- In recent years, cities all over the world have recognised the importance of urban green spaces and have begun incorporating green infrastructure design strategies in their local developmental plans.
- While Delhi has considerable green cover, it would do well to not become complacent. There is a need improve the quality of green cover in the still-expanding city, write the authors of this commentary.
- Urban forestry management strategies should be taken to the next level by innovating with different models and design strategies, embracing technology and finding incentives to improve coordination and alignment among stakeholders of varied interests.
- The views in this commentary are those of the authors.
Trees outside recorded forest areas, present remarkable environmental benefits and economic opportunities in India. According to the Forest Survey of India’s India State of Forests Report (ISFR) 2021, these Trees outside Forests (ToF) amount to 36.15% of the total forest and tree cover in the country. Urban forests and trees form a significant portion of the ToF. Increasing research into integrating urban greens into planning, such as the 3-30-300 rule recommended by Dutch scientist Cecil Konijnendijk, focuses on going beyond achieving a city-wide tree cover and considers the benefits on residents’ health, well-being and climate change. Expanding and maintaining urban tree cover is essential despite competing demands for land in a growing urban sprawl because its environmental and health benefits are extremely essential for life in cities. In this regard, Delhi and the larger Delhi National Capital Region (NCR), have a challenging situation.
Delhi’s trees and green spaces are a mix of recorded forests, largely composed of dry deciduous forests and thorny scrubs characteristic of the Delhi Ridge, which is an extension of the Aravalli range and ToF/plantations. According to data in the ISFR 2021, Delhi has the largest forest cover (194.24 sq. km) among the seven major cities of the country. The extent of ToF has increased between 2019 and 2021 and so has the tree cover in the city. However, the total forest and tree cover saw a slight reduction by around 0.44 sq. km.
Forest landscapes and tree patches in Delhi exist under different nomenclature such as parks (Indraprastha Park), gardens (Lodi Garden), city forests (Jahanpanah City Forest), nurseries (Sunder Nursery), biodiversity parks and the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary. These green spaces fall under the jurisdiction of different bodies (each of which are distributed between the central and the state governments), making the management extremely diverse. For example, city forests have been developed by both the Delhi Forest Department and the Delhi Development Authority. The Delhi Green Action Plan, with the Forest Department as the Nodal Agency, carries out plantation drives every year in collaboration with 20 other organisations. The Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court of India take a keen interest in Delhi’s green spaces due to their roles in air quality control and temperature regulation, among other ecosystem services.
Where do trees and forests fit in city planning?
The exercises done for the Master Plan of Delhi (MPD), 2021 showed that there was a need for redevelopment and densification of the existing urban areas. It also highlighted the need to create lung spaces/recreational areas and green belt to an extent of 15% to 20% of land use. However, previous master plan proposals for retention of Green Belt have not been maintained and a considerable part has already been utilised for both, planned and unplanned developments. The MPD, 2021 considered City Parks and District Parks to have 30% of the area with plantation of native species. The draft Master Plan of Delhi, 2041 now prioritises environmental sustainability in terms of greening built environments along with protection and enhancement of natural assets under the vision of ‘Fostering a sustainable, liveable and vibrant Delhi’. New city-level assets like greenways along natural drains, repurposing underutilised sites and wastelands have been mentioned. Plantation by private individuals and institutions have been encouraged. Roadside plantation and social plantation programmes have been encouraged by involving all concerned agencies such as Delhi Development Authority (DDA), Delhi State Forest Department, Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) etc. and communities such as eco-clubs of schools, Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs), etc. This reflects an addition to the earlier focus predominantly on the creation and maintenance of prominent city parks to integrate green spaces into the fabric of our living environments.
Learning from global success stories and existing opportunities
In recent years, cities all over the world have recognised the importance of urban green spaces and have begun incorporating green infrastructure design strategies in their local developmental plans. For example, Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, has a two-fold strategy focussing on quantitative as well as qualitative measures to create more green areas and to improve the quality of urban nature in the city. The city’s ambition is to see more trees along the streets, more green parks and green rooftops on municipal and non-municipal lands. It has developed a ‘green planning tool’ which calculates a ‘green factor’ for all publicly driven projects that includes both quantitative and qualitative values of urban nature for every site.
Tokyo, an increasingly large metropolitan city, has skilfully factored in green spaces, such as green corridors between buildings and rooftop gardens, that provide a dynamic balance between commercial structures and the natural environment. Traditional Japanese culture has been preserved in the gardens which are accessible to all.
Singapore, dubbed as a City in a Garden has put together the Singapore Green Plan with firm action plans touching every dimension of everyday life. Spearheaded by five different ministries including the environment, transport, industry, development and the education ministry, it serves as an excellent example of multi-departmental coordination that is crucial for green planning. Under transforming Singapore into a “City in Nature”, one of the key strategies is native plant species conservation involving carrying out recovery plans for 100 species.
How can we take Delhi’s forests to the next level?
One of the ways to boost forest conservation in Delhi is adopting the landscape approach. The Delhi Forest Department recently floated the idea of using eco-restoration as part of the compensatory afforestation requirements under the Delhi Preservation of Trees Act (DPTA) 1994. While this may not lead to an overall increase in forest and tree cover, it is likely to vastly improve the quality of the forests and tree patches. Likewise, the barren patches of land spread throughout the Delhi Ridge need to be restored with native species. It can form a key part of the city’s protection from the dust-laden winds coming from the desert.
Eco-restoration through the removal of invasive species and the re-introduction of native species across the Ridge form part of the Forest Landscape Restoration (FLR) approach that does not focus on just increasing green cover or achieving plantation targets. They consider the social and environmental role of tree patches and forests for the entire city’s landscape.
The landscape approach of considering trees as part of the infrastructure of the city can also help create more tree patches. Like in Tokyo and Singapore, this requires a reorientation of how we think about space available for nature. Rather than relying on barren/open lands to plant trees, why not utilise all three dimensions available in the city? Imagine how the city will be transformed if rooftop gardens receive a similar policy-level fillip as rooftop solar. Similarly, several vertical gardens along the overhead metro lines and flyovers have come up; these need to be replicated across the city and a policy-level push (perhaps within the MPD) will do wonders. Policymakers and stakeholders need to come together with their thinking hats and identify useful incentives to make this a reality.
Changing how we monitor the urban green spaces is another way to improve conservation efforts. The advent of network-based technologies has given a huge opportunity to take monitoring of a city’s dispersed forest and tree cover to the next level. Drones are already being used to improve monitoring of large areas of forest land. For a city like Delhi that has strict rules on tree felling, randomised drone monitoring can support human capacities. Likewise, connected sensors can be calibrated to measure several different ecosystem services that urban forests and trees provide.
An inventory of all trees (distribution, size, age, quantity and species) within a city, their spatial arrangement, the ecosystem services they provide in near-real-time will create a case for their enhancement and more effective management of the biodiversity they represent. The challenge for Delhi is to collect and aggregate relevant data from different (often extremely small) green spaces managed by different stakeholders on a common platform and create cohesive management strategies.
Another crucial aspect in fulfilling the vision of MPD, 2041 is direct community proactiveness which results in actions that address residents’ specific needs, fosters a sense of ownership and encourages long-term support towards urban green spaces. Such proactiveness is a major cause of the success of many of the Sub-Saharan African restoration initiatives which are led by the community and are related to the traditional and cultural value of trees in one’s life. There is a need to nurture and cultivate an emotional connection of the people in Delhi with trees around them, their homes and workplaces. People might not relate to abstract concepts like ‘environment’ or ‘biodiversity’ but rather to tangible landscapes they were born in, live in and grow in. Citizen science and information technology through decentralised communication can also have an important role to play in tracking changes and maintaining urban forests, contributing to the monitoring strategies.
While Delhi has considerable green cover, it would do well to not become complacent. There is a need – and so much scope – to improve the quality of green cover in the still-expanding city. Now is as good a time as any to take the urban forestry management strategies to the next level by innovating with different models and design strategies, embracing technology and finding incentives to improve coordination and alignment among stakeholders of varied interests.
Under the Joint Declaration of Intent (JDI) on Forest Landscape Restoration signed by India and Germany, GIZ India works with diverse stakeholders in Delhi NCR to explore opportunities along these lines. This JDI aims to strengthen cooperation to restore and protect India’s forests as an important measure to reduce poverty; preserve and restore biodiversity and healthy ecosystems; improve resilience and ecosystem services like water availability; and attenuate the impacts of climate change.
The authors are advisors with GIZ India, an international development agency.
Banner image: Old Lodi bridge with trees around it in Delhi’s Lodi Garden. Photo by Deeptijacob1980/Wikimedia Commons.