Transforming Land

Fulbright Fellow Shahab Fazal talks about the interlinkages between urbanization, land transformation and smart growth.

Shahab Fazal is a professor of geography at Aligarh Muslim University. His research interests include land use, land transformation issues in urban fringes, remote sensing and geographical information system (GIS). He has published 12 books and 50 research articles in esteemed national and international journals. He has been part of extensive collaborative research with various leading international institutions.

Fazal was also a 2013-2014 Fulbright-Nehru Environmental Leadership Program Fellow at the University of Connecticut, located in Storrs, for his project on “Evaluating Land Transformation in the Connecticut Urban Fringe: The Concept of Smart Growth and Lessons for India.”

Excerpts from an interview.


What are some of the biggest challenges to sustainable environmental management in today’s world?

The population of the world is increasing and that has a direct bearing on natural resources. Human population and their activities have impacted the environment in many ways. These changes have resulted in environment-related problems; most evident being extreme weather patterns and land, water and air pollution threatening human health. This has now reached a point where Earth’s sustainability is under threat.

Human response to this challenge was initially slow. It now needs to gather speed, as the problems are becoming clearer to us.

Environmental and economic inequities are closely interrelated. Poverty pushes people to places where economic opportunities are minimal and environmental hazards are maximum. A clean environment is essential for both development and poverty eradication. Deteriorating environment means lost production for the people and countries that can least afford it.

We have new tools, and a vastly increased understanding that our strength lies in working together to overcome the threats facing our planet. We can build on these strengths and move ahead with confidence that sustainable development goals are indeed achievable. This new drive for global sustainability should be rooted in the growing recognition of the strong links between the environment and development.


How would you define smart growth?

Smart growth is a better way to maintain our settlements. It means building urban, suburban and rural communities with easily accessible housing and infrastructure choices. This approach supports local economies and protects the environment.

Smart growth is a collection of land use and development principles that aim to enhance our quality of life, preserve the natural environment and save money over time. Smart growth ensures that growth is fiscally, environmentally and socially responsible and recognizes the connections between development and quality of life. At the heart of this dream is that we can live in a neighborhood that is beautiful, safe, affordable and easy to get around.


What is the correlation between urbanization and land transformation?

Humans are the premier geomorphic agent sculpting Earth’s surface. The landscape on Earth is modified, and commonly degraded, by many of our activities. The population is increasing, and the increase in the last century has been rapid. Moreover, the increase in population was skewed toward urban settlement, which has increased from 14 percent in 1900 to more than 50 percent of the total world population in 2014.

Recent estimates of the global urban area range from 0.3 to 3.5 million square kilometers. The wide range is due to differences in the definition of “urban” and in the methodology for identifying areas that are considered urban.

This phenomenal increase has resulted in large-scale land transformations in and around urban settlements. These changes in land use are also the consequence of the increased demand for resources like minerals, soil and water.


Are there any distinct differences or similarities between the land transformation taking place in a developed country like the United States and in an emerging economy like India?

There are more differences than similarities. Similarity lies in the process of land transformation which is caused because of the dynamic nature of urban areas. But differences in the land transformation process are far more in these two countries, mainly due to demographic, economic and cultural differences.

Land transformation is fairly extensive in the United States, but its high land-man ratio and lesser dependence on natural resources for livelihoods does not inflict much concern. But in India, due to recent increase in urban population and expansion of cities on fringe areas, largely on fertile agricultural lands, this trend of transformation has severe implications on food security and loss of livelihood.


What role can technologies like remote sensing and GIS play in monitoring urbanization and quality of urban environment?

The role of remote sensing and GIS techniques has become critical in monitoring and analyzing urban areas because these phenomena are dynamic and change quite rapidly. The present digital world has the advantage of greater and easier access to these data sets. Moreover, remote sensing and GIS techniques help in quick updation of these large volume of datasets. 


You were a Fulbright-Nehru Environmental Leadership Program Fellow in 2013-2014. Please share your experience at the University of Connecticut.

It was a wonderful learning experience for me. I met people from different cultures, countries and ethnic groups, and developed friendships with them. This chance to live with people from across the world brings with it immense possibilities to experience, explore and enjoy the intriguing cultural diversity, amazing places, interesting cuisines and innovative practices in education embedded with technology.

I explored a few new places, apart from important known tourist places—especially museums, libraries, harvest markets and entertainment parks. I also enjoyed American culture by going to operas and listening to orchestras at the city centre.


How do you think your experience and learnings in the United States influence your professional life?

The environmental leadership program at the University of Connecticut gave me insights into the broader impacts of land transformation on the environment. I worked on a structured approach to sustainable urban planning and implementation of environment protection measures. I researched to assess environmental impacts, set targets to reduce these impacts and planned how to achieve the targets for sustainable urban development. It is so crucial for India because here, the expansion is much more rapid and mostly unplanned, driven by rural push of population.

I am enriched by interaction with the faculty and researchers at the university’s Center for Land Use Education and Research. I was exposed to the GIS tools they have developed for forest fragmentation and urban growth studies, which would help me in my future researches.

The environment leadership program was particularly useful for a person like me, who was able to do in-depth research on a topic which was very relevant to the Indian context and has direct applicability.


What are some of the urban smart growth policies emphasized by Connecticut?

Connecticut is a small state. It strategizes for preserving and enhancing its natural assets to benefit its population. It has built a productive coalition between the urban and the suburban development plans, with a common desire to preserve and enhance its peculiar heritage of 169 cities and towns.

From a smart growth perspective, it has two goals—preserving the small towns and re-energizing the cities. The emphasis is on limiting rampant development in the countryside and natural areas of the state, encouraging development in the cities, drawing defined growth boundaries around the towns, permitting and encouraging increased density in defined areas, and spending more money to increase public transportation options and less on building new highways to access less developed areas.


What are some of the key findings of your project, “Evaluating Land Transformation in the Connecticut Urban Fringe: The Concept of Smart Growth and Lessons for India?”

I researched the rural-urban fringe of Connecticut in the urbanized north-eastern part of the United States, which is characterized by significant loss of farmland and proliferation of small farms. I prepared the land use/land cover map for the entire state and identified the transformations and land fragmentation. I applied an urban growth model to find out spatial growth and the pattern of the urban footprint.

I also applied these mapping techniques on an Indian case study of the Delhi region to evaluate urban growth.