Gaurav Sikka, University of Delhi, India

Cities are regarded as ‘engines of growth’ being major contributors to the national economy. Urbanisation in India is happening at a rapid pace. The rate of urban land expansion in India during the next 20 years is expected to be high, in part because the country is investing heavily in large-scale infra­structures such as roads, telecommunications, water networks, and power and electricity grids. Such a development will put additional pressure on the urban ecosys­tem or biodiversity and threatens sustainability.

By urban biodiversity we mean the variety and richness of living organisms (including genetic variation) and habitat diversity found in and on the edge of human settlements.(Muller et al., 2010) Urban biodiversity is concerned primarily with environmental enhancement, control of air and noise pollution and microclimatic modification.

The works highlighting the benefits of urban green spaces are manifold (Alm,2007; Bilgili & Gokyer, 2012). High quality green spaces bring considerable benefits to the people’s physical and mental health and to the environment. Urban greens with their wide collection of trees and other plants have huge educational potential. Urban parks are an important recreational facility in developing as well as developed countries. People derive quantifiable benefits from the positive experience of viewing trees. All this underlines a need for sustainable urbanization.  Therefore, necessary green spaces in urban areas are required to be protected and conserved. But most egregiously this is not happening at the capital city of India- Delhi.

Predicting patterns of urbanisation in areas of high biodiversity are critical for conservation. Globally, several cities, including Brussels and Singapore are testing new frameworks to assess the urban-biodiversity linkages. For instance, the City Biodiversity Index or Singapore Index, created under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), includes indicators such as birds, butterflies, mammals and plants to serve as tools for assessing stressors that deplete biodiversity (TEEBcase by S. Rodricks (2010) Singapore City Biodiversity Index available at: TEEBweb.org).

Challenges to Sustainable Urbanization in Delhi

The population of Delhi has crossed the 16 million mark in 2011 making it the second largest urban agglomeration in the country.  Delhi stretches along the banks of Yamuna river and is also situated on the water divide i.e. the Aravallis Ridge dividing two mighty river systems- the Indus falling in the Arabian sea and the Ganga draining into Bay of Bengal. Therefore Delhi has not only been strategically important but also physiographically important. Delhi as the capital city of India makes a good example for a study of sustainable urbanization, as in spite of  rapid urban growth it still  retains a large area which is now getting highly threatened [19% of city area is under planned green and also, within the heart of its urban area lies a forest ecosystem (the ridge, 7782 ha of Arid scrub forest); a river ecosystem (the Yamuna river,  51 km length in NCT Delhi)’ and 9700 ha of floodplain (Meenakshi Dhote, 2013)] .

The rapid urbanization has modified most of the above ecosystems – lowlands have been encroached by urban development, natural forests have been degraded, many storm water drains are transformed into dirty water drains and are covered up, lakes and ponds have been filled up or converted into garbage dumps. One such storm drain Sunehri Nala near Dyal Singh College on Lodi Road was covered to make a parking lot for the JLN Stadium. A newspiece in ‘The Hindu’ in 2002 revealed that the water quality of River Yamuna has been classified as ‘E’ as per Central Pollution Control Board’s nomenclature for designated water quality, which indicated that Yamuna water is unfit for any use. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that Delhi’s biodiversity wealth has been killed by international ‘Sporting’ events in post independence period. Delhi made space for the 1982 Asian Games complex by cutting the Siri Fort forest; the swimming stadium for the grand sports event was built by ‘reclaiming’ the Talkatora water reservoir. Then during the Commonwealth games in 2010, the games village was built on a flood bed of river Yamuna.  “The colonisation of the Yamuna’s Khadar tracts has been an error of urban planning in Delhi” says the 1995 Delhi Environmental Status Report: An Information Handbook for Citizen Action, which was brought out by Delhi government’s Department of Environment.

Most interestingly, the city possessed the largest number of bird species due to the presence of the major Asian flightpath of birds along the Yamuna, but this species diversity is on the decline.  Recently, the sparrow birds were on the brink of extinction in Delhi, and has been declared the ‘state bird of Delhi’.

Urban expansion in India is accompanied by complex effects on local and regional biodiversity, ecosystem services, and forest cover because of a combination of socio-demographic and lifestyle changes in urban areas.

Solutions & Opportunities

Some solutions and opportunities can be explored to reduce the loss of biodiversity and meeting the goal of sustainable urbanization.

Connecting fragmented ecosystems in urban areas is likely to increase ecological functionality as a whole and therefore create opportunity for sustainable urbanization. There are diverse and innovative ways to connect natural ecosys­tems. Planting trees with overarching canopies can help small mammals, birds, and insects cross roads and highways. Roadside planting that mimics the multilayering of forests (for example, a composite of tall trees, medium-sized trees, shrubs, and understory vegetation) can cater to a diversity of animals. Ecolinks such as underground tunnels and vegetated overhead bridges can help connect natural areas.

Another significant solution could be that ecosystem services can be captured in economic terms. If we fail to incorporate both monetary and non-monetary values of ecosystems into urban planning, then the conventional market alone will dictate the allocation of resources resulting in environmental degradation and erosion of natural capital, incurring economic costs to either recover the natural capital or provide artificial alternatives. This approach is known as “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity” (TEEB). By highlighting costs and benefits related to biodiver­sity preservation, valuation exercises also facilitate decision-making processes, for example regarding infrastructure development and planning proposals. We have to quantify just how expensive the degradation of the nature really is. Global cost of replacing natural insect pollination is around $190 billion/year. A Chinese farmer has to spend extra money to get for artificial pollination for his fruit trees.

Urban infrastructure and housing should follow the GRIHA (Green Buildings ratings System in India) to achieve sustainability.

Cities are sites of creativity, innovation, and learning. Fostering these attributes is essential if the global challenge of sustainable urbanization in the face of unprecedented urbanization is to be met.


Alm, L. E. 2007 “Urban Green Structure- A hidden resource” in Baltic University Urban Forum Urban Management Guidebook V: Green Structures in the Sustainable City, Eds. Dorota Wlodarczyk, Project part financed by the European Union (European Regional Development Fund) within the BSR INTERREG III B Neighbourhood Programme

Bilgili, C. B. and Gokyer, E. 2012″ Urban Green Space System Planning” in Landscape Planning , Eds. Dr. M. Ozyavuz,  InTech: Turkey

Census Data, Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, India, MHA, Government of India, http:// censusindia.gov.in/2011

Dhote, Meenakshi, “Urban Biodiversity: Growth and Development of NCT Delhi”, Yojana (2013): 49-53

FAO Corporate Document Repository. The potential of urban foresty in developing country: a concept paper, Produced by: Forest Department, http://www.fao.org/docrop/005/t1680e/t1680e01.h

Meher, Bajwa, “Urban biodiversity: an essay on natural capital and social innovation using Delhi as an example” Resources, Energy and Development (2010), Volume 7, Issue 2, 95-115

Muller, N., Werner, P., Kelcey, J.G. 2010. Urban Biodiversity and Design. John Wiley & Sons.

State of Forest Report, 2011 published by Forest Survey of India, http://www.fsi.org.in/

The Hindu, “Delhi Reduces Yamuna to a Sewage Drain”, New Delhi, June 25 ,2002 accessed at http://www.thehindu.com/2002/06/25/stories/2002062506380400.htm




Author Biography 

Gaurav Sikka is presently a PhD Research Scholar at Department of Geography, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi. He did his graduation and post graduation in Geography. He has been awarded UGC- Junior Research Fellowship for his PhD programme. Gaurav has presented papers at International and National conferences and his works are published in peer reviewed journals, ISBN books and periodicals. His research interest includes Social Geography, Urban Geography, Geography of Gender, Development Geographies and Development induced Displacement, Resettlement and Rehabilitation issues.

Contact email: gaurav_sikkaa@yahoo.co.in


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Dialogues of sustainable urbanisation: Social science research and transitions to urban contexts Copyright © 2015 by Gaurav Sikka, University of Delhi, India is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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