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  • Hitesh Vaidya & Abhilash Khandekar

Urban Jungles: Expanding the Canopy in City Planning

Hitesh Vaidya Abhilash Khandekar

As urbanisation accelerates and climate challenges intensify, the importance of urban biodiversity has come to the forefront. The concrete jungles that define our cities may seem disconnected from nature, but within the seams of urban landscapes lies a critical ecosystem that plays a pivotal role in mitigating the adverse effects of rapid urbanisation and climate change. As cities evolve, recognising the profound impact of these urban sentinels on sustainable development becomes imperative. Urban forests, aptly termed the city's "green lungs," are pivotal in combating pollution, enhancing air quality, and nurturing biodiversity.

Urban biodiversity is not a mere luxury; instead, it is an imperative for the sustainable coexistence of humanity in the future. Leading global cities increasingly recognise preserving and fostering biodiversity's vital role in ensuring a harmonious urban environment. By adopting biodiversity-friendly practices, incorporating sustainable urban planning strategies, and actively involving communities, cities can metamorphose into vibrant ecosystems and enhance their aesthetic appeal and economic prosperity. The inclusion of elements such as trees, gardens, birds, bees, butterflies, marshlands, step wells, creeks, hills, and hillocks not only add to the city's visual allure but also elevates land values, fostering a nexus between environmental conservation and economic well-being.

Urban biodiversity encompasses the variety of city life, including plants, animals, fungi, and microorganisms. It thrives in parks, green spaces, and even on the most minor patches of soil. Despite the apparent disconnect between cities and nature, urban biodiversity is a resilient force that sustains the environment and contributes to the overall well-being of urban communities. Sustainable urban planning involves incorporating biodiversity-friendly practices, such as native plant landscaping, preserving natural habitats, and integrating green infrastructure.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), a pivotal international agreement about biodiversity, underscores the significance of addressing biodiversity in urban areas. Acknowledging the importance of urban ecosystems, the CBD advocates for integrating biodiversity considerations into urban planning and management. By seamlessly incorporating biodiversity into urban development, specific Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) related to the environment are achieved, thereby contributing to overarching sustainable development objectives. This integration fosters the creation of resilient, livable, and economically vibrant cities. Within the SDGs framework, Goal 15 (Life on Land) emphasises preserving and restoring urban biodiversity within city boundaries. Goal 13 (Climate Action) advocates for establishing biodiverse urban areas as carbon sinks, effectively mitigating the impacts of climate change. This goal underscores the importance of green spaces and city tree cover in reducing the urban heat island effect and enhancing overall climate resilience. Goal 14 emphasises (Life Below Water), urging the preservation of urban water bodies, such as creeks and marshlands, to conserve aquatic ecosystems within urban limits. Biodiversity-friendly practices in urban areas further contribute to Goal 12 (Responsible Production and Consumption), promoting sustainable resource management, reducing the ecological footprint of cities, and fostering responsible consumption patterns. Access to green spaces and exposure to nature in urban environments positively impact mental and physical health, aligning with Goal 3 (Health and Well-being). Urban aesthetics, enhanced through biodiversity, offer potential benefits such as boosting tourism and local economic growth. Green infrastructure projects create employment opportunities and stimulate economic growth, aligning with Goal 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth). Finally, Goal 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) underscores the importance of biodiversity conservation in urban settings. Urban biodiversity actively contributes to developing more sustainable, inclusive, and resilient cities, ultimately enhancing urban residents' overall quality of life.

Global examples vividly demonstrate the symbiotic relationship between urban development and nature. Berlin's commitment to urban forests and Kolkata's Botanical Garden, highlighting biodiversity, exemplify this harmony. Under its CITIIS project, Surat is ambitiously creating an 86-hectare biodiversity park with 6 lakh plants encompassing 85 native species along Kankara Creek. This initiative underscores the city's dedication to sustainable urban development, earning recognition for innovative policies. Surat, the recipient of the 2020 UNESCO Netexplo Smart Cities Award in resilience, adopts a bottom-up approach with initiatives like affordable housing projects, strengthened environmental regulations in construction, and data-driven water management solutions. It proudly boasts the distinction of being the first City Biodiversity Index, actively combating desertification and mitigating the effects of climate change. Curitiba, renowned for innovative urban planning, integrates green spaces and sustainable practices into its development. Maintaining open spaces adds environmental, cultural, and sports value while serving as water aquifer recharge stations. This biodiversity-friendly urban planning model sets a standard for creating sustainable and enjoyable urban environments. The Great Green Wall, an African-led initiative, addresses desertification, land degradation, and climate change in the Sahel region. Restoring 100 million hectares of land, sequestering carbon, and enhancing biodiversity provides sustainable livelihoods for local communities through tree planting. The Miyawaki method, developed by Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki, promotes rapid growth and biodiversity by planting native trees closely together. These dense forests, acting as natural water purifiers, align with SDG 6 by contributing to improved water quality and availability. Singapore and Copenhagen's adoption of green roofs aligns with SDG 11, creating more sustainable and resilient urban environments. Fruit-bearing trees on these roofs offer a sustainable food source, support local economies, and enhance climate resilience. Auroville's forest serves as a sanctuary for diverse species, showcasing sustainable living in harmony with nature. Delhi Ridge, often called the capital's lungs, contributes to the city's green cover with native trees like neem, peepal, and banyan. This vast urban forest is pivotal in groundwater recharge and pollution control.

Towns and trees share a symbiotic relationship that extends far beyond the surface. The intertwining of urban landscapes with the leafy embrace of trees enriches the quality of life for town residents. Recognising and nurturing this interconnected bond is crucial for building resilient, sustainable, and vibrant towns where the roots of trees run deep, anchoring the entire community's well-being.

Cities grappling with rising temperatures due to urbanisation can find transformation in the cooling embrace of trees. Green spaces act as natural air conditioners, making urban areas more livable and resilient against the warming effects of development. Cities designed with trees in mind are inherently more inclusive, providing spaces for people of all ages. From children playing in parks to the elderly finding solace in shaded areas, the presence of trees fosters a sense of community and enhances the quality of life for everyone. Native species adapted to specific climates must be chosen to ensure the survival and thriving of greenery in various regions. Beyond their environmental benefits, trees contribute significantly to the aesthetic appeal of urban spaces.

Biodiversity acts as a natural carbon sink, absorbing and storing carbon dioxide while releasing oxygen. Its presence in urban areas helps combat air pollution, providing fresh air for city dwellers. It contributes to the overall ecological balance and aids in flood prevention. Above the ground, trees provide shade, reducing the urban heat island effect and creating more pleasant environments for residents.

Urban biodiversity is a unifying solution addressing multiple SDGs, from climate action to sustainable cities, life on land and below land, and partnerships for the goals. Integrating trees into urban planning ensures cities evolve into sustainable, inclusive, and resilient spaces that honour cultural reverence for trees in India. Municipalities and local governments play a crucial role in shaping urban landscapes. Implementing policies prioritising green spaces, restricting deforestation, and encouraging sustainable development practices can contribute to maintaining and enhancing urban biodiversity. They must prioritise trees to create aesthetically pleasing, inclusive, and sustainable urban environments, fostering a sense of community and improving the quality of life for all residents. By embracing circular practices and nurturing biodiverse urban ecosystems, we can pave the way for cities that are not only sustainable but also vibrant, resilient, and in harmony with the natural world. The journey towards circular and biodiverse cities is a shared responsibility that promises future generations a better, greener future. The future of urban development lies in innovative solutions, emerging technologies, and collaborative efforts that prioritise both circularity and biodiversity.


The Authors -

Hitesh Vaidya: Former Director, National Institute of Urban Affairs

Abhilash Khandekar: Founder of The Nature Volunteers (TNV) and Veteran Journalist

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