A space for urban greens

A space for urban greens
India is expected to experience a hotter than average summer this year, following 2016—the warmest year on record since 1901. The Indian Meteorological Department has predicted that summer of 2017 is going to be hotter than 2016. To put that into perspective, 2016 was the warmest year on record since 1901.

On the website of Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), there was a message which said: "Strategically placed trees in urban areas can cool the air by 2 to 8 degrees Celsius."
These findings establish the importance of Urban Greens. Here, I have purposefully used the term "Urban Green" which includes not only the urban forest areas, which because of their competing land needs are bound to be small and few but include parks, avenue plantations, small woodlots, etc. The reason why I chose to write about Urban Greens instead of forestry in general, will be apparent in next paragraph.

According to a 2014 study by the United Nations, the majority of the global population was urban--its share being 54 per cent at that time. By 2050, the study projected that 66 per cent of the world's population will reside in urban areas. "Projections show that urbanisation combined with the overall growth of the world's population could add another 2.5 billion people to urban populations by 2050, with close to 90 per cent of the increase concentrated in Asia and Africa," says the UN on its website. Regarding India, the survey projected that more than 40 crore people would be added to the urban population (un.org, 2014). Increasing urbanisation in India is evident from latest census figures.

For the first time since Independence, the absolute increase in population was more in urban areas than in rural areas, as per the 2011census. The urban population increased from 27.81 per cent in 2001 to 31.16 per cent in 2011, with an absolute increase of 9.1 crores during the decade (population rose from 28.6 crores in 2001 to 37.7 crore in 2011). Read with the UN projections, we can expect an urban population of around 80 crores in India by 2050 which is a big number. Thus, in future, much more people will live in urban areas primarily.

Urbanisation is efficient in a way that concentrated distribution of resources can serve a large number of population, but this concentration generates many problems. For serving a large urban population more land is required for housing, infrastructure, and office spaces. Construction on those lands, however, often result in the sacrifice of the existing greenery. More population also means more vehicles for transport, thus more pollution.

Reduced greenery means reduced capacity to absorb harmful gases. Thus, adverse effects of pollution are not mitigated properly. Increased concretisation of space also leads to heat island effects which make living uncomfortable and increases costs of air-conditioning or other cooling, which have further harmful effects on the environment because of increased consumption of energy. Greenery has the capacity to absorb the heat generated, thus making the microclimate more liveable.

Urban Greens have other benefits. They can also work as a catchment area for urban water supply, and they make the landscape aesthetically more beautiful and control noise pollution generated by vehicles and other sources. Parks in the neighbourhoods serve people of all age group: as a playground for the children, a jogging place to young adults, and a place for congregation as well as walking/yoga, etc. for the elderlies. The value of properties, close to urban parks, increases.

Typically cities in developing countries have less urban green cover than their counterparts in developed countries, and often their urban green cover is below minimum WHO Standards of 9 sqm green cover for each person residing in urban areas. Globally, the cities with good green cover have 25 to 100 sqm per capita urban green space, translating into 20-40 per cent geographical area with green cover. Barring, a few cities such as Gandhinagar and Chandigarh and to some extent Delhi and Bengaluru, most Indian cities are far behind.

Further, there is intra-city variations and difference in the level of greens in the older unplanned parts of cities and newer planned parts where space for greening is little. Considering the urban explosion expected in India in coming decades as described above, these figures will further go down unless some drastic steps to increase urban green spaces are taken.

The present efforts to increase urban green cover vary between cities in terms of greening plans as well execution. However, in cities with a good green cover, it has been found that in the case of older cities or older part of big cities, there have been old protected forests or large woodlots, e.g. Ridges of Delhi were given protected status way back in 19th Century with an older version of Indian Forest Acts. On the other hand, in newer cities, green areas have been planned while planning cities e.g.
Gandhinagar and Chandigarh. Incorporation of Green areas as inviolate parcels in Master Plan of some cities has prevented loss of green cover in these areas.

Some states/UTs, e.g. Delhi, Goa, Maharashtra, Karnataka have a law to regulate felling of trees in urban areas and to ensure compensatory plantations for felled trees. Normally, multiple agencies are bound to be involved in greening urban areas because of ownership of land issues e.g. municipalities, state forest departments, cantonments and other land-owning agencies. Some cities have established mechanisms for coordination and synergy in their approach.

Large scale greening drives involving people makes an advocacy group for urban greens and if supported by institutional structure to maintain plants has also helped in increasing green cover. Further peri-urban areas or fringes of urban areas provide better space for plantation, where city forests have been created in certain cities. Normally, the approach is tree-based which is suitable for cities with enough open space and greening in congested localities is still a challenge.

It has been overcome in certain cities overseas by adopting vertical greening. Often the financial condition of municipalities has also been a constraint in adopting large-scale greening drive, hence alternate financing mechanism i.e. each land-owning agency doing greening on its own land with its own resources, funding greening through charges some compensatory amount on felling of trees has proven to be beneficial.

Though we have many examples of cities having good quality and quantity of urban greens, there is still a large number of Indian cities which require a substantial increase in its green cover, which can be done by emulating successful examples and modifying them appropriately as per local conditions. Incorporating green spaces in urban plans (with making its change difficult) and regulations on tree felling perhaps may be first few steps.

(Keshav Kumar is Director, Ministry of Textiles, Government of India. The views expressed are strictly personal.)

Keshav Kumar

Keshav Kumar

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