The City of Ilion has developed a mini forest park within its urban complex. The goal of this pocket park, measuring 600 square meters, was to become, within a short period of time, a dynamic ecosystem that provides critical benefits to people and to urban wildlife. Its primary goal was to be an open nature-based school for the children of the Municipal Kindergarten – which is located next to the mini forest, as well as their caregivers and the neighbourhood inhabitants.
Climate change in recent years has been experienced in an intense way (fires, floods, heat waves), the method of creating pocket parks arises as a necessary innovation that improves the microclimate of the urban city and changes the approach for small parks in the densely built urban complex.
The creation of the pocket park and its transformation into an urban forest is an important opportunity for the substantial sanitation of our city. It is an intervention of small scale and cost, but of great strategic importance at neighbourhood level. In this context, we took advantage of an abandoned empty space and transformed it into a naturalized forest habitat.
The design concept was to bring a naturalized mini forest habitat into the dense urban environment of Ilion, but also provide innovative active learning recreation opportunities for those who live, work and mostly for the children of the nursery located next to the mini forest. The local urban challenge we are eager to tackle with, is to create places that feed children appetite to gain their own experiences guided through city environmental programmes.
In the mini urban forest created, we gave special emphasis on the selection of suitable plant material. Native, fast-growing and different plant species were selected. Totally, more than 1,000 plants were planted, with a plant density of 1.5 plants per m2. The goal was to create, in a relatively short time, a new ecosystem in the city. The environmental benefits of the mini urban forest are multiple. We should highlight the significant impact it has on everything; from climate adaption to human wellness and mental health. The new densely planted area will mitigate the urban island effect, improve air quality by absorbing pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides, ammonia, sulfur dioxide and ozone, absolve and manage stormwater and enhance biodiversity. Moreover, it creates a buffer zone from the noisy busy street.
In having appropriate location and distribution of such pocket parks in the urban complex, green networks can be created with multiple benefits. By providing pocket parks, mini urban forest strengthens social cohesion, spurs community revitalization and adds economic value to neighbourhoods.
Following the principles of placemaking, in accordance with a human-centred approach to urban planning, during the planting of the park we organized a celebration with the children of the near located nursery, their caregivers and the residents of the neighbourhood. In the design process of placemaking, the urban space is defined as a stage for action, learning and experience. Our main goal was for the children to get to know the trees, love them and eventually protect them.
Children, through observation and playful learning experiences, are able to grow and develop in a natural environment. Our urban forest is ideal for stopping, resting, observing and playing. Depending on the season, it transforms into an alternative playground. Through the seasonal interventions organized by the Department of Environment's planning service, such as “Small Farmers in the City”, composting actions, seasonal plantings, harvest festival, etc., active and happy citizens are shaped. Our innovation’s focus is to prepare children, through learning by experience, to gain confidence and take risks through playing in order to be successful and happy in a global diverse world.
Moreover, contact with nature has been linked to a host of benefits including improved attention, lower stress, better mood and upticks in empathy and cooperation. Especially for children, nature contact promotes a healthy early childhood development. Equally important benefits are children’s ability to get around independently and increased physical activity. Our urban forest reinforces relationships between children and their caregivers through free playing. In addition, it connects people with their neighbourhood, making communities safer and more sociable. Last but not least, it encourages economic development.
The innovation achieved with our mini forest is that it has been transformed from a simple green passage into a vital destination for young and old citizens. It has been a place of celebration and seasonal events of local scope. For this reason, we intend to hold events on a monthly basis, according to the season. Our last action took place on September 2022, with the educational harvest-grape festival, during which the children of the 12th Municipal Kindergarten had the opportunity to stomp on grapes with their feet, as it is traditionally done at a harvest festival. The scope was to highlight the traditional custom, as well as the experiential familiarization with the grape, the wine and its derivatives. The creation of such spaces, within the urban complex, can also act as a pilot for more municipalities. At the 18th Panhellenic Healthy Cities Conference held on October 2022, our urban forest was presented as an innovation – good practice.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The innovation achieved could be described as follows; It transforms a practically empty public space into a natural green playful destination for young children, their caregivers and the neighbourhood inhabitants. The mini urban forest provides a double benefit; both environmental and social. On the one hand, it provides valuable ecosystem services, such as air pollution removal, carbon storage, oxygen production, runoff prevention and wildlife shelter, through its dense planting design concept (Japan Miyawaki method). On the other hand, it has become an open-nature based school, not only for the children of Municipal Kindergarten – which is located next to it, but also for the neighbourhood inhabitants. The essence of our innovation is that the Ilion’s Environmental Department through monthly environmental open-nature learning opportunities, taking place in the mini forest encourages cross-generational interaction and enhance children’s creativity, mental and social development.
What is the current status of your innovation?
Following the principles of placemaking, in accordance with a human-centred approach to urban planning, we’ve started running a series of outdoor environmental programmes in the mini forest, since its creation. Our last open environmental class took place on September 2022, with the educational harvest-grape festival, during which the children of the 12th Municipal Kindergarten – which is located next to the developed urban forest, had the opportunity to press grapes into a traditional container in order to harvest them. The educational purpose of this activity was to highlight the traditional custom, as well as the experiential familiarization with the grape, the wine and its derivatives. The result was reflected in the faces and psyche of the children. The videos and photos of our completed interventions have successfully captured the joy experienced through this activity.
Collaborations & Partnerships
Private companies contributed as sponsors to the search for required resources, making the implementation of this innovation possible in a short time period. More specifically, our urban forest was created in 2021, in a period of two months, in collaboration with the non-profit organization “Earth Organization” and was financed by the companies P&G Hellas and AB Vassilopoulos.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
The mini forest has a significant impact on everything; from climate adaption to human wellness and mental health. Its existence stimulates the improvement of microclimate, promotes a healthy early childhood development, connects people within their neighbourhood, encourages economic development and sustains Public-Private Partnerships (PPT). Moreover, it sets an example for other municipalities to follow.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
Starting with the fact that a single tree can absorb 22kg of CO2/year and produce 117kg of pure oxygen, we placed particular emphasis on selecting the best plant material to use in our mini forest. A large number and wide variety of plants have been selected, which contribute to the biodiversity enrichment. Totally, more than 1,000 plants were planted, with a plant density of 1.5 plants per m2. The high diversity and density of plants used sets the scene of an urban forest (according to the Miyawaki method), where we actually created a new ecosystem within the city. Only from planting the trees, we will contribute to the reduction of at least: 130.95 kg CO2/per year and in 15 years correspondingly with 333.90 kg CO2/per year.
In addition, behavioural change has started to happen. The mini forest stimulates children, parents, caregivers and neighbourhood citizens into increasing their physical activity. The place we created feeds children’s appetite for experiences.
Challenges and Failures
The initiative faced challenges related with the previous land use status. The area was dedicated for sport facilities. The city eliminated bureaucracy by prioritising the total benefit of the intervention over the do-nothing scenario
Conditions for Success
The most important condition for such an innovation is the existence of strong political will. The support of the local authority was critical for introducing pocket forests into the dense urban complex. Αn additional key success factor was the cooperation with NGOs and private companies.
We should mention the strong vision and values from those responsible for the implementation and the functioning of the mini forest as an open forest school, giving the opportunity to people and children of the area to be infused with a playful learning environment.
The mini forest paradigm could be replicated by other cities as well. The renovation of such spaces - within the urban complex - should act as a pilot for more municipalities. At the 18th Panhellenic Healthy Cities Conference, which was held in October 2022, the urban forest case was presented as an innovation – good practice, with other Greek municipalities expressing a strong interest in the steps involved in the implementation process.
The development of the mini forest gave us the opportunity to appreciate the impact that nature gives on every aspect. Firstly, it stimulates the improvement of public space and supports the overall ecology of the surrounding environment. In addition, it connects people with their neighbourhood, making communities safer and more sociable, while encouraging economic development. Up to now, a total of 8 educational activities have been implemented in the pocket forest, with a total duration of 24 hours and a total number of 150 participants, of whom 60 were adults and 80 children. Our latest activity took place on September 2022, with the educational harvest-grape festival, during which the kids of the 12th Municipal Kindergarten had the opportunity to stomp on grapes with their feet, as it is traditionally done at a harvest festival. The result was reflected in the faces and psyche of the children. The videos and photos from our interventions are living proof.