Human Settlement Planning in Hill Areas

Development of hill settlements, especially towns and the surrounding areas is a challenging task,as hill/mountain regions are largely situated within or near highly sensitive, and at times fragile eco-systems.  Since most hill areas have abundant scenic capacity, which is a visual resource, development in the hill areas has the potential to affect and be affected by the environment.  Moreover, the development issue becomes more complicated when planners take up large urban agglomerations in the hills, which is a capital of their respective state.  Due to their very high population density, these hill settlements are highly vulnerable to irreversible damages caused by overuse, deforestation or rapid changes in the characteristics of land and vegetation resources.  Landslides, erosion, flooding, the destruction of scenic capacity and other problems of environmental degradation are caused by the growth in tourism, urban sprawl and intensification of commercial agriculture. Any growth in the hills needs to protect the natural resource base, while giving the hill folk an opportunity to improve their quality of life, without eroding their traditions and values. In other words it should be sustainable.


The concept of sustainable development refers to environmental sustainability, economic sustainability and social sustainability.  While planning to achieve sustainable development in hill areas that are ecologically sensitive, the objectives should be:

  • To conserve the natural resources and the scenic capacities for the benefit of the present and future generations
  • To bring sustainable - social, institutional and economic development to local people.
  • To develop tourism in such a way that it will have minimum negative impact on the environment

 Approach to sustainable development needs to be applied at various scales – regional, sub-regional and local.  For the purpose of addressing scales of settlements; we should refer to the Regional Divisions of India, Census of India 1971, which have divided the country into Macro, Meso and Micro Regions as detailed below

 The Macro Regions of hill areas are covered under Kashmir Region, Himachal Region, Uttaranchal and Eastern Himalayas, Chotanagpur Region, Orissa highland and Tamilnadu Uplands, and the hill systems of Aravallis, Vindhyachal  and Satpuras.. Each of these areas has their specific problems for development based on their natural resource profile and socio, cultural character.   These help us to understand the similarities and differences in characteristics of the regions at a macro scale.  The meso scale in Hill Areas could be areas delineated by administrative boundaries to allow for grouping areas with similar socio- economic characteristics  and the micro scale could be entirely on the basis of natural boundaries i.e. watersheds, altitudinal zones, land forms etc.   Some of the methods that are practiced for planning and development of hill areas as applicable to various scales can be on lines as follows:-

  • Watershed Management – Regional level scale.
  • Land suitability Analysis – Regional and Settlement level.
  • Carrying Capacity Analysis – Settlement Level.
  • Climate Conscious Building Designs- Settlement and Building Level.

Watershed Management/ Development has been practiced in India from a long time. It is well understood by various Government Departments and the officials involved. It has been prevalent as an ongoing effort of the Ministry of Agriculture. The IWDP (Integrated Watershed Development Programme) was conceived to address issues of soil, water, vegetation conservation. The programme over time has evolved to address issues such as drinking water, animal husbandry, human resource, gender issues etc. Peoples movements in the  Siwaliks ( Sukhomajri ), Aravallis ( Alwar ), Western Ghats ( Ralegansiddhi ) have further emphasized the need to address issues such as deforestation, water harvesting, fuel and fodder needs, and also the need to have specific proposals for degraded watersheds. The All India Soil and Landuse Survey (AISLUS) have mapped the watersheds of India at various scales – Water Resource Regions, Catchments, Watersheds, and Sub-Watersheds. Refer Annexure I for Watershed Atlas. Alfa - numeric coding system has been followed for nomenclature of these basins. Sattelite interpreted data is available at scales upto 1: 2,50,000. Covering Landuse and landcover, Geology, hydrology etc. for watersheds at a price.


Land Suitability Analysis as a concept has been understood by researchers from past three decades. However, implementation of the same has been recent. This has been possible due to the Geographic Information System (GIS). This is mainly due to the requirement of spatial database and need for overlay analysis. This is one technique which has been used in the West extensively for natural resource conservation. Since this approach can be applied at regional scale and settlement scale, the maps need to be at various scales.

Carrying Capacity Analysis in the context of Hill Areas has been attempted after 1985, Doon Valley Case, the first Public Interest Litigation to safeguard the fragile Doon Valley Ecosystem. The PIL  triggered a carrying capacity analysis for Mussorie Town, based on sustainable water availability and the population size that can be supported by the water resource. Some studies in the area of sustainable tourism in Hills have touched the aspect of availability of buildable land, status of infrastructure as guiding factors to control tourist growth. However, this technique has to be taken much ahead with better data base as this can be best addressed at settlement level.

Climate Conscious Building Design is perhaps the oldest technique of sustainable development in hill areas. Vernacular Architecture addresses the climatic issues by incorporating it as a major element in design, and has developed aesthetics as per the climate requirements. Modern building design in hill areas, unfortunately has not taken clues from the tradition, and most buildings on hills ape the plains. However, there are few architects who have set the trend for climate conscious buildings in the hills, which are performing as energy efficient buildings also. These examples need to be propagated at a larger scale. The following chapters outline the characteristics of hill areas, with a view to address the  various techniques foe sustainable development of settlements.