In 2016, The Nature Conservancy, one of the largest environmental NGOs in the United States, released a report entitled “Planting Healthy Air” that examines the role planting trees in urban areas plays in reducing pollution and extreme heat. As the report indicates, the population of city dwellers globally is increasing, as is the number of deaths associated with exposure to pollution and intense heat waves. The authors of the report argue that urban forestation projects are one of the most cost effective means to reduce particulate matter in the air and cool temperatures in the world’s largest cities.
Urban forestation projects in the Middle East are an inexpensive and effective way of reducing air pollution, lowering temperatures by producing shade, improving health, and even raising property values. The return on investment (ROI) for tree planting is often more financially beneficial than other more costly investments, but ROI projections fluctuate when measuring effects in different neighborhoods. In general, the more densely populated, polluted, and hot a neighborhood is, the higher the return on investment tree planting will be.
For this reason, it is understandable why major cities in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region are predicted to have a high return on investment for both reducing particulate matter in the air and mitigating heat waves. Some cities mentioned to have the highest return on investment in the region are Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, Rabat, Sanaa, and Baghdad. Other cities like Amman and Tripoli are mentioned to have a high ROI for reducing pollution but not lessening extreme urban heat.
Tree Planting Projects in MENA Region
Since this report five years ago, many MENA cities have initiated tree planting programs. In Beirut, AMWAJ began the Beirut River Forest and Green Cedar Lebanon agreed on a program with the city’s municipal government to plant over 10,000 trees in 10 years. Despite these apparent victories for Beirut’s urban canopy, the city destroyed the Mufti Hassan Khaled Garden in 2019, replacing it with a parking lot. One of the most ambitious urban planting projects in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh Green plan. The initiative intends to plant seven and a half million trees in the Saudi capital as part of the country’s Vision 2030 plan. Other Middle Eastern planting efforts such as Jordan’s Green Amman 2020 Project and Qatar’s Plant Million Trees initiative will benefit the environment despite their cities having a lower comparative ROI.
These tree planting projects listed above are by no means the entirety of green initiatives in the MENA region, but many national projects do not directly benefit urban forestation. Morocco, for example, announced its Forests of Morocco 2020-2030 project to grow 600,000 hectares of dense tree cover around the country. Algeria, Tunisia, and Oman are also investing in large tree planting projects across their territories.
These initiatives intend to plant trees to prevent desertification and replace previously existing forests far from urban centers. While such projects are vital to slow desertification and reduce particulate matter from sand, they do not directly benefit city residents in the same manner as urban planting.
Benefits of Urban Forestation
The range that a single fully grown tree can filter air is approximately 15-30 meters. The greater concentration of trees in any given area, such as a city park, the more particulates the trees will filter. Similarly, urban design such as tree lined streets reduce a greater amount of pollution as the airborne particulate matter is filtered by multiple trees as wind carries the pollution down the road. Research from The Nature Conservancy’s report indicates that a tree lined street can reduce particulate matter in surrounding buildings by up to 50%.
Higher density tree planting also casts more shade and absorbs more sunlight which in turn lowers nearby temperatures. As climate change causes temperatures to rise in the already hot climates of the MENA region, efforts to cool urban centers such as tree planting are both cost-effective and reduce electricity usage for air conditioning.
Challenges in the Middle East
In many Middle Eastern cities, urban tree planting offers a large return on investment when factoring in health benefits as a result of more tree cover. What is more difficult than financing the projects is motivating local governments to prioritize urban tree planting over other development opportunities. Cities in the MENA region must proactively set aside land to invest in urban forestation rather than develop the area for commercial or residential use. Municipal governments also must research which species of trees to plant due to the limited water access in many Middle Eastern cities.
Almost every city in the MENA region listed by The Nature Conservancy’s report to highly benefit from urban tree planting are situated in arid environments. The report advises city administrators in arid regions to consider which trees are best to plant and if additional irrigation infrastructure must be built to ensure the trees’ survival.
While urban forestation is a useful tool to build healthier cities, governments must couple it with other environmental strategies. Cairo, for example, began a green roof initiative along with street level tree planting to reduce particulate matter in one of the Middle East’s most polluted and congested cities. Inhabitants of cities across the region must request, advertise, and support local initiatives to produce more sustainable environments.
These solutions do not need to be expensive or crippling to the local economy. The Nature Conservancy report suggests that investments of as low as $4 per resident in tree planting projects can dramatically reduce temperatures and filter pollutants from local air. As the MENA region moves their economies away from fossil fuels towards more sustainable energy, we must monitor their developments at the local level to promote environmentally friendly growth.