Urban Wood Italian Style

By Franco Paolinelli
Silvicultura Agrocultura Paesaggio, Rome, Italy

Editor’s note: I have had the pleasure of corresponding with Franco Paolinelli since January of 2019. He initiated the conversation after finding Illinois Urban Wood in a web search. Over the last couple of years, we have shared several emails detailing our mutual interest in urban wood utilization. What follows is a paper Franco sent me about his urban forestry association’s urban wood activities in Rome. –– Rich Christianson

Logs from trees removed for an outdoor theatre were converted into benches.

OUR ORGANIZATION
Silvicultura Agrocultura Paesaggio (S.A.P.) is a small, non-profit, network of experts and firms, established in 1993 to improve urban green area management and related social and cultural services.  

The association operates mainly in Rome, a metropolitan area with lots of public and private green areas, then with huge amounts of trees to be pruned and renewed, then huge amounts of wood to be disposed.

Within this frame, in 2004 SAP launched the following project:

 URBAN TREES’ TIMBER: AN UNKNOWN RESOURCE

1) Assumptions

Wood is made by carbon polymers, produced by the plants with water and CO2, with the support of solar energy, through the photosynthesis process. The process releases oxygen in the atmosphere.

More trees equals more wood, which means more CO2 is taken away from the atmosphere and more oxygen us added, as recognized also by the Kyoto Protocol. 

Urban trees produce a huge amount of urban wood: Public and private trees, shrubs, hedges in private and public gardens provide security and support public health. They must be pruned and cyclically renewed. These processes produce urban wood.

Public-owned trees in the City of Rome Italy are estimated to be around 330,000. All trees of the city may be more then 1,000,000. An annual renewal of 1% means producing 10,000 logs that could provide at least 20.000 cubic meters of lumber.

What happens now: Generally speaking, wood companies do not appreciate urban lumber. Their manufacturing needs normally require a steady stream of very homogeneous logs that urban forests cannot provide.

As a result, most unwanted urban wood goes mainly in landfills.

In some cases, the trees are chipped then composted or sold to be used for for energy production. But most of it, particularly large logs and big branches, are just left to decay. This process may wind up converting carbon polymers into a greenhouse gas, maybe CO2 or even worse methane.

 2) TRENDS 

Urban timber quality is increasing: Modern arboriculture and greater attention to urban green resources are producing better quality urban trees. Then, at the end of their useful life cycle, better logs can be realized.

This trend also implies that there is a reduction of iron in trees in terms of nails, screws, etc. As the quantity of iron pieces embedded in urban wood decreases, damage to sawmills and sawblades will likely decrease.

Cities may express a multifunctional market: Urban areas may express increased demand for creative arts and crafts, including those with intrinsic symbolic values based on where the trees lived. There is also the potential to use more of the wood for didactic, therapeutic and training purposes.

All of possibilities may increase the appreciation for uneven logs and branches with unique shapes.

 3) PROJECT

 What could happen: The biggest challenge is changing people to view removed trees not as a waste but as a  resource.

An arborist trained on the subject will see the “resource” already on the tree, while pruning or cutting it in pieces. Then, even with a simple chainsaw, he may be able to produce a resource, in terms of pieces for crafts, art and furniture.

Beyond that,  now a days, portable mills are readily available. These machines can be used to convert logs and large branches into lumber. These operations may also take place where the tree has been removed.

A dying tree removed from a park, may return a benches, tables or playground equipment for the park itself.

Urban timber could be used to produce outdoor or indoor furniture, as well as art and design works or common use objects. Smaller branches could be made into items utilized for didactic and therapeutic activities.

Thus, just leaves, small branches and sawdust would be left for composting or used for energy.

4) URBAN WOOD UTILIZATION IMPLIES POSITIVE EFFECTS

Cultural and social effects:

  • Involving people in urban timber work may help to deliver important environmental messages. For instance: Wood is a sustainable carbon stock. Its use may help in controlling greenhouse gases.
  • Urban wood manipulation may help us, mainly our youngsters, to limit the drift within the “virtual world.” In fact, wood, the first matter humanity manipulated, will help us to remember that we have hands capable to do lots of things in the real world.
  • Several jobs within this field may be implemented by disadvantaged people, providing an inclusive effect.

 

 Environmental effects:

  • Carbon sink: Wood is the carbon that trees assimilate. Preserving wood, as art works or furniture for example, increases carbon sequestration. Its quantity may be defined. 
  • Sustainable energy production: Leaves and other leftovers may be utilized for this purpose.
  • New plantings: Urban timber markets may generate economic resources and motivations to plant more trees at both the public and private scale.
  • Improved maintenance: The urban timber market may motivate better care for trees. A full circle urban Forestry approach may take place. 
  • The availability of valuable urban timber may decrease the demand for tropical tree use. That may provide some help in saving environmentally relevant forests and in reducing import expenses.

Socio-economic effects: Urban timber production and transformation, within a multifunctional urban market, may develop through small and medium enterprises. These businesses can create jobs, along the whole supply chain from the grounded tree to timber production, design, art, didactic, social therapy and so on.

Why urban timber production may be convenient:

  • As urbanized areas grow, then the number of trees, planted and wild, must grow as well. Their required maintenance ultimately implies the production of urban wood. A great part of that may be converted into valuable urban timber. A multifunctional urban market may give a value even to species under-appreciated by the wood industry. 

  • Urban timber may have certified symbolic values based on the site where it comes from. Timber materials may, then become: “Rome trees’ timber,” “Central Park trees’ timber,” Tivoli Park trees’ timber” etc. In a multifunctional market, a board or an object with a certified origin may have an added value.
      
  • Based on CO2 sequestration a professional certification may be associated with a board or an object. Then, for instance, an owner may buy an urban timber dinner table and state to his hosts, “My dinner table is a 25kg carbon sink.”
  • Urban Forests and their timber may become relevant CO2 sinks that a city may include in its carbon balance in line with the Kyoto treaty.
  • New tools are available to produce timber from urban logs.
  • Timber transformation may be multi functional: production of objects, education, social services, therapy, environment, etc.

5) ACTIONS TAKEN

Since 2004 S.A.P. has taken logs and large branches of trees removed in private and public gardens, for safety and health reasons, to produce simple furniture pieces, as well as materials to conduct workshops with children and socially disadvantaged people.

Most furniture piece produced have been accompanied with a certificate stating their origin and a rough estimation of their carbon content.

In 2006 S.A.P. requested the Vatican administration to take the St. Peter Square Christmas tree at the end of the exposition period. S.A.P. used St. Peter Christmas tree logs and branches in experimental productions and workshops. 

In 2016 S.A.P. proposals on urban timber were joined by “A Roma Insieme”, an association focused on jail population support. A training activity was, then, arranged for inmates in Regina Coeli Institute, in 2017 and 2018.

5) PILOT PROJECT

In 2018 an interesting pilot project took place within the Leopardi elementary school of Rome to use trees removed on its land for an outdoor theatre project.

Steps: S.A.P., in the winter 2018 had some meetings with Mr. Giovanni Figà Talamanca, in charge for “Educational Politics” in the I’ Municipality of Rome, presenting him the project “Urban Timber from the Trees of Rome.”

The Giacomo Leopardi school lays in a large garden, rich in Pinus tress. School and Municipality Administration were already on the way to have 12 Pinus (Pinus pinea and P. halepensis) removed to increase garden safety.

Mr. Talamanca was able to link our project and the Pinus planned removal. The School administrations approved our proposal to convert some logs in outdoor furniture and a contract was signed.

The arboricultural firm in charge of the job was able to cut the trees, preserving several logs. The alumni parents’ association was involved to express proposals. The idea of the outdoor theatre was launched and approved. Project guidelines were defined and approved by the school direction.

S.A.P. experts, with a “Granberg” frame mounted on a Stihl machine saw milled 30 logs producing flattened ones, boards and short sections.

A volunteering parents’ group, named for the occasion “log rollers,” participated in locating the logs in the theatre selected site, in assembling the benches, in smoothing and in painting them.

The Theatre: The following furniture pieces were produced and placed:

  • N. 6 big round logs 2m long;
  • N. 19 flattened logs to be used as benches;
  • N. 8 benches assembled with boards on orthogonal sections 30cm high; and
  • N. 20 orthogonal sections sits.

Results:

 1 – For the school and the administration::

  • Reduced costs to obtain the theatre; and
  • Project administrative process definition.

2 – For the parent volunteers:

  • School garden improvement; and
  • Participation, ability acquisition.

 3 – For S.A.P.:

  • Working days;
  • Project administrative process definition; and
  • Urban Timber idea promotion.

4 – For the Environment:

  • Landfill prevented: 5 tons — 30% of the total biomass produced; and
  • Estimated carbon stock in the logs’ theatre: 2,5 tons.

5- For Local Economies:

  • Investment in local businesses.

6 – Development Programs:

  • Interest expressed by local institutions, mainly in the artistic environment, is increasing.