In green company

biodiversity in slums

In green company

Divya Gopal, Harini Nagendra and Michael Manthey’s research indicates the need for more greenery in slums. Planting more trees such as ‘honge’, drumstick and neem, as well as providing subsidised or free pots with useful plants, might be a simple way to begin.

In cities like Bangalore, with dense populations living in close proximity in concrete jungles, the role of green spaces becomes extremely important. Trees and shrubs in cities provide many valuable services that are important for city dwellers.

They produce fruits, vegetables, spices and medicines, support a great diversity of urban fauna such as squirrels, birds and insects, absorb carbon (thus reducing the impacts of global climate change), moderate local climate, reduce urban noise, reduce air pollution, and also provide important cultural services such as recreation, aesthetics, and mental peace.

With this backdrop, where green spaces are critical even for wealthy urban residents, one wonders how much more important greenery would be in the context of urban poverty.

Mass migration to cities contributes to the urbanisation of poverty in India. One third of the world’s population lives in slums, with more than half a million people from India alone.

 Squatter settlements have resulted due to the inability of city governments to plan and provide affordable housing for the low-income segments of urban population – Bangalore, unfortunately, is no exception to this shameful trend. A more sustainable and long term solution is needed to alleviate poverty and improve the living conditions of the urban poor. Green spaces should form an important part of the solution.

According to Bangalore’s City Development Plan, the City has 640 slums, with over 7,00,000 inhabitants. The actual number of slums and slum inhabitants are likely to be much larger according to many NGOs working with these informal settlements. Bangalore’s slums are often located in highly polluted and marginal areas of the city, many times adjacent to storm water drains and lakes, on steep slopes, and/or near garbage dumps.

Studies in other countries have shown that neighbourhood greenery increases the ability to cope with poverty, reduces violence and increases social integration. Despite this, there have been limited attempts to describe the ecology of flora in slums, especially in the Indian context. Identifying these gaps, we conducted a study to examine biodiversity in the slums of Bangalore and to study the kind of interactions slum dwellers had with the flora in their neighbourhood – with the aim of observing how green spaces enhanced their lives.

We observed 44 slums across Bangalore, with 553 trees belonging to 46 species and 95 species of shrubs and herbs, in May and June 2011. The tree density in slums was alarmingly low, at 11 trees per hectare as against the 28 trees per hectare, which we and other researchers observed, in the legal and wealthier residential localities in Bangalore. Similarly, the number of plant species were also much fewer in slums than in wealthier neighbourhoods.

The drumstick tree was the most dominant tree species and accounted for 15 per cent of the total tree population. Despite the fact that the peepal tree is very large, and slums generally represent cramped places with very little space for planting, this species was found in 61 per cent of the slums, indicating its cultural importance in India.

Among the shrubs and herbs, tulsi and aloe vera were present in more than 90 per cent of the slums. Both of these are culturally important species with religious and medicinal value. Unlike wealthier neighbourhoods, ornamental species such as rose and lilies were rarely encountered in these areas. Instead, useful species with medicinal properties, culinary uses or religious importance, were most frequently found; underlining the scarcity of space and the need to choose wisely and growing plants most useful in people’s daily lives.

In slums, the trees were brimming with life and seemed to be centres of activity. The canopy of trees provided much needed shade and respite from the sun in these crowded, barren areas. The most commonly found activity was groups of people sitting under the canopy and socialising. Other activities documented under tree canopies were cooking, washing vessels and clothes, children playing and grooming.

We also observed a wide range of occupations there, like selling flowers, making brooms, making incense sticks, running a mechanic shop, tea stalls and telephone booths. Peepal was the tree species which hosted the most number of activities across slums, followed by honge and rain tree.

Apart from these activities, trees also had great utility as physical entities. Most trees were used to support clothes lines, tents, wires and so on. In this context, the role played by the green cover, although basic, was clearly crucial in squatter settlements. When asked if the residents wanted more greenery in their surroundings, most expressed a desire for potted plants and honge trees. The honge seems very well suited for planting in slums as it is a medium sized tree with dense canopy and small trunk, along with drumstick trees which can also be used for cooking. Shade seems to be the most sought after ‘ecosystem service’ in slums.

Innovative gardening

Due to space constraints in slums, there were more potted plants than those growing from the ground. Extremely innovative gardening methods were seen, with all sorts of containers including cement structures, plastic bags, discarded paint containers, earthen water pots, plastic buckets, metallic cans, hindalium pots, battery cans and aluminium buckets being used as pots for plants! The potted plants were located on windowsills, parapets, roofs and so forth. Although some slums had no trees, all of them had plants.

The extremely difficult conditions under which, many if not most, slum residents have to manage their daily lives shows that much of their day is spent outside the house, in the common areas on the streets in front of their homes.

Trees provide shade which is very important in a City like Bangalore, especially with the increasingly hot summers we face, while plants can add variety and vitamins to their diet, in addition to providing herbal medicines, and being of cultural and psychological significance. While trees and plants in wealthier residential areas were of aesthetic and cultural value which adds up as a lifestyle component; greenery in poorer areas is more a livelihood component.

Policy makers, government agencies, NGOs, and other groups working for the alleviation of urban poverty need to consider this and include a green agenda in the strategies they employ.

Our research indicates the need for more greenery in slums. Planting more trees such as honge, drumstick and neem as well as providing subsidised or free pots with useful plants might be a simple way to begin, considering their ecological benefits and popularity among slum dwellers.

(Divya Gopal conducted this research  in collaboration with Dr Harini Nagendra at (ATREE), Bangalore and Prof Michael Manthey at the University of Greifswald, Germany.)

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