A tree growing in a city is worth quite a bit more than a pretty view. For example, Toronto's urban forest is worth an estimated $7 billion, thanks to the ability of trees to soak up pollution and reduce floods. So what would happen if we could grow 30 times more trees in the same small city lot?
A startup in India has figured out how to make that possible, and now hopes to use its ultra-efficient process to blanket the world's cities in trees. The founder, a young industrial engineer, used to work at Toyota and is bringing the same management techniques from the Toyota assembly line to the world of trees. The methodology means a 300-tree forest can grow in an area the size of six parking spaces.
"It's the natural process of growth, but amplified," says Afforestt founder Shubhendu Sharma. Through an intensive process of building nutrients three feet deep in the soil and carefully plotting out a mix of trees, Sharma's team can fill up an entire plot of land with a forest so thick it's impossible to walk inside.
The technique was originally developed by Japanese scientist Akira Miyawaki, who demonstrated it at Toyota while Sharma worked there. The engineer was so inspired that he ended up building a similar forest in his own backyard, and eventually left Toyota to start building small super-forests everywhere.
Miyawaki has been using the technique for 40 years, but the new startup, called Afforestt, is trying to codify the system into something that can easily be sold as a service. "We're bringing forestation into the mainstream," says Sharma. "We can go into a corporate office and say this is what you should do . . . we're making forests with the same acumen that Toyota would make cars, or that SpaceX would make a rocket."
All along, he's viewed planting trees as an efficiency-obsessed engineer. "Ultimately, I had to go back to my production principles, because that is what I knew," Sharma says. "In order to improve the efficiency, we've adopted the concept of a multi-layer forest. We ensure that no two trees, once they grow big, fight for the same space."
Using an algorithm, the team plans out exactly where each tree will be placed. The system works. "We've been able to achieve an efficiency of a 92% survival rate over the past three years," Sharma says. Compared to a conventional plantation, the trees grow 10 times faster and 30 times denser, and the forest is 100 times more biodiverse.
Because of the intensity of the process, it's too expensive to use on large plots of land. But it's perfect for a city, and can quickly multiply the benefits of any existing urban green space.
"Because these forests grow 30 times faster and are thirty times more dense, the carbon sequestration happens at a rate that's 30 times higher," Sharma explains. The mini-forests can also absorb more particles of pollution, provide new habitat for endangered species, and conserve water that would otherwise run off pavement in storms.
The forests can reduce urban temperatures by around five degrees, and help reduce energy used for cooling, Sharma says. Because he only uses native species, the forests can also eventually survive without watering or other maintenance.
"Most of the landscaping in cities now has exotic species," he says. "If this kind of maintenance-free landscaping is introduced, the burden on the environment—from water, and fossil fuels used for mowing—becomes zero."
So far, Afforestt has tested the technique in India, and next month will plant new forests in Oman and Mexico. Next up are Kenya and South Africa. It's a process that Sharma says can work anywhere a forest would naturally grow.
Now he's working on making the process open source. After building a forest in a particular city, they'll share all of the details with anyone else there who might want to plant another in a backyard or schoolyard. "Ultimately, the mission of the company is to bring back native forests," Sharma says. "So why not involve everyone, rather than trying to do it alone?"