Cities struck by pandemic want local resilience: urban wood movement shows the way

You can add the forestry sector to the long list of industries that have received a hard blow from the Covid-19 disaster. Less visible than closed cafés and restaurants, many companies in the business of converting trees into usable lumber have also been hit hard. With global trade routes interrupted and production capacities impaired – all major ports in China have seen their turnover plummet due to Coronavirus fallout – there is more timber to be harvested than there are buyers of logs in the market. Some forestry companies have adapted their production processes and now churn out fiber for packaging material or sanitary use. The crisis could thereby actually speed up the transition to a bio-economy in which more materials and products are made from renewable materials such as wood fibers – including wood-based biodegradable face masks.

Why do you need global trade to create value from a local tree?

But there is an elephant in the room. Why do you need global trade routes and demand from Asia to create value from trees? The short answer: because local and regional value chains are all but non-existent in many parts of the world. All of the world’s growing regions – except Asia – are net exporters of wood. So when global trade collapses, so does your forestry sector. When the Sonian Wood Coop started to buy its very first logs of local wood this year they expected to be in competition with Asian buyers. Turns out that they were virtually the only buyers in the market for trunks from the Sonian Forest!

Are they crazy to buy wood in a recession?

Not at all. A closer look reveals encouraging pockets of local resilience and, even in the face of sanitary crisis and economic downturn, astonishing vibrancy. And cities are central to this story. For many companies in the Urban Wood Network, a federation of small wood companies operating in cities across the United States, these have been busy months. “With so many people confined to their homes, the demand for wood for home-improvement jobs has been enormous”, explained an urban lumber jack in a recent webinar on business development organized by the Urban Wood Network. And where do you go to get your boards during a global meltdown? To your local lumber yard of course. In addition to being close, urban wood companies have also invested very early in on-line shops and are in constant contact with their customer base via social media (check out the hashtag #urbanlumber or #urbanwood and a fantastic universe of “slabs” and “cookies” will spring up). This makes it so much easier to adapt to the changing circumstances as the pandemic affected the way we go about our lives - and garden shed repair project! And it’s not only hobby woodworkers who have used the lock-down to finally get to that long-planned wood job. Woodworkers in Brussels are also busy these days: with many companies and institutions taking advantage of empty premises to make repairs and renovations, orders are again piling up.

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Resilience to what lies ahead (and yes, there is much more to come)

Even though the resilience of the local wood movement is something to celebrate, let’s keep things in proportion. You have probably seen that cartoon comparing the scale of Covid-19 to the looming economic crisis and climate change. Different versions of the cartoon circulate on social media, but the story is always the same: the current crisis is nothing compared to the big hit that we will experience from the economic depression on the horizon, which in turn appears small compared to the major disruptions associated with climate change. For the forestry sector, the need for resilience to climate change is not something to be discussed in the distant future. We have seen draught after draught, fire after fire. Foresters expect that the beech tree, now the dominant species in the Sonian Forest, will not be able to withstand climate change and be completely gone from this ecosystem by the end of the century, if not earlier. Unsurprisingly, this year has again been marked by unusual weather conditions in the Sonian Forest: first the winter was too mild and too wet for forest operations to be undertaken. Then heavy storms toppled many beech trees, some weakened from the draught of recent summers.

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Plan now or scramble later

Like other Brussels-based initiatives around local materials such as raw earth, our cooperative wants to make a contribution to urban resilience by setting up a value chain that operates independently from the uncontrollable forces of global trade. We are happy to see that this strikes a chord with policy makers and researchers from cities across the globe, recognizing the importance of local production and supply networks. But to be truly resilient, we must plan ahead for the fallout of climate change. Take storms. In 1990, the Sonian Forest was hit by an unusually strong storm. In the course of only two weeks, as much as 64 thousand cubic meters of wood came down as windthrow, with catastrophic consequences for both the forest and the wood market. In the future, “unusual storms” are likely to become the norm, and experts from the regional forestry department confided to us recently that when it comes to storms of the magnitude of what we experienced in 1990 the question is not “if” but “when”. There is currently no plan whatsoever on how to deal with such as event. Local resilience needs to go way beyond the capacity to supply local woodworkers during a lockdown. It will mean to be able to respond to extreme weather events that can produce tens of thousands of cubic meters of unplanned wood harvest that need to be harvested, processed and stored. For this, we need to plan ahead and create the necessary infrastructures and organizational capacities. Or else we will again be scrambling for ad hoc solutions after disaster has struck.