urban development initiatives. However, urban forestry has not yet received the attention it deserves in development cooperation. To develop and sustain urban forests in developing countries, urban forestry must initially focus on fulfilling immediate requirements for basic products. This can be best achieved by the types of multiple resource use advocated in this article.


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Akbari, H., S. Davis, S. Dorsano, J. Huang, and S. Winnett, eds. 1992. Cooling our communities: A guidebook on tree planting and light-colored surfacing. Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory Report LBL-31587. Washington, DC: U.S. EPA, Office of Policy Analysis, Climate Change Division; Pittsburgh, PA (PO Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15220-7954).

Anderson, D. and R. Fishwick. 1984. Fuelwood consumption and deforestation in African countries. World Bank Staff Working Paper Number 704. Washington, DC: World Bank.

Bartone, C., J. Bernstein, J. Leitmann, and J. Eigen. 1994. Towards environmental strategies for cities. World Bank Urban Management Program Policy Paper 18. Washington, DC: The World Bank.

Braatz, S. 1993. Urban forestry in developing countries: Status and issues. In Proceedings of the Sixth National Urban Forestry Conference, Minneapolis, Minnesota, September 14-18, 1993, 85-88.

Carter, J. 1993. The potential of urban forestry in developing countries: A concept paper. Rome: FAO.

Cline-Cole, R.A. 1990. The urban fuel plantation in tropical Africa: A case for re-evaluation. Land Use Policy 7(4):323-335.

CTLA (Council of Tree and Landscape Appraisers). 1992. Guide for plant appraisal. Sovoy, Illinois: International Society of Arboriculture.

FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). 1989. Arid zone forestry: A guide for field technicians. FAO Conservation Guide 20. Rome: FAO.

_____. 1995. Urban and peri-urban multipurpose forestry: An annotated bibliography. Rome: FAO.

Hardoy, J.E., D. Mitlin and D.Satterthwaite. 1992. Environmental problems in third world cities: An agenda for the poor and the planet. London: International Institute for Environment and Development.

ICLEI (International Council For Local Environmental Initiatives). n.d. Multi-functional park design and management, Durban, South Africa. ICLEI Case Study 27. Toronto: ICLEI.

Kronijnendijk, C. 1997. Urban forestry, overview and analysis of European forest policies, Part 1: Conceptual framework and European urban forestry history. Working Paper 12. Joensuu, Finland: European Forest Institute.

Kuchelmeister, G. 1991. Peri-urban multipurpose forestry in development cooperation, experience, deficits, and recommendations. Commission of the European Communities Contract Article B946/90-19. (Can be ordered from TREE CITY).

_____. 1993. Settlements and people in developing countries. Arboricultural Journal, The International Journal of Urban Forestry 174:399-411.

_____. 1996. Urban forestry: A new field of action in development cooperation. entwicklung + laendlicher raum 6/96:24-25.

Kuchelmeister, G., and S. Braatz, 1993. Urban forestry revisited. Unasylva 173(44):13-18.

Lanly, J.P. 1997. Forestry and woodland resources. Volume 1, XI World Forestry Congress, 13 to 22 October 1997, Antalya, Turkey.

Maydell, H.J.v. 1986. Trees and shrubs of the Sahel: Their characteristics and uses. Eschborn, Germany: GTZ.

McPherson, E.G. and R. Rowntree. 1993. Energy conservation potential of urban tree planting. Journal of Arboriculture 19(6):321-331.

Miller 1997. Urban forestry: Planning and management of green space. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Moll, G., E. Macie, and B. Neville. 1995. Inside ecosystems. Urban Forest March/April 95:8-13.

Nilsson, K., and T.B. Randrup. 1997. Urban and peri-urban forestry. In XI World Forestry Congress 13 to 22 October 1997, Antalya, Turkey. Volume 1, Topic 3.

Nowak, D.J. 1995. Urban trees and air quality. Caring for the forest: Research in a changing world. In Abstracts of Invited Papers. IUFRO XX World Congress, 6-12. August 1995, Tampera, Finland.

Parker, J. In press. Energy conservation landscaping: An essential component of sustainable neighborhoods, In Proceedings of 8th National American Urban Forestry Conference. Atlanta, Georgia.

Salleh, M.N., Y.K. Wong, and F.S.P. Wu. 1990. The tropical garden city: Its creation and maintenance. Malayan Forest Record No 33. Kuala Lumpur: Forest Research Institute Malaysia.

Sené, E.H. 1993. Urban and peri-urban forests in sub-Saharan Africa, the Sahel. Unasylva 173(44):45-51.

Smit, J. 1996. Urban Agriculture, Progress and Prospect: 1975-2005. Cities Feeding People Series. Report 18. Ottawa, Canada: IDRC.

Sorensen, M. 1996. Introduction to urban greening: A guidebook prepared for the Inter-American Development Bank. IDB No. Env96-103. Washington, D.C.: Inter-American Development Bank.

Sullivan, W.C., and F.E. Kuo. 1995. Trees, aggression and violence in the home. In Proceedings of the 7th National Urban Forest Conference, New York, 77-78.

TMSGUA (Third Meeting of the Support Group on Urban Agriculture, 18-19 March 1996, IDRC, Ottawa, Canada). 1996. Proceedings: Global facility for urban agriculture. Cities Feeding People Series, Report 17. Ottawa, Canada: IDRC.

UNCED (United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development). 1992. The global partnership for environment and development: A guide to Agenda 21. Geneva: UNCED.

UNDP (United Nations Development Programme). 1996. Urban agriculture: Food, jobs and sustainable cities. New York: UNDP.

Whiston Spurn, A. 1984. The granite garden: Urban nature and human design. New York: Basic Books, Harper Collins Publishers.

World Bank. n.d. Livable cities for the 21st century. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.

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Author information

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Dr. Guido Kuchelmeister is Coordinator of the TREE CITY Initiative, which promotes the use of multipurpose urban forestry in low-income settlements. You can reach him as follows:

Dr. Guido Kuchelmeister
Graf-Kirchberg-Strasse 26
89257 Illertissen
Tel. +49-7303-43776
Fax. +49-7303-42114
TREE CITY web site:

Additional web resources

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FAO Programme on Urban and Peri-Urban Forestry
FAO launched its urban and peri-urban forestry work in 1993. Currently, there's just a brief description of the program and some contact information at this web site address. However, an annotated Urban Forestry Bibliography (cited in the references list of this article) is due to be uploaded soon. Given FAO's focus on food production, this is a site to keep track of as it develops.

Editor's note: while I found other web sites concerning "urban forestry," they almost invariably turned out to be focused on "urban greening" (in developed countries) rather than urban agriculture. Therefore, I chose not to list these sites here. For those interested in finding out more about urban greening, such sites can easily be found with any major web search engine using the term "urban forestry" or "urban greening."

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