SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit

Risks and responses to urban futures (India)

Urbanisation brings new opportunities for many, but also results in a dramatic increase in the concentration of poverty and environmental degradation in peri-urban zones – the region between urban and rural areas. Particularly within developing countries, this poses huge challenges for the health and livelihoods of an increasing number of disenfranchised, poor and marginalised citizens, and for sustainable urban development.

This research project, led by Professor Fiona Marshall explores the connections between ecosystems and the services they provide and poverty in peri-urban areas in India. The overarching research hypothesis is that a better understanding of peri-urban ecosystem services, and relationships with poverty alleviation, will generate more effective urban development initiatives.

Currently, urban policies for provision of essential services, such as food and water, draw on the ecosystem of the peri-urban zone and further afield. At the same time polluting activities and domestic waste are exported from the urban to peri-urban areas, with adverse implications for both communities.

Target policies and programmes will include those associated with the national urban horticulture initiative, which aims to support peri-urban producers and ensure a supply of fresh produce to cities, as well as urban waste management and pollution control plans.

We will also actively engage with initiatives in cities in India, Nepal and Bangladesh to develop a network that will facilitate the joint development of research approaches and tools for policy engagement that can be applied more widely.


To better understand the complex interactions of ecosystem services and human well-being in highly dynamic peri-urban landscapes, the research uses spatio-temporal modelling to analyse interactions and trade-offs. This involves a combination of primary and secondary data, and the development of new approaches to modelling that could be used to support initiatives to enhance ecosystem services and support urban planning processes.

Empirical detailed case studies will be carried out in Delhi's National Capital Territory. We will work with peri-urban communities to examine the relationship between ecosystem services (emphasis on primary data collection associated with agriculture and food systems) and multiple dimensions of poverty (emphasis on health).

For comparison, parts of peri-urban areas around five additional cities (Hyderabad, Bangalore, Varanasi, Kathmandu and Dhaka) will be mapped broadly and a subset of ecosystem services selected, based on their importance identified in the detailed case studies, will be modelled. Using data from 5 cities and Delhi we will explore the use of time-series, space-for-time substitution and scenarios to explore the use of narratives and quantitative models of the likely impacts of current (and future) policies on ecosystem services and dependent livelihoods.

Impact and Engagement

The project has influenced the redrafting of a key piece of legislation on urban waste management in India. Deficiencies in urban waste policy had led to significant environmental and health problems for many people in cities across the country. The research recommended eight principles to guide policy change, including recognising the relationships between the informal and formal sector, integrating waste and urban planning, and increasing public participation. The research team were also directly involved in a key government committee influencing the redrafting of the rules and informing the eventual text. The research also led to one of the partners developing a new partnership between waste pickers and a private company in Delhi – a progression which means that the informal sector of waste pickers are recognised and protected.

Partners and Links

This project is part of the Ecosystems Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) programme.

This is a 7-year, £40.5 million interdisciplinary research programme funded by the United Kingdom's Department for International Development (DFID), the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), as part of the UK’s Living with Environmental Change partnership.

For further information please see: 

Blog: Why we need to reveal the hidden connections at the heart of cities (The STEPS Centre Blog) by Fiona Marshall and Ritu Priya

Digital story: What does the future hold for Delhi's Urban Farmers?

Karhera: a photobook of the study

Risks and Responses to Urban Futures (India) project website 

Peri-Urban Futures and Sustainability

Pathways for Environmental Health in Transitional Spaces

For a set of images of some of the issues this project is addressing, see our Flickr page


Jorn Scharlemann (University of Sussex, Life Sciences)

Linda Waldman (Institute of Development Studies)

Priyanie Amerasinghe (International Water Management Institute, Sri Lanka)

Milap Punia, Pranav Desai, Ramila Bisht, Ritu Priya (Jawarhalal Nehru University, JNU India)

Ravi Agarwal (NGO Toxics Link New Delhi)

Madhoolika Agrawal (Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, India)