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GIS-based environmental and ecological planning for sustainable development

Dhanapal. G
Ecologist, Private consultant
Email: [email protected]

Industrialisation and urbanisation are two key pillars of economic growth. During 2010-11, the industrial sector of India grew at over 8 percent and the manufacturing sector grew at 9.1 percent. However, industrialisation and urbanisation also lead to decreased environmental quality. Further industrial development will need resources like raw materials, energy and land area, which can exploit natural resources of the nation. On the other hand, urbanisation has been steadily increasing, given the demand for new townships and urban areas. Industrialisation has had a negative impact on the environment in India (Narayanan K and Palanivel T, 2003) and urban agglomeration has also lead to several environmental problems around urban areas. For instance, clean air, open spaces and water availability per capita are steadily decreasing.

It is pertinent to mention here that India’s efforts towards ‘sustainable development’ date back to 1972 when the government established a National Committee on Environmental Planning and Coordination [NCEPC]. However, environmental degradation continued and in 2010, India ranked 123 on the Environment Performance Index ) with a score of 48.3. Performance indicators like environmental health, air pollution and water pollution were the main categories where India scored poorly. For a nation that is emerging as major economic power but is constrained by growing population and limited natural resources, there is an urgent need to promote sustainable development practices. The National Environmental Policy (NEP) of 2006 articulates the spirit of ‘sustainable development.’ It states that only such development is sustainable which respects ecological constraints and the imperatives of social justice. This article discusses the significance of GIS-based ecological and environmental planning in promoting sustainable development in India.

Land use planning
The main objective of land use planning is the optimisation of land use distribution in a sustainable manner. Promoting sustainability is the overarching goal of land use planning, including planning for conservation, protection and for appropriate use of land and natural resources (Forman 1995). Land use planning aims at identifying the most appropriate spatial pattern for future land use according to specific requirements, preferences, or predictors of some activity (Collins et al., 2001). It involves economic, social, cultural, environmental and ecological aspects. This article discusses only the environmental and ecological planning (EEP), part of sustainable land use planning and the scope of GIS in EEP that could contribute towards sustainable development.

Environmental planning
Many studies have recommended that environmental issues be absorbed into project planning and design and to fully incorporate environmental issues in the planning stage itself (Mc Donald and Brown, 1995). Incorporating environmental knowledge into planning contributes significantly to sustainable planning (Leitau and Ahern.2002). Environmental planning (EP) occurs early in the planning process and can be incorporated into land use planning to address environmental issues. By addressing environmental concerns early in the project development cycle, environmental planning helps to mitigate environmental impacts.

One of the most fundamental EP tools is site suitability analysis that was first advocated by Ian McHarg at the University of Pennsylvania over 30 years ago (Mc Harg 1981). Suitability analysis is an essential tool in developing comprehensible approaches to large scale regional planning. The basic premise of suitability analysis is that each aspect of the landscape has intrinsic characteristics that are to some degree either suitable or unsuitable for the activities being planned. These relationships are revealed through detailed evaluation and assessment by overlaying and compiling thematic maps representing each data. The suitability evaluation allows the identification of certain types of activities (such as recreation, housing, or industry) within a region with particular physical characteristics and limitations (such as towns, floodplains, wetlands, steep slopes, or upland ridges). Ideally, the result is a site arrangement that takes advantage of the landscape’s intrinsic attributes while avoiding unsuitable or unsupportable locations for land use activities where obvious site conflicts or incompatibilities may be expected. Thus, the intent of the sensitivity analysis process is to determine the optimum site location for activities while minimising negative impacts on the environment.

Ecological planning
Ecological planning is primarily a method of studying the biophysical and socio-cultural systems of a region to reveal where a specific land use may be best practiced (Steiner and Brooks 1981). While ecology is concerned with functioning of resources, planning is the appropriate use of resources for human benefit. During 1970s, a new branch of ecology known as landscape ecology emerged, which studies ecology of landscapes. Based on three fundamental structural elements i.e. patches, corridors and the matrix; landscape ecology soon established relation with land use planning. One fundamental aspect of landscape ecology was its explicit attention to the spatial dimension of ecological processes, thus providing a common language for stronger interactions between ecologists and planners.

Patch corridor matrix in landscape ecology

Open space within cities is not only a valuable resource for recreation but also provides important habitat for wildlife, besides enhancing environmental services such as the infiltration of rainwater. While open space planning plays a critical role in urban planning, designing open space requires certain stringent guidelines. Landscape ecology puts a framework on open space planning, which includes the identification of spatial elements like patches and corridors and creating a matrix to support landscape functions. Mc Garigal in 1998 proposed procedures on open space planning based on landscape ecology principles. Development activities like construction of roads, dams and industrial areas causes habitat fragmentation, which has three major components including loss of original habitat, reduction in habitat patches and isolation of habitat patch (Andren 1994). This causes loss of biodiversity and effects ecosystem services. Landscape ecological planning helps in identifying areas rich in biodiversity and also in planning connectivity of patches.

The scale of applicability of environmental and ecological planning is extremely wide. The use of GIS-based landscape ecological planning has been recommended at large scales like for Western Ghats of India, where it was mainly used as a conservation planning tool for biodiversity conservation. At a smaller scale, the ecological and environmental planning is used for sustainability planning in urban areas, townships and industrial parks.

GIS in ecological and environmental planning
The emergence of GIS during 1970s and the simultaneous development in ecological and environmental planning led to a long term association among GIS and EEP. Given the large amount of environmental data that needs to be compiled for effective suitability analysis, GIS was used as an efficient tool for organising, storing, analysing, displaying and reporting the spatial information. GIS allowed the creation and modification of the analysis that makes the best use of available data. GIS also supported methods to apply guidelines and criteria set by local and India’s national management regulations. Five major steps of GIS spatial analysis for environmental and ecological planning include (but not limited to):

  1. Defining criteria for the analysis
  2. Defining data needs and base map
  3. Acquisition and preparation of the data as thematic maps
  4. Creating GIS model/overlays
  5. Evaluating results and refinement of the model

A typical over lay analysis of various GIS layers

Key sources of information include topographic maps, aerial photos, satellite images and data derived from GIS like land use, slope, water features and environmental risks.

Site development suitability analysis is based on an environmental sensitivity assessment and considers constraining factors for certain developments in the site, for example a wetland of ecological importance or land having high slope. “Suitability levels” are first tested based on individual factors which are later overlaid to indicate overall development suitability. This approach considers existing natural resources at the site and aims to protect environmentally and ecologically sensitive areas. The overlay procedures play a central role in many GIS applications (O’Sullivan and Unwin, 2003). Several advanced techniques that are in the forefront of the advances in the land-use suitability analysis have come up such as: multicriteria decision analysis (MCDA), artificial intelligence (AI), geocomputation methods, visualisation methods and Web GIS.

A GIS-based site suitability analysis on the environmental evaluation for urban land-use planning is illustrated for the urban area of Lanzhou City and its vicinity in Northwest China (Dai et al.,2001). In this case, multi-criteria analysis was performed to evaluate development suitability of the region and the areas best suited for development. One of the major problems in developmental projects is lack of vision for a long term sustainable environment. Options for future needs and growth areas are generally not identified as a key need. The GIS-based carrying capacity analysis has aided in sustainable land use planning that plans on future land use needs and availability. The land carrying capacity refers to the maximum extent to which a ground or soil area may be exploited without degradation or depletion. It reflects the total development that could be undertaken on a specific land and the number of residents and visitors that can be supported. Predicting development density from the carrying capacity using GIS tools has been carried out in several urban development projects (see Oh et al 2005). Such analysis will help in planning urban areas with a vision for future needs.

For any development project, the protection of water resources is extremely important. Construction over the drainage path or watershed can affect the water resources of the region. The establishment and maintenance of buffer zones along shorelines or streams is a common management practice used in ecological planning. The buffer analysis tool in GIS helps in setting buffer zones for the water bodies.

Environmental planning also addresses risks of natural hazards and disasters. Floods are one of the most common hazards in the world and the use of environmental and GIS data to construct a flood hazard map has been done for many projects. By combining data of topography, water resources, surface runoff and rainfall data, possible flood risk within the site area can be predicted. Also, hazard areas like high slopes, soil erosion and landslides can also be incorporated in GIS-based environmental planning.

Towards sustainable development
To achieve sustainable development, the impact on environment and biodiversity due to urbanisation and industrialisation needs to be carefully assessed at regional and landscape level. GIS analysis helps in evaluating large data at landscape and regional level easily and helps decision makers to visually understand the environmental consequences of the project. Environment planning and ecological planning can be incorporated into both large and small scale development projects and will help in choosing the best available land that helps to reduce environmental impacts and preserve biodiversity. Landscape ecological planning can provide a conceptual framework for the assessment of consequences of long-term development processes like urbanisation and industrialisation on biodiversity components and helps in evaluating and visualising the impacts of alternative planning scenarios (Mortberg et al 2007).

In recent decades, GIS-based ecological and environmental planning has contributed immensely to sustainable development. GIS based environmental planning is being practiced in many developing nations now like Mauritius (Johnson et al.2010) with developed nations already in advanced stages of using GIS in sustainable land use planning. In India, there have been many studies on land use planning for cities (Sudhira et al.,2003, 2004), townships, industrial areas, districts (Bobade et al 2010) and watersheds (Chowdhury et al 2009)

India has a strong environment policy and legislative framework and well-established institutions at the national and state level in the field of GIS and remote sensing. There have been several projects on application of GIS and RS in natural resource management and sustainable development. However, better amalgamation of GIS-based ecological and environmental planning is required to move on the path of sustainable development. A framework that makes ecological and environmental planning mandatory for developmental projects will be a huge step towards sustainable development.


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