By Ashley Mendoza| CivicStory
Summit City fittingly chose Arbor Day for the grand reopening of the Summit Tiny Forest, gathering elected officials and supporters for a celebration at the site behind the Summit Community Center at 100 Morris Avenue on May 18.
Council President Pro Tem Susan Hairston marked the occasion by reading the Arbor Day Proclamation, and City Forester John Linson offered remarks on the day’s historical significance.
Behind the scenes of the project is Donna Patel, chair of the Summit Environmental Commission. Patel’s inspired proposal for the Tiny Forest project has blossomed into a reality, aided by a $10,000 grant secured to breathe life into the woodland sanctuary.
There are a lot of terms for micro forests — they’re variously known as tiny forests, mini forests and Miyawaki forests — but the different names all describe the same thing: plots of land in which native tree species are planted at extremely high density. The technique developed by Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki, is designed to produce forests with extremely high levels of biodiversity that mature much more quickly than those created with conventional planting methods.
Trees are social species, just like us. Creating ecosystems and villages of different tree and plant species allows these organisms to thrive in concert they way they’re supposed to. ‘
Miyawaki’s insights draw from nature’s inherent ability to regenerate and thrive under diverse conditions. The 1990s and 2000s witnessed the spread of his concept to diverse geographical locations, from urban centers to degraded suburban landscapes. His methods have been employed to plant micro-forests in India, South America, Africa, Europe, as well as here in North America.
Micro-forests have been thriving in countries like India and the Netherlands that are already feeling the effects of climate change. Despite this though, we see something that micro-forests have been creating as they’re being developed: a stronger sense of community.
In urban centers of ultramodern Europe, people have been seeking to reconnect with nature and they do so by participating in the development of micro-forests. Dozens of cities in the Netherlands are planting micro-forests, partnering and collaborating with schools to give children the opportunity to learn about and bond with nature. Through this, we see that micro-forests are envisioned as a way to help heal communities from trauma or grief stemming from government negligence, colonialism, and poverty.
I was invited to the grand opening of the micro-forest back in April, as the Summit community publicly declared the opening of the micro-forest to the city while also making them aware of what’s necessary in order for the project to thrive and be protected. I had the pleasure of meeting both Greg Vartan and Patel at the grand opening as they walked me through the project that they have developed.
Interview with Greg Vartan, Summit City Council President
What was the process of putting this together and some of the goals?
“It’s all about attracting wildlife and enriching our natural biodiversity here in Summit.”
Which organizations do you stay in touch with in order to take care of all of the plants and trees?
It is really a local group of volunteers that are doing everything. Donna [Patel], the environmental commission, the Summit Green Committee, there’s a bunch of different groups. The Boy Scouts have been in here to help. It’s mostly Summit local folks here.
We have at least four committees that are environmentally focused. The Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, private schools, will come and keep this amazing. This is not happening in every town. We’ve been focusing on this for 28 years, Summit has been a nationally recognized tree city.
Environmental sustainability is a top priority, but also, specifically, we’ve known for a very long time the way that trees differentiate a city. And having a lot of trees makes a city much more livable and much more welcoming and cooler on the streets. And it saves energy and it creates a better quality of air.
In the last four years, we planted a thousand trees in honor of our council colleague [Council Member Matt Gould] who passed away, and he said that he wanted us to plant a million trees. But we said let’s try for a thousand in the first four years, and we definitely met that goal.
Interview with Donna Patel, Chair of the Environmental Commission for the City of Summit
How was this tiny forest put together and what was the inspiration behind this project?
The honest answer is that we received a $10,000 grant from New Jersey American Water. I didn’t have this in mind when I applied for it because everyone told me we’d never get that grant. We got the grant. And then I said, wait a second. That’s a large amount of money. There’s a resident who’s not here, that would come to our environmental commission meetings who said, have you guys heard of this idea and thought of doing a tiny forest? It’s very popular in the Netherlands, it’s very popular in India.
She sent us the information, and we thought it would work, and we thought it was a meaningful project. It’s more permanent, more of an educational vehicle than just planting trees. Then we got the city’s permission to do this and then went from there to talk to many people to discuss what we could specifically plant and how we would do it, how we would prepare the ground. It was a large scale project.
And how was the process of making this come to life?
Luckily Summit has tons of volunteers. A lot of the people who are here were out there with wheelbarrows and shovels and helped us.
What is some advice that you would give to other cities in order for them to progress the way that you guys have?
Protecting the forest, mainly from the deer, is key. Community members want to be engaged in something, like a planting project. People were happy to come help me prepare the ground and I always have plenty of people to come help me plant.
Now that you have put this together, what are some of the next obstacles?
The weeding and the watering. It’s not as fun as planting. We just have to keep working to make sure that we have the volunteers and organized fashion for people signing up and helping. Last summer it wasn’t that hard for people to weed because if it wasn’t with the stake, we had to take it out. Now? Some of these plants that we want here are going to start spreading, so it’s more. Someone gave me the advice to do a card — like weed this, with a picture, so I have some laminated cards for people to use. So they go around looking for that particular weed and they take it out, so we’re not removing some of the wildflowers that we’re growing.
What has been your inspiration to get involved with this work?
Long-term interest in the environment. I did environmental engineering in college and environmental law in law school. I worked as a lawyer for a bunch of years, then I had my kids and I stopped working. In 2016, I said I had to do more of what I’m doing and my kids are getting older. I said, what do I really care about? and it was the environment. So I found out someone had an environmental commission, and I started going to the meetings, and then I joined it, then I’m the chair of it. It’s like my part-time volunteer job. It takes a lot of time.
I grew up at a time when environmental problems were phased and fixed, like the ozone layer. So, I grew up with a more “we can handle it and figure it out” attitude, so at this point, I’m like, what can we do now? What can we do here? We have a lot of people who care, so how can we help them to take steps in the right direction and advocate for change?
What would you like more of in order for stuff like this to continue happening throughout the city?
I think it’s just a question of, for this particular, the micro-forest, I think this is a relatively inexpensive way to get a lot of plants planted. I think it’s more awareness that this is something that works. Like John said, he was skeptical at first, the forester, and he thinks it’s great. But getting the education about this out, instead of, for example, if you think about some of the tree grants that are coming out now, spending a thousand dollars on one tree. I don’t think all the plants in this forest cost a thousand dollars. Obviously, the forest costs more than that. But a lot of the plants were a couple hundred.
This story was produced in collaboration with CivicStory as part of the New Jersey Sustainability Reporting project.