António Alexandre still remembers the lines that formed in front of the forest of Faculdade de Ciências de Lisboa (FCULresta) in the first days of March 2021. There were times of masks and gel, and only one person could enter at a time. But many people realized the potential of the first Miyawaki forest to be born in Lisbon by the hands of David Avelar and António Alexandre, both from the FCUL Garden.
Miyawaki Forests is a concept created by the Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki. It proposes the planting of native species in great density in cities. And so true forests are born in record time (20, 30 years), with biodiversity thriving in an urban context.
That’s exactly what happened in Lisbon, on the campus of the Faculdade de Ciências (FCUL), when the community got together on a lawn to clear the ground, sowing the seeds of what will become, in the near (but not so near) future, a real forest.
Two years later, what started as a novel experiment has taken root. The neighbors of the Bela Vista and Areeiro parks got their hands dirty to see the birth of a forest in their neighborhood. And more and more cities and schools are asking for help to create them.
Treading unknown ground
For António and David, the idea had begun to germinate in 2020, when the world of the Internet dragged them to the Miyawaki forests, already spreading throughout Europe, with successful examples in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
Upon learning of their existence, they realized that it might not be difficult to bring them to Lisbon. “In truth, there was nothing so unbelievable about this methodology, given that we are biologists and have experience in permaculture and vegetable gardens…”, says António.
But it was uncharted territory, and they knew it. None of this had been tested in Portugal, where the weather conditions differed greatly from those found in the Netherlands or the UK.
Not even that put them off. The FCUL Horta team, with the help of the faculty community and partners 1planet4all and the non-profit organization VIDA, set to work.
First, they chose a place, one of those forgotten lawns on the faculty campus. Then they studied it: the solar exposure of the land, the type of soil, the slopes… From there they designed what would be the forest, with its accesses, ponds, and ditches.
Finally, the time has come to go into the field, planting the species in sections. For this, it is necessary to know each section well, planting the most appropriate set of species in each area – by placing these plants in their various strata, moisture pockets are created very quickly in the space.
Here at FCULresta it was chosen to reduce the number of plants per square meter usually used in Miyawaki forests, as people are not used to such dense plantings.
In the end, the soil was covered with mulch to promote moisture retention, and seed bombs were dropped. The FCULresta was created. Now, it had to be maintained.
Keeping a space alive
The long-term goal is for this space to be self-sustainable, but in the early days weekly maintenance is required, which implies managing between human interaction and the natural process.
On the one hand, you don’t want to influence the soil of the plantation, but on the other hand you don’t want exotic and invasive plants competing with the natives.
Therefore, you have to prune some plants to free the access, and think about replanting to make the space even more diverse.
Watering is also fundamental in the beginning, “because the roots of the plants are shallow.
With time, more intense watering (of an hour) but spaced more frequently (once or twice a week) is done, and then slowly decreases until it is no longer necessary, thanks to the pockets of moisture created.
António sums up the process:
“We know that, when plants are babies, we have to give them affection, but the idea is not to spoil them too much, because they are essentially wild species that would be in the middle of the bush in Portugal and there they wouldn’t have human intervention, there some would live, others would die.”
When the plants start to grow, it is possible to space out the maintenance more, but care must be taken with weeds, especially in spring and summer, when they can grow to the point of overlapping the existing plants.
75% survival rate of the species, tens of thousands of liters of water saved
Two years later, what then is the result of this maintenance?
The last monitoring (they are done every six months) indicated a 75% survival rate of the planted species. And there are plants, like myrtles, that are growing after two years.
“There are more and more plants, and you can see better and better their capacity to become resilient, which is great, because we don’t have to intervene in the space all the time,” describes António.
And many oak seeds have finally managed to germinate.
There has also been the fixing of plants that were not planted, which is normal, says António. “We’ve been controlling exotic plants, but that’s also natural for them to appear, so it’s management.”
But it’s not only biodiversity that simmers here. The truth is that a lot of water is also saved here.
The calculations haven’t really been done yet, but António manages to estimate: “Generally the pressure that comes out of an irrigation system is about one liter per second, and on a lawn there are several sprinklers”. In forests like this, over time, you water 1/5 or even 1/10 of what you water on a lawn.
Add it all up, and it could be tens of thousands or even hundreds of liters… of drinking water saved.
Lisbon of community forests
FCULresta has sown the seed. And David and Antonio soon started receiving requests for help to plant more Miyawaki forests.
Today, there are Miyawaki forests at the Alfredo Reis Silveira school in Seixal, at the Institute of Army Dungarees in São Domingos de Benfica, and at the Lisbon Shipyard (Lisnave) in Setúbal.
And thanks to Urbem, a social collective, these forests were implemented in Bela Vista Park and Areeiro. These were particularly important experiences for António, who came into contact with the whole community.
This is, therefore, one of the premises of Miyawaki forests, and what makes them more economical models: community involvement, which has also facilitated the sometimes turbulent relationship between municipality and residents.
“There is sometimes some difficulty on the part of municipalities in relating to people and making green spaces work,” explains the scientist. In Areeiro and Parque da Bela Vista, the community came together to give life to an idea. “In Areeiro, there are many people who come from the Interior, where they had land, and come here and don’t have it.
The creation of a Miyawaki forest allowed them to return to their roots, to contact with a nature that they thought they could no longer find in Lisbon.
Taking the forest to school
More recently, the duo has been working with several schools in Sintra, and has developed a guide for the creation of Miyawaki forests in a school context, allowing the forests to become true classrooms, where one can learn “Biology, Ecology, or even Mathematics, Portuguese, Philosophy…”.
For António, the potential that so many see in these forests is just that: to be a learning space. And some of that learning can be quite simple, like learning to wait.
“As much as the growth of these spaces is faster than traditional, when I’m older, many of the plants will still not be in their most adult stage,” says Antonio. “It’s important we unlock this need to have instant gratification, you have to create that connection with the future.”
António hopes that these learnings can change his city, and the way Lisboners interact with nature.
“I think these spaces have a role to play in the training of our citizens and, who knows, to have a greener society in the future,” he concludes.