Blossom amid the gloom for Japan

People in Japan have long celebrated the arrival of the cherry blossom with picnics under the trees and this year is no exception, as the BBC’s Roland Buerk reports.

However, he goes on to add that the worst economic crisis since World War II has taken the shine off the festivities.

The winter was long, cold, grey and wet, made grimmer by desperate news about the health of the world’s second biggest economy.

Little wonder people in Japan were ready to welcome the arrival of spring.

The first red buds appeared on the dark, almost black, cherry blossom trees in Tokyo around the beginning of March.

In the last few weeks they have burst into flower.

So thick have the blossoms been that the avenues of trees in the parks have looked like pink and white clouds. There are more along waterways.

Hemmed in by concrete, often used as a conveniently vacant bit of land to build a flyover expressway, Tokyo’s rivers are far from pretty in the winter.

But at this time of year they are transformed, with the laden branches dipping down towards the water.

Tokyo’s residents have been out in vast numbers to celebrate the new season.

This city has the largest population of any metropolitan area on the planet, and it seemed everyone wanted to see the blossom.

In Ueno Park, the crowds were so thick it was difficult to move along the pathways.

Amateur photographers were everywhere, taking close-ups of the blossoms on their camera phones, or snapping their friends posing under the trees.

The seasons are cherished in Japan.

Autumn foliage and rice planting are celebrated, but the cherry blossoms are especially welcome.

In centuries past, aristocrats would walk under the trees or sit to compose poetry.

Blossom appreciation is part of the Japanese cultural tradition of “mono no aware”, perhaps best translated as an awareness of the fleeting nature of beauty and a bittersweet sadness at its passing.

Nowadays as spring approaches, an item appears on television each night after the weather forecast: the latest news on the progress of the cherry blossom front, as it moves north up the archipelago with the warmer weather.

The first blossoms were spotted on the island of Okinawa, far to the south in the sub-tropics, in early January.

In Tokyo, officials from the Japan Meteorological Agency keep a close watch on the Yasukuni Shrine.

It is a controversial memorial to almost 2.5 million people who dedicated their lives to Imperial Japan, particularly those who fell in World War II. Convicted war criminals are among those symbolically enshrined there.

Soldiers were often compared to the beautiful but short-lived blossoms, and many vowed to meet their comrades in spirit at Yasukuni if they were killed.

Among its many cherry blossom trees, the shrine contains one particularly famous example protected by a fence.

When it has five or six blooms, the season in Tokyo is officially declared to have begun and several weeks of lavish cherry blossom picnics get under way.

As I strolled through the park, groups in suits and ties were sitting cross-legged tucking into sushi, rice, noodles and sweet dumplings, all washed down with sake and beer.

One group hailed me to join in a drinking game. To chants of encouragement, we took turns to down glasses of shochu, a powerful Japanese spirit.

The gatherings grew raucous into the night under the blossoms which were lit up with lanterns.

Reserving a place in the crowded parks for the annual office party is an important task and usually assigned to the most junior employees.

Many firms take on new recruits at this time of year.

After they are welcomed at large, elaborate ceremonies – complete with group renditions of the company song – they are sent off with blue plastic sheets to stake out a good spot.

From early in the morning, young men – and some women – in new suits were industriously laying out their sheets.

They taped together cardboard boxes to make low tables.

This year the cherry blossom season has come as Japan stumbles into its worst post-war economic crisis.

Major manufacturers are in trouble, exports have halved of the cars and electronic gadgets that have powered Japan’s rise to become an industrial and technological powerhouse.

Along with profits, the old certainties of the Japanese way are being eroded.

Fewer young people are being taken on by the big companies to start a job for life.

Some firms have even revoked offers they have made, despite a government policy of publicly naming and shaming them.

So as the young recruits settled in for a long wait for their colleagues to arrive for the evening festivities (some had brought sleeping bags as protection against the chilly wind of early spring) one of them reflected to me: “I’m lucky to have a job.”

Source: BBC News website

Date: 18/04/2009

Happy people ‘live near trees’

Living near trees makes people live longer and feel happier, a study shows.

Researchers added that leafy streets also encourage a lower crime rate and a more “civilised” atmosphere, even in poor areas, the UK’s Daily Telegraph reports.

They suggest that living close to parks and other green spaces is “essential to our physical, psychological and social well-being”.

“Nature calms people and it also helps them psychologically rejuvenate,” said Frances Kuo from the University of Illinois, who led a review of studies into the effects of trees and parklands.

“They are better able to handle challenges which come their way.”

The research also shows that people have happier relationships and perform better in tests when they live in tree-filled neighbourhoods.

Other studies showed that health levels could be “predicted by the amount of green space within a one-mile radius”.

Research in Japan also found that older people lived for longer when their homes were within walking distance of a park or other green space.

Professor Kuo observed: “In our studies, people with less access to nature show relatively poor attention or cognitive function, poor management of major life issues, and poor impulse control.”

“The relationship between crime and vegetation is very clear: the more trees, the fewer crimes.

“It actually encourages people to use the spaces outside their homes, which provides a natural form of surveillance.

“In fact, the data seem to indicate that if you have a landscape where you introduce well-maintained trees and grass, people will find that a safer environment.”

One study showed that the presence of trees could cut crime by as much as 7%, according to the research presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference (AAAS) in Chicago.

Children with attention deficit disorders also behaved better after a walk in a park compared to those who exercised indoors or in treeless areas, the review found.

Source: Daily Telegraph

Date: 14/02/2009

Report: Trees in the urban realm

Although the findings from the UK’s Tree and Design Action Group were published in 2008, it is worth reprising here.

The group, comprising of professionals and organisations, looked at the threat facing urban trees, while highlighting the benefits they bring to local communities.

It says that trees enrich the urban landscape by “improving health and well-being for people and the environment”.

It goes on to say that the report also highlights that urban trees mitigate temperature extremes, reduce pollution and increase real estate values.

“In terms of climate change,” the group suggests, “trees have been identified as being a key element of any urban climate change adaptation strategy.

“Trees are uniquely placed to be widely integrated into the urban fabric, providing a shading and cooling mechanism.

“Without this cooling mechanism, cities of the future – London in particular – are likely to be very inhospitable places.”

However, the group says that while there is awareness about the role trees can play in making cities habitable in the future, current design and planning systems make it very difficult to plan for the future.

“The services and infrastructure needed in cities to achieve high densities living generally militates against the presence of trees.

“Climate change will add to these pressures and create a landscape devoid of large trees unless practical steps are taken by a range of professional bodies working in partnership.”

It builds on the London Assembly Environment Committee’s 2007 report “Chainsaw Massacre“, which highlighted the loss of street trees in London. It found that more large tree species were being cut down rather than being replaced.

The Trees in Towns II report, commissioned by the Department for Communities and Local Government, echoed this findings for the rest of England.

Source: Trees and Design Action Group (TDAG)

Date: December 2008

Africa’s urban trees are casualties of overcrowded cities

It is not only the rural regions in developing nations that are losing tree cover.

In an article published by the Ugandan website, New Vision, environmental journalist Ebenezer Bifubyeka highlights the issue of urban trees being felled.

The reason? Apparently, it is because of the rising population in cities, which is increasing the demand for urban open spaces to be converted into housing.

In his article, reproduced below, he highlights why authorities’ decisions to sacrifice the green urban spaces are is not without consequence:

On January 2, The New Vision published an article quoting the director of Natural Resources in the National Forestry Authority, Hudson Andura, as saying:

“Fifteen urban forest reserves are to be degazzated to cater for the growing population and development in 15 towns countrywide.”

Do we ever ask ourselves why trees stand side by side with skyscrapers in cities within developed countries? The reason is to mitigate city noise and absorb pollutant gases. Trees reduce on noise and absorb toxic gases.

The move by the National Forest Authority to degazzate forest reserves in 15 towns is not only a miscalculation but also a disastrous move. It is in urban centres that greenhouse gases are most emitted from factories and trees are the immediate reducers of such pollutant gases.

Is anybody bothered about the loss of national tree cover from 28% in 1988 to 13% by 2008? The loss of water catchment areas has led to poor and filthy water quality, thus the subsequent deaths of fish.

Besides, ornamental and ambient roles, trees in urban compounds, streets, recreational centres and hospitals keep the cycle of air flow fresh. In public hospitals like Mbarara Hospital, there used to be enough shed trees purposely to reduce noise of vehicles for the sick. It is unfortunate that these trees are being felled.

Trees reflect noise upwards in the atmosphere, according to Jeconious Musingwire, the western regional environment awareness officer.

As Uganda moves towards development circles, we have started going more brown (non-green environment). Despite pressure from investors and politicians to develop urban areas, development should be in harmony with conservation. Otherwise, we shall head for desertification and famine.

The escalating global warming – evidenced by climate change – warns us to stop further degradation of other green belts such as swamps, parks, green grass and forests.

In this regard I implore the Government to take environment concerns seriously and discourage cementing pavements and compounds. The green grasses are vital, for they ease the percolation of water into the soil.

Source: New Vision website

Date: 14/01/2009

UK city stages ‘tree-athlon’

Hundreds of trees have been planted in Greater Manchester as part of the city’s first “tree-athlon” event, reports the BBC News website.

About 500 people took part in a 5km (three-mile) run in Heaton Park, before each was given a sapling as a prize.

Competitors could either plant the tree at home or in specially-created woodland in the park after the event.

The race, which took place at 1430 BST, was organised by the charity Trees for Cities, which aims to raise money to plant trees in urban areas.

Councillor Richard Cowell, of Manchester City Council, said: “As well as cutting our carbon footprints, trees are an important part of our response to climate change and our drive to become Britain’s greenest city.

“Whether you’re taking part in the Tree-athlon or the Tree Party, this is a wonderful opportunity for families and young people to enjoy a good day out whilst learning about the importance of trees.”

Trees for Cities has been running greening projects in Greater Manchester since 2005.

It works in partnership with the Red Rose Forest, one of 12 Community Forests in England that are regenerating the environment in and around many of England’s urban centres.

Source: BBC News website

Date: 05/10/2008

Urban trees linked to cutting childhood asthma

US researchers suggest that urban trees have a wider role to play than just an aesthetic one. They are undertaking a study into claims that tree-lined avenues can cut the number of children who develop asthma.

City officials are going to embark on a 10-year project to see if increasing the number of trees per square kilometre leads to a decline in the number of children suffering from the lung condition.

It appears as if the initial hypothesis is based on observations that a wealthly New York neighbourhood, with a high ratio of trees , had a  low  level of asthma among  young residents; whereas a poor district (with considerably less trees) had a much higher percentage of cases of childhood asthma.

Columbia University researchers found that asthma rates among children aged four and five fell by 25% for every extra 343 trees per square kilometre.

They believe more trees may aid air quality or simply encourage children to play outside, although they say the true reason for the finding is unclear.

The study appears in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Here is the report from Reuters:

NEW YORK – City blocks boasting plenty of trees aren’t only more pleasing to the eye; they may be healthier for children’s lungs, according to research conducted in New York City.
Four- and five-year-olds living along the city’s greenest streets were less likely to have asthma than young children living in sparsely planted neighborhoods, Dr. Gina S. Lovasi and colleagues from Columbia University found. “We think that trees might have a beneficial effect on air quality — affecting air quality right at the street level,” Lovasi told Reuters Health. While the effects were independent of poverty and pollution, the researcher added, its possible street trees may simply be a stand-in for a healthful environment. “We’re not confident that it’s the trees themselves that are what’s driving this.”

Asthma rates have risen sharply in the US since 1980, and inner cities have been hit particularly hard, Lovasi and her colleagues note in their report. Trees could cut asthma risk by cleaning the air and encouraging kids to play outdoors, they add; but the pollen they release could also contribute to asthma attacks. To investigate, the researchers compared a census of New York City’s half-million street trees from 1995 to statistics on asthma prevalence and hospitalisation rates for 1999.

The wealthy Upper East Side of Manhattan was the greenest neighbourhood in the city, with 1,675 trees per square kilometre, or nearly seven trees an acre, while the impoverished Hunt’s Point-Mott Haven neighbourhood in the Bronx was the city’s barest, with only 109 trees per square kilometre or less than half a tree per acre.

As the density of trees in a neighbourhood rose, asthma prevalence fell, even after the researchers accounted for the percentage of residents living below the poverty line, a neighbourhood’s proximity to pollution sources such as busy truck routes, and other relevant factors.

An increase of 343 trees per square kilometre, or roughly 1.5 trees per acre, translated to 29% lower asthma prevalence. For example, asthma prevalence among 4- and 5-year-olds would be 9% in a neighbourhood with 2.5 trees per acre, but just 6% in a neighbourhood with four trees per acre.

Rates of asthma hospitalisation tended to be lower in neighbourhoods with more street trees, but the relationship wasn’t statistically significant; nevertheless, this suggests that trees aren’t a major contributor to asthma attacks, Lovasi said.

A “natural experiment” set to take place over the next decade will help to answer the question of whether street trees really do make for healthier kids; New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg has launched an effort to plant a million new trees by 2017, and Lovasi and her colleagues are now working with the city government to study neighbourhood health as the project progresses.

Story by Anne Harding

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