How an urban forest is helping Edinburgh breathe.

Urban forests from Trees for Cities are breathing new life into impoverished areas.

Standing on top of the hill, wind blowing and cold lapping my face, it is exciting to think that this spot would soon be home to 7,000 new trees, if a little tricky to picture.

We’re in Craigmillar, Edinburgh, to plant the first shoots of a new woodland with our funding partner here, the People’s Postcode Lottery. We help unload the trees, some tiny and twig-like, others thorny whips and saplings, dodging the dug-out holes as the volunteers walk towards us: an eclectic mix: staff from People’s Postcode Lottery in their bright red hoodies, and a group of five women, residents and staff at The Thistle, local housing for people with long-term health conditions. Their grins stretch from ear to ear, gleaming against the pallid spring sky.

“Trees are the lungs of the world, and we’re here to help Edinburgh breathe better!

It’s amazing how two groups of people who have never met can bond so quickly. While Ben, from Edinburgh and Lothians Greenspace Trust, gives an introduction on “how on earth to plant a tree”, the laughter turns into light teasing and soon everyone spreads out across the hill, clutching their chosen saplings.

Tree puns and one-liners abound, and especially from comedy duo Christopher and Heath who (admitting they’d come prepared) boldly proclaim that “trees are the lungs of the world, and we’re here to help Edinburgh breathe better!

Image: facebook.com/treesforcities

Then there is Helen, striking because of her smile that never stops, and the kaleidoscope of keyrings her wheelchair is almost buried under. She has everything from a decent proportion of the Smurf family to Pudsey and could tell a story about how she adopted each and every one of them.

But why here? Edinburgh is a city of hills, so why plant thousands of trees on this one in Little France Park? In our 25-year history, Trees for Cities has planted more than 770,000 trees in deprived urban areas, as this is where access to green space is most lacking and communities stand to gain so much from the countless benefits of trees.

Craigmillar is in the bottom 10 per cent of deprived areas in Scotland (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, 2016) and was first built up in the late-1920s with the opening of breweries and mines. When these began to close in the Sixties and Seventies, unemployment rates soared. Lying around three miles outside Edinburgh’s bustling centre, its sparse landscape is quiet, still almost, jarring against a mental picture of what it would have been in its heyday.

“This hill has the potential to transform an entire community

Fast forward to 2018, and employment opportunities are few and far between, with a solitary tower block and school visible from the hill, joined most recently by a hospital and new homes, built to offer affordable housing and a new heart for Craigmillar.

Peter, one of the volunteers from People’s Postcode Lottery, grew up here and speaks of how tough it could be. But looking out on to the vista, he’s hopeful about the future of the area.

When I think about the memories I have of Craigmillar, there wasn’t much money around and there were a lot of derelict houses,” Peter says. “Planting these trees today makes me think that this could be a totally different place to the one I remember from my childhood. Everything will be new, and perhaps it won’t be looked down upon any more.”

Peter’s on to something, and there’s reason to be optimistic for Craigmillar’s future. The woodland is easier to picture. This hill has the potential to transform the health and well-being of an entire community.

Trees for Cities have planted 773,832 trees so far across the UK and around the world and have created 30 edible playgrounds. Urban trees can cut heating and cooling requirements of nearby buildings, enrich biodiversity, reduce the risk of flooding, strengthen communities and, of course, improve air quality. For example, London’s trees remove 2.4 million tonnes of air pollution each year.

treesforcities.org

The above article by Devika Jina first published on bigissue.com in 2018.