Climate Matters: Breathing new life into Middlebury


24th in a series

In “The Hidden Life of Trees,” German forester Peter Wohlleben describes the fascinating world of communication among trees. Trees engage in silent signals, conveying complex information via smell, taste and electrical impulses. These sentient communications reveal deeper apprehensions for the wellbeing of neighboring trees. The BBC’s 2019 Wood Wide Web video on trees’ social networks (bbc.com/news/science-environment-48257315) provides a closer look at communication among trees. Peter Wohlleben’s advanced arboreal research revealed “the role forests play in making our world the kind of place where we want to live.” This nature-based intelligence is now being integrated into cities around the world to benefit the quality of life for humans.

“Green Lungs,” pathways through city parks or along ways planted with trees, have become vital city design features globally. The Green Lungs absorb carbon dioxide resulting from fossil-fuel-based transport and industrial activity. They are an integral part of a new city design concept: the 15-Minute City. Invented by French-Colombian scientist Carlos Moreno and San Francisco-based urbanist Dan Luscher, the 15-Minute City seeks to design neighborhoods where most necessities of daily life can be accomplished in 15-minute trips from home without a car, by walking or cycling.

Singapore was an early concept adopter with the design of the MacRitchie nature trail. It has become one of the greenest cities in the world, championing the notion of bringing the forest into the city. With increasing temperatures due to climate change, the objective has expanded to offer lush and refreshing canopies over pathways, connecting different neighborhoods to pedestrians and bikers alike.

The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has embraced the 15-Minute City concept for the French capital. Brussels, the European capital, is currently rolling out the concept as an expansive test case on behalf of other major cities in the European Union.

In Rome, the Maxxi modern art museum recently announced a green lung along its grounds as part of the capital’s larger 15-Minute City concept. The green lung will be designed in honor of Aurelio Peccei, founder of the Club of Rome, famous for directing attention in the 1970s to the limits of growth.

What about Middlebury? Could Middlebury bring the Vermont forest into its city center? Could it create a Green Lung, connecting say the Natural Foods Co-op, through the Village Green, along the Riverfront Park, across the Marble Works footbridge, linking all the way up to the Middlebury College campus? The college could expand the Green Lung further by joining all its main facilities with passageways planted with local trees offering both refreshing shade and additional greenhouse gas absorption capacity. Eventually the green lung could bridge the Battell Woods, Chipman Hill and Means Woods.

The Audubon Vermont chapter has coordinated tree planting projects in Addison County in the past. With abundantly available local expertise, the tree selection could focus on indigenous varieties such as the swamp white and northern red oak, the grey birch, the white pine and red-silver maple crosses.

The town of Middlebury created an in-depth “town forest recreation” plan in 2017. Resources and experience identified in the plan could help to create Middlebury’s Green Lung. It could be financed by a combination of state grants and auctioning parts of the pathway to interested local businesses and private citizens.

As a new Amtrak destination, Middlebury is at the right junction for a Green Lung that imparts the appeal of a visionary 21st century city design, builds additional carbon absorption capacity in times of climate change and conveys a learning gateway to the fascinating story of trees and their mycelia. The Green Lung would provide the pleasing and the calming effect of tree lines: it could attract a more diversified bird and bee community and would engender broader air quality and mental health benefits.

Finally, the trees could be used to recognize extraordinary civic, academic or entrepreneurial achievement, using poems and statues from local poets and sculptors. Germany even initiated a “living gravestone” project in which local citizens pay the equivalent of the commercial value of an ancient tree to bury their ashes at its base.

As an academic destination, imagine Middlebury creating a Green Lung that would provide seeds of imagination and a sense of mission to the students who come here. It could help students understand what constitutes strengthening or eroding a community. It could inspire them to establish, one day, a Green Lung across Dallas, Mumbai or, for that matter, across the whole of the African continent, providing a more sustainable agricultural habitat and lessening the need for people to migrate.

Finally, it might also mean that the town heeds Wendell Berry’s words of wisdom: “To cherish what remains of the Earth and to foster its renewal is our only legitimate hope of survival.”


Frank van Gansbeke is Executive Scholar in Residence in Middlebury College’s Environmental Affairs department, where he teaches “Sustainable Finance” and “Responsible Investments” (forthcoming.) Prior to this assignment, he lectured as Professor of the Practice: “Capital Markets,” “Investment Management,” “Introduction to Finance” and “Carbonomics.” At COP26 in 2021, van Gansbeke co-founded “Beyond Bretton Woods,” a think tank platform reviewing the international financial architecture and fostering the foundations for a fair, nature-centric and regenerative global financial system. He is a regular contributor to Forbes online.

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