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A ‘greenbelt’ refers to undeveloped, natural, and/or agricultural lands surrounding urban areas. These lands include farms, parks, ranches, open spaces, wildlands, or a combination. Greenbelts can include different types and scales of landscapes, such as wetlands, streams, recreational parks, wildlife corridors, orchards, vineyards, and grazing lands. It could even be a patchwork of farms, national parks, and woodlands.
Green belts are designed to protect environmentally sensitive areas and fertile agricultural lands from urban sprawl. They form a buffer between cities and towns and between cities/towns and the countryside. Green belt development aims to prevent the expansion of urban spaces by keeping land permanently open.
Usually, authorities severely restrict or forbid construction or urban development on green belts. We can find greenbelts all over the world. Green belt development aims to give people living in cities and towns access to large, open, natural spaces and protect the environment.
The primary purposes of a greenbelt are:
1. To keep in check the unrestricted expansion of large built-up areas.
2. To prevent the merging of neighbouring towns and cities.
3. To preserve the unique characteristics and setting of historic towns.
4. To assist in regenerating and recycling derelict and other urban lands.
In addition to these original purposes, authorities also recognized that green belt development also played a role in achieving other objectives. They include:
1. Providing town and city residents with the opportunity for recreation and engaging in outdoor sports close to urban areas (not including large developments like football stadiums).
2. Protecting Farmlands
3. Defending habitats and wildlife corridors and therefore assisting nature conservation.
4. Protecting villages’ unique and special characteristics by stopping cities and towns from absorbing them.
5. Providing city residents with the space for healthy physical exercise in the countryside. It also helps improve people’s health in cities and towns by providing them with ‘green lungs’ and improving air quality.
As climate change progresses, enhancing green belt development and protecting them is more critical than ever to people and the environment. Green belts act as natural buffers during floods and wildfires, providing essential groundwater during droughts. During wildfires, green belts around towns and cities give firefighters room to defend our homes and lives better. We’ve all seen during the pandemic how important open green spaces were for mental and physical health.
Green belts absorb most of the greenhouse gas emissions from cities and provide them with better, cleaner air. They prevent unhealthy urban sprawl development from expanding into natural and agricultural lands. By avoiding this expansion, they also control the release of carbon emissions since cities are hotspots of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.
Green belts also help us adapt to climate change impacts such as frequent flooding events. Green belts slow the flow of water and absorb most of it, thereby decreasing the intensity and depth of the flood.
It is clear that green belts can play an essential role as part of a natural solution to climate change.
Many consider greenbelt lands such as forests, meadows, streams, and wetlands a green, nature-based infrastructure. These lands offer cities ecosystem services such as air and water quality management, carbon sequestration, and flood control. For example, the authorities of Santa Clara town in California estimated that the ecosystem services provided by natural landscapes in the United States range between 1.6 – 3.9 billion dollars annually.
Green belts can also serve as solid anchors for a region’s tourism, agricultural, and recreation industries. They protect vital ecosystem services that sustain water and air quality, biodiversity, food production, and quality of human life for the region. Green belt development activities also provide job opportunities to local communities living in the green belt as well as to surrounding city and town residents. For example, green belt development activities in Ontario, Canada, provided employment to more than 75,000 people.
There are mainly three reasons why green belt development is essential for economies:
1. They are labor-intensive. That means more job opportunities.
2. They involve large expenditures in sectors that can easily flourish, including the agriculture, recreation, tourism, and forestry sectors.
3. The economic impacts of green belts are sustainable. That means, with the help of green belts, we can continue to develop and progress economically while simultaneously not having or having a negligible environmental impact.
Additionally, by keeping urban sprawl in check, green belts ensure that local and indigenous communities can thrive. It also ensures that cities and towns develop complete communities where people can work and live without travelling outside the city or town.
India does not have a set of regulations that specifically deal with green belt development. However, other environmental laws, such as the Environment Management Plan, Forest Conservation Act, National Forest Policy, Environmental Guidelines for Industries, etc., require industrial projects to designate a certain percentage of land surrounding the project as a green belt.
According to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), every power station must develop a green belt around it by planting trees. The relevant authorities must designate 1/3rd (or 33%) of the plant for a green belt development.
The National Forest Policy (1988) encourages planting trees along streams, canals, roads, railway lines, etc. It also promotes green belt development around urban and industrial areas and arid regions. The policy says that green belts will help to reduce erosion and desertification. It can even improve the area’s microclimate.
The MoEF prepared an Environment Management Plan for townships. The plan mandates that every township have a green belt of around 1-1.5 km surrounding it. The green belt will help improve air quality and act as a barrier against noise pollution in the city.
The Forest Conservation Act (1980) protects existing green belts by prohibiting the conversion of forest land into non-forest land for the development of an industry. It also strictly restricts the conversion of prime agricultural land into industrial land. It mandates that two adjoining large-scale industries must have a one km green belt separating them.