A couple nights ago on BBC they had a piece about the urban forests of Rio de Janeiro (Tijuca and Pedra Branca). They are not what we normally mean by urban forest—a collection of all trees throughout a city. They are real forests, the kind where wild, endangered animals live and native plants grow wild and free. What’s interesting is that while they both are claimed to be the world’s largest, one is natural (having become incorporated into the city as it grew), and the other is entirely hand-planted, thanks to a very wise man who happened to be the mayor of Rio in the 19th century. The news story was about the pressure by middle class Brazilians to encroach and built their homes in the forest; it also mentioned the problem of foraging and raids into the forest by the poor population of the city. So the government is building a wall around it.
Another interesting fact I’ve been meaning to mention for some time is the European Greenbelt project. Again, this is not what you would typically think about when you hear the word “greenbelt”—a ring of land restricted for development, encircling a populated area. The European greenbelt is a ribbon of undeveloped land weaving across all of Europe from the Arctic Ocean to the Black See and the Mediterranean and consisting if every type of habitat imaginable—tundra, boreal and broadleaf forests, meadows and rivers. This not-so-accidental nature area has come into existence not by the conservation efforts of man but as a result of 40 years of iron curtain policies and enforcement of a buffer zone between Western and Eastern Europe. As a result of the restricted movement of people across this land (save border guards and Eastern European fugitives dashing across) the zone became a wildlife sanctuary of sorts, home to all kinds of endagered species, and a migratory bird route—probably the only man-made bird route in the world! When people noticed this, the Greenbelt idea was born (and I think, the phrase). Sadly, less than a decade later, it too is under pressures of development, suburban and agricultural alike. A wall alongside it though, as in Rio, would just be just too much of an irony (or something), I’m afraid.
Now these two bits have nothing to do with the fact that the Beltline is now officially city property and zoned as open space (thanks once again, Jean Sweeney!), other that it made me think that the Beltline is our own impromptu greenbelt, and that it could become our urban wild forest, if we so desire. It has been a de facto no man’s land the whole time legal wrangling was going on, and meanwhile it’s grown quite wild and unfamiliar, and I should add, littered. What animals dwell there, I don’t know, but birds are audible and insects are omnipresent. A stroll through the abandoned property is a trip of its own, and it does feel like you’ve stepped away somewhere. Last time I visited I was thinking how sorry I would be to see something tamed and manicured replace this impromptu wilderness, even shabby as it is; that while I would hope that some day it would once again be used as a train or light rail route, I would hate to see it all asphalted and sodded and lanscaped and sprinklered, and mowed by a gas-powered lawnmower. Rather, I’d like to see native plants and wild, tangled trees growing untamed and dirt paths that meander through, with small and tasteful benches here and there, where the adults can rest and listen to nature’s sounds while the kids explore the jungle on their own. Sound fun?
Speaking of growing a forest, another prime spot is Neptune Park, between Webster Street and Constitution, and the whole area along the approach to the Posey Tube, on the right. Right now, that’s all yellow grass and sickly trees. There is landscaping plan for part of that area, but it is oh so bland and boring, and requires ongoing maintenance and irrigation—a very silly thing indeed for a sliver of land nobody would actively use. Wouldn’t an oak forest be just the thing for this otherwise dead spot?