As Armenia embarks on a 30-year plan to double its forest cover, it is important to remember that forests take many forms and can exist in a variety of settings. Providing tree cover in urban areas and along roads is an important component of reforestation. Urban plantings protect the environment and supply many benefits to local residents such as clean air, dust reduction, shade and fruit.
A recent study found that trees literally improve the quality of life for urban dwellers. Research involving millions of people from multiple countries found that urban residents who live close to green spaces are less likely to die prematurely. Michelle Kondo, a research social scientist with the US Forest Service and an author of that study, noted that “the major ways that nature or green space can improve health include improved social contact and cohesion – how we relate to each other.”
Last October, Armenia Tree Project (ATP) and the American University of Armenia’s Acopian Center for the Environment (AUA) co-sponsored an international event called “Forest Summit: Global Action and Armenia.” Among the regional and international experts gathered to discuss forestry, there was consensus that for a large scale reforestation project to succeed, the community must be invited to participate, and care must be taken to address the needs of the community in planning where to plant. What urban dwellers need from trees differs from what villagers need.
In Armenia, a significant percentage of the population lives in the city of Yerevan. Those who have experienced Yerevan in summer know that it is a hot, dusty place. They also know the joy of finding a cool, shady spot to cool off in one of the city’s many parks and green spaces.
Armenia Tree Project understands the importance of urban forestry. In fact, ATP was founded by Carolyn Mugar after she saw desperate people cutting down the trees in city parks to heat their homes in the early 1990s. Of the six million trees ATP has planted since 1994, approximately 375,000 trees are at 346 sites all over Yerevan. The Yerevan sites include schools, universities, churches, parks, monuments, military bases, museums, the airport and the city zoo. As a result, the city enjoys cleaner air, shady relief from “heat islands,” less dust, and more opportunities for recreation and social interaction in green spaces.
An excellent example of one of ATP’s urban sites is the Holy Trinity Church in Yerevan’s densely populated Malatia Sepastia district. This lovely church was surrounded by dusty vacant lots. Between 2001 and 2016, ATP planted 5,340 trees in the area surrounding the church. The plantings included many varieties of fruit and decorative trees and shrubs, which to date have enjoyed an impressive 81-percent survival rate. As you can see from the before and after photos, what was an unattractive and unwelcoming space has become a beautiful urban oasis.
Gohar Atabekyan, a long-time resident of the district, is happy with the improvements. She says, “My family and I lived in the center of Yerevan up to the late 1980s. When we moved to Malatia-Sebastia district, the difference was immense. There used to be a large bazaar where the Holy Trinity Church is today. People would sell all kinds of things, such as lamps, soap, socks, kerosene heaters, etc. As far as I can remember there were barns all over Andranik park, up to the current Malatia market, and it was not surprising to see cows near the bus stops or the apartment buildings. But what was most disappointing for me was that there were hardly any trees and instead there were giant dust clouds trying to choke you. I am very grateful for organizations like ATP and the former head of Malatia Sebastia district- Vahan Zatikyan – for making this program a reality. Now we not only attend the church for mass but also love spending time in the nearby parks with friends and family. These parks and the church have become the hallmark of the district.”
As Armenia moves forward with its 30-year reforestation plan, ATP will continue to grow, plant and care for healthy native trees all over Armenia, and will support the reforestation effort with its expertise and experience in greening Armenia.