Future of Urbanisation and
Human Settlements

More and more people around the globe are moving to live in towns and cities. Already more than 54% of the world’s population resides in urban areas and this is expected to rise to 66% by 2050 (UNDESA, 2014). Currently 30% of the Indian population is urbanised, rising at an annual rate of 2.76% p.a. With 250 million more people expected to be added to urban India by 2030, it is imperative that the pathway of urbanisation is sustainable and inclusive. A sustainable urban environment encompasses a liveable city that provides economic and livelihood opportunities for its citizens as well as caters to their social and cultural wellbeing, doing so within the current resource constrained landscape.

By 2030, India for the first time will have more people living in urban areas than in rural. Natural increase in population, net rural-urban reclassification and migration from rural to urban spaces has led to this huge urban growth (IUSSP, 2009). The future for urban India looks rather impressive with possibility of cities generating increased employment opportunities, contributing to GDP, enhancing livelihoods as well as being the hub for technological innovation.

Urbanisation in India has created various positive reinforcements such as:

Economic Growth - Urbanisation level increased at a rate of 2.1% points during 1991 to 2001 while the economy grew at 6% p.a. However from 2001 to 2011 while urbanisation level increased at a rate of 3.3%, the economy grew at 8% p.a. (Ahluwalia, 2011).

Reduction in Rural Poverty – From 1983 to1999, an average increase in urban population by 200,000 contributed to a decrease in rural poverty in the same district by 1.3 and 2.6 percentage points, mainly due to the urban-rural economic linkages (World Bank, 2013).

Access to Opportunities – Urban areas present an investment potential that eventually provides better access to opportunities of housing, healthcare, transportation, education and recreation compared to that offered in rural areas.

However, these benefits seem rather small due to the haphazard manner of urbanisation (Sanyal, Nagrath, & Singal, 2008) and the non-alignment of planning with the processes of economic growth (Ahluwalia & Mohanty, 2014). Thereby the negative consequence of this is witnessed in the weak maintenance of urban infrastructure and delivery mechanisms of public services. These services are far short of the necessary threshold for a sustainable liveable city and if they are not improved, it may lead to a disastrous urban future. Some of the prominent areas bearing the brunt of this are as follows:

Housing Sector – With an annual requirement of 2.5 million new dwelling units, only 15% of the requirement is being constructed and the existence of semi-permanent and congested houses along with rising slums/squatters makes the situation more severe.

Transport Systems – Along with deteriorating and crowded urban transport systems in mega cities, the city governments’ attempts to solve the transportation crisis has concentrated on road improvement projects (Tiwari, 2007). There is limited investment in public transportation as the share of public buses has declined from 11.1 % in 1950 to 1.1 % of all registered vehicles in 2011 (Planning Commision, GoI, 2014).

Public Services – There has been a serious lack of supporting infrastructure in urban spaces with issues such as piped water supply access available only to 69% of the households in large cities and only 45% in smaller cities and towns (McKenzie & Ray, 2009), while only 30% of the sewage generated is treated (Sankhe, et al., 2010).

While the numbers showcase the seriousness of the problem in a few areas, the issue is much deeper than that. Sustaining the growing urban population would require heavy investments of financial and natural resources. India needs an investment of about INR 39.2 trillion in infrastructure over the next 20 years to cope with the current rate of urbanisation (Jenkins, 2011). This would also entail further exploitation of natural resources leading to climate change and ecosystem degradation. Air and water pollution in Indian cities with pollutants far exceeding the norms is increasing. Cities also face other environment related problems such as excessive congestion, unhygienic conditions, poor waste disposal and lack of green spaces for recreation (UN, 2015). A case in point is Bangalore in Karnataka which witnessed a population explosion when established as an IT industry hub. The urban population in the city increased from 24 lakhs in 1980 to 84 lakhs in 2011. The growing population led to increased pressure on civic amenities, residential availability, local infrastructure, transportation etc. Further, the city has also lost many of its water bodies and the natural ecosystem has become fragile because of the increasing need for space to cater to the residential and commercial needs (CES, 2006).

The Transition

Redesigning urban areas as integrated ecosystems is critical. The current form of cities are not well equipped to address emerging urban challenges of housing shortage, weak transport systems, unmanageable waste generation etc. The global environment is transitioning towards adopting a new set of goals and targets aiming to promote human wellbeing through the sustainable use of natural resources. Recognising that cities are diverse in terms of their size, structure, spatial form, economy, wealth, local resources availability and ecological impact; the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) proposed by the Open Working Group has a specific Goal that looks at ‘Making Cities and Human Settlements Inclusive, Safe, Resilient and Sustainable’.

Given that India would be signing on these goals, it provides us with an opportunity to establish sustainable human settlements that have self-sustaining communities catering to the needs of all the citizens and help build social capital, regenerate natural capital while boosting economic capital (Khosla, 2015). A city that resonates inclusiveness, safety, resilience and sustainability would need to adopt improvements that are based on technical activities, establish partnerships with the public, private and community sector and ensure that the approach is citizen-centric giving special consideration to groups such as women, indigenous people, elderly and disabled.

The Indian government has introduced 3 missions aimed at urban makeover – Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), Housing for All by 2022 (Urban), Smart Cities – aimed to improve the quality of human settlements and the living and working environment of the urban population. The current government hopes to draw INR 4 lakh crore for the economic and social development of urban areas. However, the environmental aspect of these cities has not been highlighted optimally.

Ensuring that the pathway of urbanisation echoes sustainability is going to demand changes in its approach. It will require extra sensitivity towards the social and political structures of the country and the way they are conceived. There would be a need to support measures that encourage sustainable development and management of cities along with economic development and social welfare of the region (UN, 1996). Furthermore, it will be critical to realise that lasting economic and social improvements will only be achieved if they are supported by a secure foundation of natural capital (UNEP, 2015). Thus the essential pillars for achieving sustainable urbanisation would be:

Social development – education, health, water, food, green housing/building etc.

Economic development – green productive growth, generation of decent jobs, technology and innovation.

Environmental management – forest, water and soil management, recycling systems, energy efficiency, climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Urban governance – planning and decentralisation, reducing inequities, strengthening of civil and political rights etc (UNDESA, 2014).

The Indian government’s urban missions demand regional and urban planning that reflects the willingness for sustainable use of natural resources and takes into account various parameters such as population, financial consistency, transportation and other public services (Anthopoulos & Vakali, 2011). Relooking the growth paradigm and possibly targeting small cities and towns to emerge as agglomeration hubs for new developments may have the potential for ensuring a holistic set of measures for targeting sustainability and liveability. Redesigning growth and development models incorporating the four above pillars of sustainable urbanisation will contribute towards regeneration of resource catchments, promote youth and citizen engagement in planning and create livelihood based approaches to have holistic human settlements (Khosla, 2015).  q

D. Varsha and Reemsha Reen

Peer Reviewed by
Romi Khosla,
Planner-Urban Sustainability,
Romi Khosla Design Studios


UNDESA. (2014). World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision. United Nations.

IUSSP. (2009). Urbanization in India: Dynamics and Consequences. Princeton University.

Sankhe, S., et al. (2010). India's urban awakening: Building inclusive cities, sustaining economic growth. McKinsey Global Institute.

Sanyal, S., Nagrath, S., & Singal, S. (2008). The Alternative Urban Futures Report: Urbanisation and Sustainability in India: An Interdependent Agenda. New Delhi: World Wide Fund for Nature India.

Ahluwalia, I. J., & Mohanty, P. K. (2014). Planning and Markets for Urban Development in India. In I. J. Ahluwalia, R. Kanbur, & P. K. Mohanty, Urbanisation in India: Challenges, Opportunities and the Way Forward (pp. 56-81). SAGE Publications India.

Tiwari. (2007, November). Urban Transport in Indian Cities. Retrieved July 2015 from LSECities: https://lsecities.net/media/objects/articles/urban-transport-in-indian-cities/en-gb/

Planning Commision, GoI. (2014). India Transport Report: Moving India to 2032. Routledge.

McKenzie, & Ray. (2009). Urban Water Supply in India: Status, Reform Options and Possible Lessons. Water Policy.

Jenkins. (2011, March 2009). Coping with Urbanisation. Retrieved July 2015 from LiveMint: http://www.livemint.com/Politics/2a9KjDJ29QJSXLlPZgqHQL/Coping-with-urbanization.html

UN. (2015). India and the MDGs: Towards a sustainable future for all. United Nations.

CES. (2006). Centre for Ecological Sciences. Retrieved July 2015 from Indian Institute of Science: http://wgbis.ces.iisc.ernet.in/energy/lake2006/programme/programme/proceedings/Presentations/Lake%202006%20-%20Presentations/28%20Dec%202006 /Session%20IV/Abijith.pdf

Khosla. (2015). To Choose Our Future. Academic Foundation.

UN. (1996, June 14). The Habitat Agenda: Chapter IV: C. Sustainable human settlements development in an urbanizing world. Retrieved July 2015 from UN Documents: http://www.un-documents.net/ha-4c.htm

UNEP. (2015). Policy Cohernece of the Sustainable Development Goals. United Nations Environment Programme.

Anthopoulos, & Vakali. (2011). Urban Planning and Smart Cities: Interrelations and Reciprocities. Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg.

Ahluwalia, M. (2011). Prospects and Policy Challenges in the Twelfth Plan. Economic & Political Weekly , 46(21): 88-105.


Back to Contents

  Share Subscribe Home

Contact Us

About Us