Image credit: Pratyush Thaker

According to the United Nations, 68% of the world population is projected to live in urban localities by 2050. And, the trend is no different in India. The rate of urbanization is not only rapid, but also, continuously mushrooming. This in turn is offering several opportunities for economic, social and technological advancement. The downsides of this shift, however, is congestion and environmental degradation.

One of the most effective ways to deal with this is by creating more and more green spaces. Bhuvnesh Ojha, Founder and President of Pukaar Foundation, a youth driven NGO working towards conservation of trees and plantations, talks about the role of urban forests in saving nature and restoring biodiversity.

“In the age of growing concrete jungles as well as rapid urbanisation especially in erstwhile natural forest regions, it is imperative for every city to make space for urban forests through plantation clusters,” he says.

Urban Green Spaces (UGS) as they are commonly known, have multiple benefits - from improving air quality, serving as a valuable resource for urban agriculture to regulating micro-climate.

Hence, several metropolitans around the world are prioritising the creation of these urban forests. Seoul, Singapore and Bangkok have built green corridors that provide space for nature and wildlife and also enhance the quality of life of city dwellers. There are a handful of examples even in India - Warje Urban Forest in Pune, Aravalli Biodiversity Park in Gurgaon, Turahalli forest in Bengaluru, Gulab Bagh in Udaipur and Smriti Van in Jaipur.

The other side isn’t green

Despite these endeavours, green spaces in urban areas are still extremely low. Only a certain ‘million plus’ Indian cities (Cities having a population above one million or ten lakh, as per the 2018 estimated census of India, as prepared by the India Environment and Population portal) have a per capita green space above the optimal of nine square metres. High population growth due to rural-urban migration, is decreasing the per-capita green cover across most of the dense urban centres.  

Made by: Pratyush Thaker

For instance, the Aarey colony in Mumbai, which is known to be the city’s ‘green lung’, was on the verge of getting destroyed. The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd. (MMRCL) was planning to cut down 3,000 trees in the area to pave the way for a metro train shed. According to experts, constructing the metro shed at Aarey, would have not just reduced the already sparse green spaces in Mumbai, but also resulted in the vanishing of flora and fauna.

Fortunately, due to public outrage, the metro shed project is shifted elsewhere. Some damage however, has already been done. By the time the Supreme Court intervened, the state government along with the Mumbai Metro had razed down enough trees to clear the land.

One of the main reasons for the degradation of urban forests in India stems from the failure to earmark land as opposed to allocations for housing, industry, commercial development, and public infrastructure such as roads and water works. Since green spaces hardly generate revenue when compared to other land uses, a lot of entities do not consider it to be lucrative. Forest departments, who appreciate the value of  green zones, clean air, flood control buffers, groundwater recharge and wildlife habitats, have very little say in urban planning, which is  otherwise politically driven. Ojha too voices his concern with regard to this.

“Instead of having devices like air purifiers to reduce pollution, efforts should be made towards creating more green spaces in urban areas. The Planning Commission has to be more active and create greater awareness among citizens regarding urban forests”, says Ojha.

Towards a better future?

Today, urban areas across the country experience the consequences of environmental degradation and climate change more than other pockets. Excessive carbon emissions from automobiles and manufacturing units is one of the major reasons for this. Making space for urban forests is hence imperative in order to live a healthy life.

The creation of green landscapes requires efforts both from the government as well as citizens.

The central government’s Nagar Van Scheme 2020, launched on World Environment Day (5 June) is a witness to that. The initiative aims to develop 200 urban forests across the nation, in the next  five years, keeping the Warje Urban Forest in Pune, as the role model. The Nagar Van is expected to be built either on existing forest land or other vacant stretches  in  cities with the support of  local bodies. The  scheme is expected to be funded by the CAMPA (Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority), under the Government of India.

While announcing the Nagar Van scheme, Union Environment Minister, Shri Prakash Javadekar, stressed on the importance of having urban forests. “We had a very important tradition of village forest since ages, now this new scheme of urban forest will fill up the gap because urban areas generally have gardens but very rarely forests. With this activity of creating urban forests, we will also be able to create an additional carbon sink”, said the Union Minister.

With awareness levels going up, citizens too have started doing their bit through activities like ‘Green Yatra’. These initiatives work towards promoting urban forests, on small spaces and tight budgets, by organising plantation drives and adopting forestry models like ‘Miyawaki Methods’.

“More and more urban forests can be created only if there is increased citizen awareness and outrage, which in turn is capable of putting pressure on the government to take action”, says Ojha.

Edited by Roshni Shroff


Some resources and links to help you learn more about urban forests:

Tree walks in Chennai: The people building urban forests in India
By growing native trees in Chennai, volunteers help push back against water shortages and the loss of green spaces.
India’s programme to create 200 urban forests has seen no progress in four years
But Pune’s Warje forest and Delhi’s Aravalli park offer good models for growth.