I’ve heard the term “greenbelts” pertaining to the natural coastline barriers in India

I’ve heard the term “greenbelts” pertaining to the natural coastline barriers in India, Malaysia and Sri Lanka that protected some people from the worst of the Indian Ocean Tsunami. But what are greenbelts that exist in urban areas?

—Helen, via e-mail

The term “greenbelt” refers to any area of undeveloped natural land that has been set aside near urban or developed land to provide open space, offer light recreational opportunities or contain development. And yes, the natural greenbelts along areas of Southeast Asia’s coastlines, including the region’s mangrove forests, served as buffers and helped to prevent even greater loss of life from the December 2004 tsunami.

Greenbelts in and around urban areas have probably not saved any lives, but they are important nonetheless to the ecological health of any given region. The various plants and trees in greenbelts serve as organic sponges for various forms of pollution, and as storehouses of carbon dioxide to help offset global warming. “Trees are an important part of the city infrastructure,” says Gary Moll of American Forests. Because of the many benefits trees provide to cities, Moll likes to refer to them as the “ultimate urban multi-taskers.”

Greenbelts are also important to help urban dwellers feel more connected to nature. Dr. S.C. Sharma of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in India believes that all cities should “earmark certain areas for the development of greenbelts [to] bring life and color to the cement concrete jungle and [a] healthy environment to the urbanities.”

Greenbelts are also important in efforts to limit sprawl, which is the tendency for cities to spread out and encroach on rural lands and wildlife habitat. Three U.S. states—Oregon, Washington and Tennessee—require their largest cities to establish so-called “urban growth boundaries” to limit sprawl through the establishment of planned greenbelts. Meanwhile, the cities of Minneapolis, Virginia Beach, Miami and Anchorage have created urban growth boundaries on their own. In California’s Bay Area, the non-profit Greenbelt Alliance has successfully lobbied for the establishment of 21 urban growth boundaries across four counties surrounding the city of San Francisco.

The concept has also caught on in Canada, with the cities of Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver adopting similar mandates for the creation of greenbelts to combat sprawl. Urban greenbelts can also be found in and around larger cities in Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

The green belt concept has even spread to rural areas, such as in East Africa. Womens” rights and environmental activist Wangari Maathai launched the Green Belt Movement in Kenya in 1977 as a grassroots tree-planting program to address the challenges of deforestation, soil erosion and lack of water there. To date, her organization has overseen the planting of 40 million trees across Africa. In 2004 Maathai was the first environmentalist to be awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize. Why “peace?” “There can be no peace without equitable development and there can be no development without sustainable management of the environment in a democratic and peaceful space,” said Maathai in her acceptance speech.

CONTACTS: American Forests Urban Sprawl Information; Greenbelt Alliance; The Green Belt Movement.