A forest in a city: Maintaining Chandigarh’s green cover in the face of urbanisation


  • Green belts in Chandigarh serve an important role in controlling the micro-climate, reducing dust and leading to a much higher number of birds, squirrels and butterflies as compared to other cities.
  • With a growing population and increasing traffic and air pollution, innovative approaches need to be adapted as Chandigarh transforms.
  • Useful plantations instead of ornamental trees, transitioning to efficient transportation systems and encouraging citizens to use cycles or public transport for commuting are some of the ways experts suggest that Chandigarh can remain sustainable in the face of urbanisation.

With Chandigarh’s growing reputation as nature’s paradise, every aspect of this man-made creation, originally spread over 47 blocks of 246 acres each, vindicates the visionary thinking of the early planners. Surely, Le Corbusier, Dr. M.S. Randhawa and others must be smiling at the evolution of Chandigarh into a standard for sustainable living amidst the chaos typical Indian cities are.

Chandigarh is an intricately inter-connected green world made up of numerous parks, forests and tree-lined avenues. While spaces such as the Sukhna landscape are known to be biologically diverse, it is the smaller green zones within residential areas, educational institutes, government offices and hospitals that act as ecological bridges for more than 270 species of avifauna and numerous small mammals.

The original planners had made an everlasting impact in determining the city’s future course by integrating trees and plants into the construction plans. However equal credit goes to the Forest Department and horticulture wing of the Municipal Corporation who have preserved natural spaces and continuously engaged in plantation drives of diverse indigenous species. An annual assessment as part of the government’s Greening Chandigarh Action Plan suggests that annually more than 160,000 trees have been planted over the last 14 years (2007-21) leading to a significant increase in greenery. Eucalyptus plantations have been discontinued and medicinal and indigenous species are being nurtured over the past decade or so with herbal gardens being set up in schools and colleges.

Shivam Chauhan, a project manager at SayTrees, an environmental group working on afforestation activities, acknowledges the efforts made by the government as well as concerted efforts by citizens that have led to an increase in the green cover of the city. He mentions that the green belts serve an important role in controlling the micro-climate, reducing dust and leading to a much higher number of birds, squirrels and butterflies as compared to other cities.

Winters see the arrival of many migratory species
Winters see the arrival of many migratory species. Photo by Kunal Sharma.

And the result is visible in the green belts that snake down the city’s length and breadth, each creating its own ecological niche. Chandigarh has the highest number of trees per hectares of culturable non-forest area in the country. And not just that, Chandigarh is a rare example of a city-state improving its green cover over the years. The total forest cover increased from 42 sq km in 2003 to 47.56 sq km in 2017 and 48.03 sq km in 2019, based on available data from the Chandigarh forest department. During the same period, the tree cover increased from 8 sq km in 2003 to 10 sq km in 2017 to 25 sq km in 2019. Overall, the green cover has increased from 26% in 2001 to 46% in 2019, a significant statistic in a country struggling to preserve its green cover.

Siddaq Singh, Instructor of Sustainability in Practice at Thapar School of Management, brings out the uniqueness of the green spaces in Chandigarh eloquently. He mentions that in most parts, the green cover is publicly accessible as it is on the sides of roads, in public parks, universities, government buildings and hospitals. He goes on to add that green belts act as carbon sinks, especially relevant as the vehicular and industrial emissions increase. They also play an important role in reducing the ‘heat island’ effect associated with concrete and built environments. The green belts of Chandigarh also facilitate a healthy population of diverse birds. He adds, “We could hear more of them during the lockdown which was absolutely a delight. Another benefit of being a citizen of Chandigarh is that the green belts next to every road let you walk or cycle across any two points of the city in the middle of a hot summer day.”

This sketch board of a green maze linking the city’s green spaces through sectors is propped up by more than 1800 parks and gardens that dot the city’s landscape. The 8 km long linear chain spread over 2.4 sq km and developed along a seasonal rivulet is one such refuge for numerous species of fauna. The parks along the spine of Chandigarh include Rajendra Park, Bougainvillea Garden, Leisure Valley Garden, Zakir Rose Garden, Shanti Kunj, Bamboo Valley Garden, Bulbous Garden, Hibiscus Garden, Fragrance Garden and Dahlia Garden.

Instead of losing green spaces, as is the norm in most developing cities, Chandigarh has managed to hold on and even increase its green cover. One reason is the continuous creation of new green spaces such as the lush Nagar Van spread over 247 acres. Designed as a city forest – a concept finding increasing global acceptance, Nagar Van adds valuable space to the Sukhna ecological complex. The newly established 176-acre large Botanical Garden developed at the administrative tri-junction of Sarangpur, Lahora and Dhanas villages is a cushion against urban development beyond Chandigarh’s boundaries. These green spaces supplement the existing larger forest patches that require constant protection such as the Sukhna Wildlife Sanctuary (26.11 sq km), City Bird Sanctuary in Sector 21 (0.03 sq km), Lake reserved forest (1.06 sq km), Sukhna Choe reserved forest (3.87 sq km), Patiala-ki-Rao forest (1.36 sq km) and Brick kiln at Manimajra (0.06 sq km).

The proof of ample diversity lies in the high number of bird species with respect to the city’s area with bird species per sq km estimated at 1.94, based on population data from citizen science database, eBird. This figure is behind ecologically rich cities such as Dehradun (2.91) and Mysuru (2.65), but much ahead of cities popularly considered green, such as Bhopal (0.99), Srinagar (0.97) and Bengaluru (0.52). These green spaces in the city provide year-round refuge, food and nesting spots to around 150 species of birds that are resident or local migrants and have ample resources for another 110 migrant species.

The abundance of green spaces with significant protection has led to a thriving population of birds such as Chandigarh’s state bird, Indian grey hornbill, shikra, black ibis, common babbler, barbets and purple sunbirds. And it is not just the popular hotspots that harbor a wide diversity of birds, but smaller locations such as Smriti Van, Butterfly park in Sector 26, Panjab University, the green belt through sector 49, sector 37 park, Sector 31 park and even buildings such as the Himachal Bhavan that have reported increased sightings of various resident as well as migrant birds. Mammals too have found space, with places like Nagar Van reporting species such as sambar, nilgai, jungle cat and porcupine.

The tri-city skyline with the Shivaliks in the background
The Chandigarh Tricity skyline with the Shivaliks in the background. Photo by Kunal Sharma.

Yet, the grid of greenery is under growing threat today. A city designed for 5 lakh (500,000) people houses more than 12 lakhs (1.2 million) now and suffers from the unfortunate tag of having the largest numbers of vehicles per capita in India. Recent development along its periphery is threatening to turn Chandigarh into a green island with poorly imagined construction all around. Though awareness around conservation has grown, practices such as concreting of pavements continue to choke many unfortunate trees. The city’s growth was also accompanied by the removal of wilderness at many places. Sector 35, for example, was a forested area but is a residential area now. Developmental threats such as the construction of flyovers, touted as a panacea to the burgeoning traffic will continue to compromise the vulnerable green spaces in the city.

On the other hand, many citizens do not believe that the quality of greenery, as well as the original belief of the city’s founders, is being upheld in the present era. Citizens like Anupma Sharma and Gautam do not believe that the green cover is increasing substantially. They feel that societal efforts to improve the green cover are missing in Chandigarh and it is only authorities that are engaged in activities to increase the green cover. Yet, the importance of green belts is not lost to common citizens who regard such zones to be of enormous benefit to society. Sharma says that not only are the green belts soothing to the eye, but they also help the city breathe. She goes on to add that every sector should have dedicated cycling lanes with monthly cycling days with few streets especially restricted only for cyclists in order to promote sustainable living in an increasingly car-dependent city. She also adds that public buildings should have more green cover using self-sustaining innovative ways.

The city that has grown to accommodate many more sectors calls for a radical change for future sustainability.

Singh suggests that current strategies need to change in a rapidly evolving world as the current focus of working on numerical targets to maintain the ‘sustenance of the green cover’ can be effective only in a short-term static world. Chandigarh of the 2020s is considerably different from the previous decades and the substantial increase of population and increasing traffic situation might soon demand widening of roads or building of flyovers that will be against the ethos of the city itself. Such decisions would severely affect the existing green cover, so strategies need to move beyond just increasing the green cover in parks but will require creativity in reducing traffic without building more roads, transitioning to efficient transportation systems and encouraging citizens to use cycles or public transport for commuting, he says. He goes on to add that “If we wish to continue upholding the glory of Chandigarh as a green wonder, we need to make transformative long-term strategies that look at Chandigarh of 25 years in future and work backward from there.”

In addition to the development of new forest parks and protecting existing green spaces, innovative approaches are being adopted such as declaring 31 trees over a hundred years each as ‘Heritage Trees of Chandigarh’, as notified by the Administrator of the Union Territory in 2017.

Chauhan says that Chandigarh continues to be a role model for other cities due to its visionary planning. He mentions that the greatest lesson Chandigarh can offer to other cities is that of integrating nature preservation with that of development, especially in the light of uncontrolled urbanisation across most of the nation. When asked to suggest the single intervention that can bring about the most substantial change, he says “It would be creation of useful plantations and restoring the ecology rather than focusing on ornamental plantations or creation of lawns and gardens.”

Unless the larger tri-city (Chandigarh, Mohali, Panchkula) is managed in symphony with each other, the efforts by the Chandigarh administration will go to waste as populations explode along its periphery. Increased indigenous tree cover in current water-guzzling parks can be taken up not just by the Chandigarh administration but also by the adjoining cities of Mohali, Panchkula and suburbs such as Zirakpur and Kharar. Protection of all green spaces should be prioritised, and efforts made to connect green spaces across the tri-city and further on to bigger protected landscapes, which will support the long-term viability of faunal and floral species.

Read more: Chandigarh’s Sukhna wildlife sanctuary remains unprotected as Punjab, Haryana delay on eco-sensitive zone

Banner image: Chandigarh’s iconic rock garden. Photo by Kunal Sharma.

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