Our city cautioned
Nature in the City
Oxford University Press
2016, pp 244, Rs. 638
The Karnataka Legislature recently passed an amendment to the Karnataka Urban Development Authorities Bill, according to which open spaces in residential layouts will be reduced from 15% to 10%. Presumably, a similar amendment is in the works for Bengaluru. How ironic that this move comes only a few weeks after a report on the importance of urban nature in Bengaluru was released.
Urban nature appears an oxymoron, especially in India where most cities grow as if they are in a hurry to discard the natural as quickly as possible. In the case of Bengaluru, it might seem an anachronism too, a thing definitely of the past. Its streets, once shaded by the spreading canopies of its trees, are now bare. Its lakes are disappearing. The ‘Garden City’ of yore has metamorphosed into the ‘Garbage City’ of today.
Many Asian cities are growing faster than cities elsewhere in the world. According to World Economic Forum, London is growing at the rate of about 9 people per hour while Delhi and Mumbai add 79 and 51 people per hour respectively. Urban planning in many of these cities is an afterthought, like a Band-Aid. But though our cities might appear as deforested disaster zones, far-removed from the breath of nature, nature is as fundamental to them as are people and infrastructure.
Harini Nagendra’s Nature in the City is an in-depth look at nature in Bengaluru. The book stems from her decade-long work here, by the “idea of engaging in a conversation with people about their (and my) city,” she says. “A number of lovely books have been written about Bengaluru, but none with nature as their focus,” she adds.
And that, in a nutshell, is this book’s importance. It investigates how nature has shaped Bengaluru, how its role has changed over the evolution of the city, and what this means for the future of the city. This first-of-its-kind book packs in a hefty amount of research and data, but it’s presented with a light touch that makes reading it a delight. As expected of someone writing on urban nature, Nagendra effortlessly straddles the space between history, ecology and sociology, keeping people and their interaction with nature as her focus throughout.
Nature in the City begins with an ecological history of Bengaluru. Nagendra innovatively uses ancient inscriptions to show how topography and the availability of fertile lands strongly influenced how the area in and around Bengaluru was settled. These epigraphic records also paint for us a vivid picture of the landscapes in different parts of the city. Medieval inscriptions from the northern parts of the city, such as Yelahanka, are more likely to speak of agriculture, while those from the south-western parts speak of hunting, suggesting a terrain covered with jungle.
From these early beginnings, the book takes the reader through the types of urban nature in Bengaluru and their fate over the years – home gardens, parks, street trees, sacred groves and trees, and lakes. There is plenty of original research, thinking and directions. For example, the book takes a long look at nature in slums.
Previous research on slum dwellers and their interactions with the environment has usually been through the lens of injustice. Nagendra highlights this aspect, but also goes on to discuss vegetation in slums, the preferred species, distribution, and its uses. Apart from being part of their cultural and religious lives, the book documents slum dwellers and their use of nature as buffers against pollution and heat, for medicine, beauty treatments, and as food.
The story of the Sampangi kere (lake) well illustrates the destruction of water bodies. Nagendra and her student Hita Unnikrishnan studied the history of the kere — from a tank that watered agricultural fields, supported diverse livelihoods and played a central role in the Karaga festival, to a muddy swamp, to a polo ground and finally, to a stadium. Only a small square-shaped tank now remains to serve an attenuated role in the religious and cultural lives of the people who live near it.
Sampangi kere gave way to a stadium in the 1940s, but the paving over of water bodies and natural areas carries on unabated. We continue to behave as if we have outgrown and can outsmart nature, even though we are often reminded that we cannot really do so: apartments on former lakebeds are inundated with every rainfall, and every summer on a denuded street feels hotter than the previous year.
And yet, Nagendra is optimistic about the future of nature in the city. She puts her faith in the active involvement of civil society. But, though Bengaluru does have a number of urban environment groups, they are not as broad-based as they should be. Neither does Nagendra’s belief that redemption lies in the affinity that people have for nature, give much cause for comfort.
Perhaps redemption lies in something more radical — a change in our mindset. We are currently too much in thrall to technology, willing believers in its power to usher or rush in development, to really care about the trees or lakes that may have to give way to it. A call to give as much priority to a park as to a parking lot, to the trees as to the cars, may seem naïve but may be the smarter option to digitally and technologically advanced but nature-depleted cities.
We are inexorably heading toward a future where more people will live in cities than in rural areas. It is imperative we realise that nature and urbanism are not and should not be mutually exclusive. We — citizens, planners, administrators, all — need to navigate the minefield of clashing ideas, beliefs, wants, desires and needs, and rethink our priorities for our future cities. The well-being of millions depends on this.