Trees for Cities: Implementing Nature-Based Solutions in India

Nature-based solutions create multiple benefits for urban residents, from heat protection to green jobs. WRI India shares how cities across the country are scaling up urban forestry efforts.

Cubbon Park, Bangalore. Photo by Pasqualino Capobianco/Unsplash.

This post originally appeared on WRI India, authored by Priya NarayananLinda Regi and Achu R Sekhar.

Whether one seeks an escape from Delhi’s scorching summer heat or a winter afternoon basking in the sun, Sanjay Van National Park, one of the city’s few surviving urban forests, comes to mind. Mangalavanam in Kochi or Shalimar Bagh in Srinagar evokes a similar sentiment in residents of these cities.

Trees, parks, and urban forests are essential to cities not just as spaces of community building, but as they also offer multiple ecological benefits, from building resilience against climate change to water security, biodiversity, resident health, and well-being. Adequate green cover and various forms of green built environment, including nature-based solutions (NbS), improve the quality of urban life. It is estimated that if natural climate solutions are mobilized over the next 10 to 15 years, coupled with a reduction in fossil fuel emissions, they could provide 37% of the mitigation required for global climate targets.

An illustration of a city scene with trees, a bus, and people walking and traveling.
An illustration showcasing nature inclusive cites, by Nileena.S/WRI India.

The Cities4Forests global initiative defines an urban forest as the trees and shrubs in an urban area, including trees in yards, along streets and utility corridors, in protected areas and in watersheds. This includes individual trees, street trees, green spaces with trees and even the associated vegetation and the soil beneath the trees.

In cities, urban vegetation along with other blue-green infrastructure help mitigate climate risks like heat islands and urban floods, enhance urban resilience and ensure sustainability. They also play an important role in creating natural recreational spaces, dust pollution mitigation, reducing noise, creating green jobs and topsoil conservation.

A photograph of Marine Drive in Kochi; people walk underneath tree cover.
Marine drive in Kochi. Photo by Rajeev Malagi/WRI India.

Over the last decade, the central government in India has been working towards improving the green cover in cities. But planting trees continues to be seen as a cost rather than an asset. Success metrics for urban forestry is defined by planting rather than maintenance, and funding is usually inadequate because the financial returns from trees are simplified based on material revenue rather than returns in the form of ecosystem services. Such challenges prevent cities from raising the necessary public capital and participation to grow more urban forests.

The Urban Forest scheme launched in 2020, to create Nagar Vans (Urban Forests) supports the extension of the green cover in cities. Instances of collective action to this end also exist in cities such as Chennai, Gurugram, Delhi and Kochi. But extensive conservation, promotion and addition of green cover continues to require concentrated and consistent efforts. We have identified three key actions for trees and forests to thrive and result in more livable cities for us all:

  1. Engaging with communities and local leaders: Often overlooked, this is one of the most vital elements for the sustenance of any on-ground intervention. Stakeholders in the neighborhood need consistent support and repeated assurances about the benefits of urban forests and it should be ensured that residents, local champions, and community leaders are included in co-designing and developing the space so that what is developed is based on what is required in their neighborhoods.
    A photograph of a stakeholder meeting. Several people are gathered in a room, and buildings and mountains are visible in the background.
    Stakeholder consultation meeting conducted by WRI India at Mamta Public School, Jaipur for developing urban rooftop gardens. Photo by Sidharth Thyagarajan/WRI India.
  2. Embracing action through institutional partnerships: In urban areas, assisted planting of trees requires care since saplings need to adjust to the ambient temperature, pollution and biodiversity. Institutional partnerships can play an important role in making this happen. For example, through our sustained efforts under the Cities4Forests global initiative, we enabled the city of Kochi to effectively strategize a partnership with the Local Self Government Department (LSGD) of Kerala and utilize the Ayyankali Mission (an urban employment mission for non-skilled laborers) to ensure the nurturing of four neighborhood greening sites over a period of three years. The employment of local workers in maintaining the Kawaki sites, in particular the inclusion of women laborers and Self-Help Group (SHG) members, reveals a significant shift towards resilience-building and shaping more inclusive climate action planning by the urban local body.
    Women wearing purple shirts and green hats plant trees.
    Women from SHGs deepening the trench and removing weeds from the base of planted tree saplings as part of a routine maintenance process under the Ayyankali Scheme. Photo by Achu Sekhar/WRI India.
  3. Ensuring and empowering the next generation: Our actions today can ensure long-term preparedness for climate risks, better living environment and ecosystem balance. Urban forests are one of the ways to help maintain this balance and promoting them is imperative for our future. Sensitizing children and youth to the importance of trees would not only ensure the protection and maintenance of these urban forests but will also aid the transition to green jobs.
    Students tend to a garden site in Kochi.
    A Kawaki site being cared for by students at the SRV Government School in Kochi. Photo by Achu Sekhar/WRI India.

We must collectively reimagine the role trees play in our cities not just as tools of beautification but as participants that improve urban life.

There is also an opportunity to further explore how urban forests can improve human health. But this entails safeguarding urban green spaces and preventing their conversion, enhancing forest management on working lands, using a variety of restoration techniques and planting urban forests.

To better include the importance of trees in our lives, the conservation sector must recognize and promote the benefits of investing in forest protection, management, and restoration as a prime method to restore our earth to its natural environment. As we look back on World Earth Day, let’s remember that rigorous collaboration and a shared vision and action across various stakeholders is critical to ensure that ‘we invest in our planet’, for a better tomorrow. Along with the recommendations discussed in this blog, such collaborative action can help create healthier and more resilient cities for our coming generations.

All views expressed by the authors are personal.