Acorn of an idea grows into prize-winning forest

November 24, 1995

An international architectural award has been given to a Turkish university's tree planting initiative which has brought wilderness to the country's capital and transformed the climate in a heavily polluted area.

The Aga Khan Award for Architecture, worth more than $500,000, has recognised the impact of an environmental scheme on the built environment. The series of prizes are given in a three-year cycle for buildings or projects in the Islamic world, but the current award for the reforestation programme of the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, presented in Indonesia, has extended the definition of architecture to encompass the planting of 33 million trees.

The award's master jury believes that the planting of 5,000 acres of thick forest has had a far greater impact on the way people live in the capital than any building could hope to achieve. The city's climate has improved with the trees helping to temper the dry summers and severe winters - and there is far less pollution. The Middle East Technical University in Ankara stands in barren hills outside Ankara, an area affected by heavy air pollution. A classification map of the campus showed 75 per cent of university land required landscaping to prevent erosion.

"The hills were almost crying out for cultivation," says Suha Sevuc, president of METU. "But when the scheme began neither students nor lecturers were aware of the scope of the challenge. I myself planted 200 pine trees in 1961 when the scheme began and I was a student here. It really was a collective effort by professors and students. We realised the importance of what we were doing but not its eventual size."

Every year since then students, alumni and professors have planted a million trees. A further incentive has been a Turkish law that forest land could not be expropriated and so precluding further urban sprawl. Major tree species have been introduced including cedar, oak, poplar, almond and prune, and Lake Eymir is now planted with reed beds. There is also an orchard where 4,500 cherry, pear and apple trees grow. The varied habitats created by the forests and lake areas now hold wolves, foxes, rabbits, snakes and turtles. More than 140 varieties of bird are found in the thickly wooded area and the flora is equally rich with more than 250 species from different regions.

Today the METU campus is the largest green area in Ankara with nearly nine million conifers and more than 22 million deciduous trees. It is Turkey's, if not the world's, largest man-made forest ecosystem in an urban area, and is changing ideas about the environment.

A similar project, but on a smaller scale, is now starting in Istanbul with the help of a METU alumni association. "We have proved what can be done with determination," says Sevuc. "We are now seeing former students coming back to visit the trees they helped plant over 20 years ago."

Since the award began in 19977 the Aga Khan has supported a programme in Islamic architecture at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with parallel centres at the Dawood Centre of Engineering and Technology in Karachi and the University of Jordan in Amman.

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