Forest of dreams

There was a time, during reforestation work a century ago on a pine forest to the south of the city, when it was said that every single Zaragozano had planted a pine tree during their lifetime.

Today, over a century later, Zaragoza is again aiming to get every one of its citizens – that’s 700,000 – to plant a tree.

This time, however, many varieties of new trees will be planted across the city’s mosaic of diverse landscapes in a project ambitious to have a positive impact on many aspects of city life – and on progress towards many of the Sustainable Development Goals.

“The Citizen Forest of Zaragoza is not an isolated project,” stresses Montserrat Hernández Martin, Head of the Strategic Development Unit of Zaragoza’s Parks, Gardens and Green Infrastructure Service. “It is one of the important ways we are making our strategic Green Infrastructure Masterplan real and moving towards being a climate neutral city.”

The city’s objectives for its Citizen Forest start, naturally, with improving CO2 emission absorption, air and water quality, biodiversity, the health of citizens and the resilience and sustainability of the city. And with promoting the circular economy. But they don’t stop there.

From urban degradation to forest education

Through the creation and connection of new urban and peri-urban spaces of distinct forest character, the city also aims to address some of the inevitable results of urban development such as fragmentation of forest areas and degradation of industrial environments.

Through this planting, the city also hopes citizens will feel more connected to the natural world around them as they go about their daily lives.

We have a dream for the city and this project shows dreams can come true
— Montserrat Hernández Martin, Zaragoza City Council

“Zaragoza wants to promote the relationship between people and nature, to make it more of a biophilic city,” says Rebeca Martinez a Consultant with the Ecology and Development Foundation (ECODES), a strategic partner on the project. “For a long time we have used nature but not really learned from it and this is a great, long-term project that’s doing something about this.”

Making sure the younger generation learns about nature and climate action and how they can play their part is another of the project’s aspirations.

Teachers, forest engineers and environmental educators join forces to run an education programme encompassing classroom talks and lessons, interactive gamified activities and plantation site visits.

“Children get an explanation about why urban forests are beneficial for the city and what kind of species are planted in which area and why,” explains Martinez. “When they go to the planting site they know why planting their tree is important and are really happy to participate.”

When people plant their tree they are thrilled and there is an emotional bond with nature
— Rebeca Martinez, Consultant, Ecology and Development Foundation

A project of the city, created by and for citizens

Herein lies one of the biggest challenges of the project: reaching and engaging people of all ages, as well as organisations of all kinds, so that they don’t just plant a tree and walk away but feel part of the Citizen Forest and inspired to support its goals for the long-term.

“It is not easy to integrate all the actors in the city, from youth associations to research scientists and business groups to individual citizens, into the project so that they have a good understanding of what it is all about and why it’s important to them and to our city,” says Hernández Martin.

“We wanted to develop a collaborative approach where ideas could be presented, different ways of participating discussed and the best solutions for problems agreed. To make this possible we worked with one main partner, ECODES, which has experience in social participation.”

We designed the project by integrating all the city's actors to find the best solutions
— Montserrat Hernández Martin, Zaragoza City Council

In rising to the challenge – and in particular in establishing a Dialogue Table format for proposals, debates and learning – Zaragoza has been able to use the Citizen Forest project as a testbed for a new kind of governance model. A co-creation model that it aims to embed into the fabric of the city for the benefit of future projects too.

Creating the beating heart of a forest

Launched in 2021, the project has a city budget of more than €10 million and also seeks grants from national and European framework programmes. The rest of its funding comes from sponsorship – explained and enabled on the project website.

Citizens can sponsor a single tree, getting a personal planting space and the opportunity to plant their own tree. Companies can do this too, or go further and reserve larger plantation spaces. They are also encouraged to act as ‘amplifiers’ and get their clients and suppliers involved.

By 2030 the project aims to have planted a total of 1,200 hectares of Mediterranean, urban and peri-urban forests and river woodlands. Over 200 parcels of land have been identified to become the home of the Citizen Forest.

Each site will be planted with trees and shrubs selected on the basis of its typology, characteristics and desired functionality, whether that’s ecosystem recovery, carbon sequestration or biodiversity promotion.

The technique being used is not pure reforestation in terms of placing trees in a row. It is about enabling the birth of a forest that will grow independently. To do this the foliage and variety of the heart of a forest are nurtured into being by mixing dominant species with shrubs and aromatic species very close to each other.

In the project’s first phase, a 14 hectare natural meadow has been created with up to 20 different herbaceous species including flowering ‘bee friendly’ species such as poppy, purple mistress and clary sage.

Its second phase will see the planting of more than 69,000 species of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants of Mediterranean character, including pine, oak, juniper, olive, almond and apple trees.

Children learn about the forest through classroom talks and games and site visits
Youngsters understand why the trees they plant will benefit the city. Image: EBZ Escolar

Exceeding expectations and exploring new ideas

Taking stock 12 months after the project’s launch, the team couldn’t quite believe what had happened.

“It was an incredible year,” says Martinez. “We didn’t know it was going to be so well received by everyone. All our expectations were exceeded. Citizens sponsored more than 1,000 trees, 120 companies collaborated with us, we reached 6,000 school children and planted 50,000 trees.”

Word of this success has already spread. Mayors of Zaragoza’s suburbs and even cities 50km away have got in touch to find out if they can get involved. Hernández Martin is thrilled at this turn of events.

It's been an incredible first year - we didn't know it was going to be so well received!
— Rebeca Martinez, Consultant, Ecology and Development Foundation

“I love this project and want it to be a reference for other cities. It can definitely be replicated elsewhere and I’m excited to exchange ideas to help others do something important for climate action for future generations.”

Hernández Martin and the team are going to be busy with this extra role added to their day jobs. They are currently very busy recruiting new groups to the cause – youth, healthcare and other social action associations are this year’s targets – and coming up with new sponsorship ideas such as crowdfunding.

Just as the green shoots of thousands of young trees and shrubs are starting to make nature everyone’s neighbour in Zaragoza, the team is determined to ensure the project itself continues to grow healthily and spread its branches widely.

Cities dream, act and lead our future. This example from Zaragoza is one of the finalists for the Eurocities Awards, in the category ‘Lead together – scalable solutions for positive climate impact’. The winners will be announced on 9 June 2022 during the Eurocities Conference.

Tiphanie Mellor