A unique(ly) small forest in Utrecht Science Park

It's a cold but beautiful Thursday morning in November. On Cambridgelaan, 25 pairs of eyes look on expectantly as a fleece-clad gardener digs a hole in a wide strip of earth opposite the Johanna building. "Just about that deep," she says. Her outstretched hand disappears into the hole. An international student in the second row stands on his tiptoes to see better. Next to him is a beaming Cas de Ruiter, a biology student and, as the former chair of the Utrecht Biologists Association, initiator of this project. Today we are following him to witness the birth of a unique(ly) small forest in the Science Park. De Ruiter: "In ten years’ time, this tiny forest will grow into something that a normal forest would take a hundred years to create."

Cas de Ruiter - Utrecht Biologists Association

Laptops put aside

The explanation has been given; gardening gloves are handed out; people blow on their hands to warm them. We are at the planting day of the Netherlands' first university tiny forest. Some fifty UU students and employees have today put their laptops aside to start planting little trees. A similar number missed out; places for volunteers were snapped up within two days. The enthusiasm is palpable. Whether this group of bookworms and office workers can handle a spade adequately will soon become clear. The aim is to plant 600 trees to form a solid basis for a tiny forest: a dense, native forest the size of a tennis court. The Green Office received it from Utrecht University as a gift for its fifth anniversary.

Not just any forest

Back to de Ruiter. That 'native' is important, he explains. You’ll only find species of trees that originally grew in the Netherlands in this tiny forest. The plant list reads like poetry: wych elm, fluttering elm, small-leaved lime... and then thirty other species. “That's incredibly diverse for such a small area! Try to find 33 different trees and shrubs on the same surface area in Amelisweerd.” 

No, a tiny forest isn't just any forest. The designation means that it has been designed according to a specific forestry method. In addition to only planting native species, a condition is that trees are planted much closer together than in conventional forestry. The latter is good for the growth rate of this diverse piece of forest.

Stepping stones for biodiversity

Biodiversity, that's what it’s all about for de Ruiter. At the end of 2019, an interim report from a Dutch biodiversity study showed that tiny forests attract hundreds of different species of animals and plants. In the long run, this tiny forest has the potential to make a positive contribution to the ecological value of the campus and provide a home for local species of insects, birds and other animals.  

Exactly the intention, agrees Anjelle Rademakers of the Green Office. “Eventually we would like to see the Science Park filled with these stepping stones for biodiversity. That’s how we can ensure that the surrounding wildlife areas – which you could say are split in two by our campus – become more connected again.”

Green stopover

Stepping stones should make it easier for plants, birds and insects, for example, to move around a built-up area. Just imagine: a honey bee, on its way from the ecological forest De Driehoek in the west to the Botanic Gardens, can make a stopover in the tiny forest’s flower meadow. Bird species such as the robin, the wren and the great tit will also undoubtedly find the tiny forest. De Ruiter: “These birds generally thrive in built-up environments such as the Science Park. That's why they are so common in a country like the Netherlands. But they, too, will always benefit from more trees.” 

Utrecht Science Park as a poster project

De Ruiter wants to remain level-headed. This tiny forest is a great step towards more biodiversity on the campus, but much more could be done. "Degree programmes sometimes include poster projects, have you come across them? The poster has to contain 30% text and 40% images. Let's make Utrecht Science Park a poster project! Then we’d say: 50% of the surface area has to be green. That would be better for everybody, wouldn't it?”

A forest experience

The trees have been planted; the day is coming to an end. A few groups of volunteers – cold and tired, but happy – warm up with vegetarian refreshments. Time to ask de Ruiter one last question. What does he think it's going to look like here in ten years’ time? He's quiet for a moment. He looks at the 600 scrawny trees pluckily resisting the November wind. "It would be nice to have a forest experience when you walk through it.” Laughing: "Even if only for three minutes.” What does he consider a forest experience to be? "That you feel you're in the forest, well away from the Science Park and all the buildings. For a moment, you are surrounded by nature.”

The planting day in November showed that there were enough students and staff to be found who were prepared to work outdoors. Student Sanne Verschoor:

As a trainee biologist, I obviously think it's really cool that my university isn't just planting more green spaces, but is specifically promoting greater biodiversity on the campus. I think this project is a compelling example of how knowledge and positive energy can contribute to a more sustainable policy.

Sanne Verschoor, Biology student

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