Towards Sustainable Growth in a World of Irreversible Urbanisation

Nisha Priya Mani and Alpana Jain

Ever since the economic liberalisation across the globe in the mid 19th century, the trends of industrialisation and urbanisation have been on the surge. The year 2007 marked a major landmark as the global trajectory of the urban population surpassed the rural population proving the world’s inclination toward urbanisation, write Nisha Priya Mani, Project Manager-Cities and Alpana Jain, Programme Lead – Cities at Nature Conservancy India Solutions Private Ltd.

India, being a developing country, exhibited a similar trend with respect to the urban population, which increased about 14-fold between 1901 to 2011. The country is projected to switch over to a population with an urban majority by 2070¹. The urban areas contribute to about 2/3rd of the country’s GDP².

The messages from across the globe, including from India are loud and clear.

  • Urbanisation is rapid, irreversible, and undeniable.
  • Urbanisation is important for faster economic growth thereby reducing poverty.

While reaping the benefits of economic urbanisation, people should also acknowledge the fact that just like the process of urbanisation, the loss of ecological integrity that may result due to anthropogenic pressures is also irreversible. The huge population decline of the Ganges river dolphin is a striking example of how we are losing the species due to habitat disturbance caused by habitat fragmentation, pollution, and indiscriminate fishing activities. A prediction model by McDonald et al. (2014) shows that urban growth in 10 per cent of all ecoregions across the globe would impact about 80 per cent of vertebrate species between 2000 and 2030³. And thus, it is essential to take corrective measures at the earliest to prevent further degradation and loss due to urbanisation and its effects.

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Rampant urbanisation may have both direct and indirect impacts on natural resources. While direct impacts involve changes in land use and land cover such as deforestation and other physical transformation of the terrain, habitat loss, and degradation, indirect impacts include changes in natural hydrology affecting surface and groundwater resources, fragmentation of biodiversity habitat, increased greenhouse gas emissions due to deforestation and more areas becoming vulnerable to floods, droughts, and heat island effects because of the conversion of wetlands to other uses. As per the UN-Habitat report, cities contribute to 60 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions with higher consumption of energy⁴.

With increased awareness on the importance of natural resources and their protection, and with international communities coming together on common agreements on matters related to environmental conservation, there is certainly hope lighting up the future of humanity.

Thanks to the Stockholm Convention, 1972 under the United Nations for serving as a harbinger of a more focussed approach to environmental conservation and climate action. With incremental impacts of multinational pacts such as the Kyoto Protocol, the Copenhagen Accord, and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, it is heartening to note the penetration of climate emergency down to sub-national levels for climate actions. The United Nations’ adoption of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and unprecedented commitment from nations to the Paris Climate Change Agreement is a real win for the global community in tackling the threat of indiscriminate urbanisation and climate change to people and nature.

India’s National Mission on Sustainable Habitat (NMSH) under the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) and Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) towards achieving an economy-wide reduction of carbon emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 from the 2005 levels and attaining carbon neutrality by 2070, are some of the ambitious goals of the country, urging people from both top-down and bottom-up towards taking necessary measures for the development of inclusive and climate-resilient cities. With cities known to contribute a major share of greenhouse gases, the country’s initiative with Smart City Mission encourages cities to take up planning and implementation of environment-friendly measures for the sustainable development of cities. The Climate Smart Cities Assessment Framework 2.0 (CSCAF 2.0) developed by the National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA) under the NMSH aims to guide cities’ development in a holistic, inclusive, and climate-responsive manner by measuring its development performance against a set of environmental indicators broadly including

i. Urban Planning, Green Cover, and Biodiversity
ii. Energy and Green Buildings
iii. Mobility and Air Quality
iv. Water Management
v. Waste Management

Under the aegis of the Smart City Mission in various cities across India, several initiatives are being taken for environment-friendly urbanisation efforts. One of the several notable works by smart cities in collaboration with the sub-national governments is the restoration of 200 water bodies in Chennai, a coastal city in the state of Tamil Nadu that is vulnerable to both floods and droughts. With the complementing efforts by the state government such as mandatory rooftop harvesting initiated in 2004, and augmentation of groundwater levels by artificial recharge structures and zonation of aquifer areas in the city’s development plans have minimized stormwater run-off from a flood-prone city and also replenish the groundwater sources.

Working on similar lines, we at The Nature Conservancy-India are working on demonstrating a scientific approach to restoring a degraded wetland in Chennai which can be replicated for other ecologically disturbed water bodies. The project on the eco-restoration of Sembakkam lake involved a thorough baseline study to understand the characteristics of the watershed, hydrogeological formations, water quality, biodiversity, and community perceptions to come up with a holistic restoration plan. The study revealed that with the alteration of natural hydrology and increase in groundwater demand due to urbanisation in the region, three to four months of dry months will lead to drying up of the entire lake, eventually rendering a change in land use. With the help of subject matter experts, we came up with a novel solution to treat the incoming wastewater using eco-system based adaptive solutions (constructed wetland system using Phragmites australis and Canna indica) such that the wastewater when treated and let into the lake, would replenish and allow the lake eco- system to thrive and provide ecosystem services. When urbanisation brings the threat of wiping out natural resources, such holistic and integrated efforts offer promising solutions to build climate-resilient cities. Learnings from such projects can then be scaled up across other vulnerable landscapes and ecosystems.

Sembakkam Lake
A photo of Sembakkam Lake, Chennai being restored by The Nature Conservancy – India

In an attempt to create impact at a larger regional scale, we are working with the Planning Department of Chennai to develop a green print for the city which is a sustainable urban plan or a conservation plan for the city. This effort envisions integrating the natural infrastructure such as the wetlands, urban forests, and green and pervious surfaces into the new masterplan or the spatial plan of the city which is currently under development. This will go a long way in building water security, preventing floods, increasing carbon sequestration, improving air quality, lowering surface and ambient temperatures, conserving habitats for biodiversity, along with positively impacting the health of the citizens. This is again a pilot in Chennai that has the potential to be scaled up to all cities across the country.

Besides efforts from the government, public-private partnerships (PPP) and corporates supporting sustainable approaches through their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) efforts and commitment to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions are some of the the groundwater sources. Working on similar lines, we at The Nature Conservancy-India are working on demonstrating a scientific approach to restoring a degraded wetland in Chennai which can be replicated for other ecologically disturbed water bodies. The project on the eco-restoration of Sembakkam lake involved a thorough baseline study to understand the characteristics of the watershed, hydrogeological formations, water quality, biodiversity, and community perceptions to come up with a holistic restoration plan. The study revealed that with the alteration of natural hydrology and increase in groundwater demand due to urbanisation in the region, three to four months of dry months will lead to drying up of the entire lake, eventually rendering a change in land use. With the help of subject matter experts, we came up with a novel solution to treat the incoming wastewater using eco-system based adaptive solutions (constructed wetland system using Phragmites australis and Canna indica) such that the wastewater when treated and let into the lake, would replenish and allow the lake eco- system to thrive and provide ecosystem services. When urbanisation brings the threat of wiping out natural resources, such holistic and integrated efforts offer promising solutions to build climate-resilient cities. Learnings from such projects can then be scaled up across other vulnerable landscapes and ecosystems.


1. Nandy, s.N.. (2020). URBANIZATION IN INDIA -PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE CONSEQUENCES. 35. 8-24.
2. https://mea.gov.in/Portal/CountryNews/11213_UNHA_India_s_Statement_28.05.2019.pdf
3. McDonald, R., B. Giineralp, W. Zipperer and P.J. Marcotullio. 2014. The future of global urbanization and the environment. Sol11tio11s 5(6): 60-69.
4. https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/climate-solutions/cities-pollution