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Green Islamabad: Nature's Urban Blueprint

In the heart of Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, a green microcosm exists, showing how urban centers can strike a balance with nature while expanding rapidly. As cities expand, they struggle to navigate the complex interaction between natural greenery and growing grey infrastructure. The concept of seeing nature as crucial infrastructure is taking root as a transformative approach to urban sustainable development. This paradigm recognizes the inherent value of natural ecosystems in meeting infrastructure needs traditionally addressed by man-made solutions. As Islamabad grapples with the challenges of rapid urbanization, it is increasingly evident that nature is vital for urban planning to ensure sustainable development. Preserving and enhancing  natural assets can play a crucial role in mitigating the adverse effects of urbanization while fostering a healthier and more resilient urban environment.


Bridging Nature and Urbanization: Islamabad's Journey

Walking through Islamabad's streets, one cannot help but notice the critical role that forests and urban greenery play in and around cities. Henry David Thoreau's words, "What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?" provide a poignant lens to examine Islamabad.  Early mornings during monsoon season showcase foggy, lush-green streets and parks leaving a pedestrian and first-time visitor surprised about the intensely green roads and parks, the sheer amount of nature.


Overlooking Islamabad´s green parks on its eastern side.  


Unlike sprawling metropolises, Islamabad's urban growth has been guided by a master plan prioritizing green spaces and parks throughout the city. Established as the nation's capital in the 1960s, Islamabad stands apart with its well-organized layout, wide boulevards, and abundant green spaces.


The city's planning was spearheaded by Greek architect Constantinos Apostolou Doxiadis, who envisioned a capital harmonizing with its natural surroundings. Islamabad's master plan prioritized preserving the area's natural beauty, incorporating parks, gardens, and wooded areas into the city's design. This deliberate integration of greenery into urban spaces enhances the city's aesthetic appeal and promotes environmental sustainability and public well-being. The approach aims to mitigate the adverse effects of urbanization, such as the urban heat island effect, leading to higher temperatures in cities than in surrounding areas. By strategically dispersing trees and forests throughout the city, Islamabad´s greenery provide shade and cool the air through evapotranspiration, reducing the risk of heat-related illnesses and making the urban environment more comfortable for its residents.


One of Islamabad's most iconic features is its extensive tree-lined avenues and parks, including the famous Shakarparian Hills and the picturesque Margalla Hills National Park to the north of the city. These green lungs offer residents and visitors alike respite from the hustle and bustle of city life, providing recreational spaces for leisure activities, exercise, and cultural events.

 View on Islamabad from the neighboring Margalla Hills. The Margalla Hills offer a green

 and cooling getaway from Pakistan´s capital. 


In contrast to Islamabad, other cities like Lahore have grown more organically over centuries, resulting in densely populated urban centers with limited green spaces. While Lahore boasts magnificent Mughal-era gardens and parks, such as Shalimar Gardens and Bagh-e-Jinnah, rapid urbanization and population growth have placed immense pressure on its green infrastructure.


However, Islamabad also faces challenges in preserving its urban vegetation. Research by the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) reveals a concerning decline in green urban spaces and water bodies over the past two decades, attributed to increasing population density and expanding commercial and domestic land use. According to NUST’s findings, there has been a 36% decline in green urban spaces and approximately a 10% decrease in water bodies between 2000 and 2020. These changes are driven by the dual pressures of an increasing population and the demand for land to accommodate the city’s expansion. Over the last 15 years, Islamabad has experienced a staggering 73% increase in population, leading to greater density and reduced greenery. Consequently, as urban vegetation diminishes, urban temperatures soar, exacerbating issues of water scarcity and pollution.


A sign of rapid urbanization: Construction on the outskirts of Lahore, one of Pakistan´s main cities.


Nature and Biodiversity as Urban Infrastructure

As Islamabad continues to evolve, it is essential to recognize the economic value of nature and its role as crucial urban infrastructure. Embracing the idea of seeing nature as a supporting infrastructure is the way to sustainable urban development that integrates nature conservation with infrastructure planning.


With urban residents experiencing increased vulnerability to climate events, including more extended droughts and more intense rainfall, greenery projects, afforestation, and nature protection plays a critical role to build resilience and sustainable urban spaces. Urban greenery can offer solutions in various aspects of ecosystem services. Ecosystem services are services provided by nature, such as pollination, pest control, and nutrient cycling, promoting the health and resilience of surrounding landscapes. In an urban context, intact ecosystems can aid cities in combatting heat and pollution, providing clean water, managing floods, combating erosion, navigating droughts, coping with erratic precipitation patterns, and maintaining urban temperatures.


For example, urban forests emerge as indispensable allies for cooling down urban areas and reducing pollution: Through evapotranspiration, natural greenery can cool the air by drawing water from the soil and releasing it through its leaves. Urban heat islands have higher temperatures within cities than their surrounding areas, severely affecting livability and health. They contribute to heightened smog and ozone levels, water and energy demand surges, and an increased risk of heat-related illnesses and fatalities. Research in cities like Toronto, which values its urban forests, has shown that substantial forest canopy cover consistently leads to lower surface temperatures, demonstrating the cooling effect of urban forests.


Left: Street impressions in Islamabad.

Right:,Nature reclaims its space in narrow streets south of Islamabad


Additionally, urban nature is also a vital infrastructure for managing water resources. For this, a healthy ecosystem and biodiversity is crucial to ensure a functioning habitat for native species, including plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria, contributing to preserving local biodiversity while providing essential ecosystem services. For example, the biodiverse urban forests and hills around Islamabad contribute significantly to water conservation efforts by enhancing soil infiltration, groundwater recharge, and overall watershed health. These biodiverse ecosystems act as natural filters, improving water quality by trapping pollutants and reducing sedimentation in urban water bodies.


Efforts to enhance biodiversity in urban areas, such as promoting green infrastructure and preserving natural habitats, can further amplify the water-related benefits provided by urban ecosystems and increase climate change resilience. Forested watersheds surrounding Islamabad act not only as natural buffers and safeguards for urban water supplies, but also as natural flood barriers that can regulate water flow and reduce the risks of flooding and landslides.


Initiatives like "Recharge Pakistan" focus on enhancing water security through natural water storage and targeted recharge methods. WWF-Pakistan and the Green Climate Fund started this project in 2023 to restore degraded forests and implement green infrastructure solutions to combat water scarcity and improve overall watershed health. Other programmes like the Ministry of Climate Change's urban forest projects and Pakistan's ten billion tree tsunami highlight other nationwide commitments to ecosystem restoration and sustainable development.


A water tower in a suburban region.


The Margalla hills, including the Rawal and Simly watersheds, regulate parts of Islamabad´s water flows.


Islamabad´s surrounding forests impress visitors with their biodiversity and healthy ecosystem.


Sustainable Islamabad: Pioneering Urban Resilience

 

The heart of the bustling capital of Pakistan presents a green haven as testament to the delicate balance between urban development and ecological preservation. As the city is challenged with impacts of climate change, water scarcity, and environmental degradation, the concept of seeing nature as an crucial part of urban infrastructure emerges as an opportunity, offering a transformative approach to sustainable urban development. Afterall, the lush forests of the Margalla Hills and biodiverse urban green spaces not only provide refuge from urban heat islands but also play a vital role in managing water resources and maintaining biodiversity.

 

As Islamabad charts its course toward climate resilience and water security, the preservation and nurturing of its forests stand as essential pillars, safeguarding the city against the mounting challenges of the 21st century. By embracing nature as infrastructure, Islamabad sets a precedent for cities worldwide, demonstrating that the preservation of green spaces is not merely a luxury but an indispensable component of urban resilience and sustainability. In Islamabad's green oasis lies the blueprint for a greener, healthier, and more resilient urban future—a vision that transcends borders and offers hope in the face of environmental uncertainty.

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