Stockholm syndrome

URBAN ECOSYSTEMS

Stockholm syndrome

The report, ‘Cities and Biodiversity Outlook’, presented during COP-11 at Hyderabad describes how cities need to take part in work for biodiversity conservation. Johan Enqvist tries to understand who cares for garden values in Bangalore at a time when it is busy turning into Silicon Valley, drawing examples from Stockholm’s green legacy.

Since only a few years back and for the first time in history, more than half of humanity now lives in cities. But although we are shaping our own living space, we cannot completely cut our links with nature. Urban populations still depend on vast amounts of exploited land, sea and air outside as well as within city boundaries.

Recently, India hosted the 11th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP-11) in Hyderabad, with delegations from across the world.

One of the basic purposes of the negotiations was to improve the protection of living organisms globally. Higher biodiversity reduces the risk that rapid change in ecosystems cause devastating effects on benefits that people value, so called ecosystems services. Examples are food production, protection from natural disasters such as flooding or cyclones, and disease control.

Presented at the COP-11, the report ‘Cities and Biodiversity Outlook’ (CBO) describes how cities need to take part in work for biodiversity preservation — both because they are particularly vulnerable to disturbances (as hurricane Sandy recently demonstrated in Central and North America), but also because the ecosystems of cities often contain high ecological values. Parks, lakes and gardens form a green infrastructure that improve life for urban citizens, through recreation but also health and security benefits from air purification, cooling, flood control, etc. However, there is a risk that cities going through rapid change forget about these crucially important ecosystem services.

From Stockholm to Bangalore

As a Master’s student at Stockholm University in Sweden, my focus was on urban ecosystem management. Thanks to a collaboration with ATREE in Bangalore, I got the opportunity to stay in the Garden City about a year ago. I wanted to know who cares for the garden values when the city is busy transforming into India’s Silicon Valley.

Stockholm also has a green legacy, due to city planners’ efforts to include forests, wetlands, parks and water bodies when the city in less than 100 years transformed from the capital of poor and pre-industrial Sweden to one of a wealthy, democratic welfare state of the 1960s and ’70s. Many Stockholmers also keep gardens or cultivation lots, even in central parts of the city. Located on and around a set of islands, however, development pressures in Stockholm soon increased and threatened much of the urban greenery. Several projects to cut trees or renovate entire blocks caused protests among citizens, and by the early 1990s, a coalition of nature conservationists, environmentalists, historical, cultural and other citizen associations, successfully convinced the national parliament to override municipal governments and protect considerable areas of downtown Stockholm by creating a National Urban Park.

Relevance to India

But is that example relevant for India? Bangalore’s population is almost ten times that of Stockholm’s, and it grows exponentially. City authorities face enormous challenges in keeping up with rapidly changing conditions, and dysfunctional infrastructure such as transportation and sewage cause pollution and degrade ecosystems. As rural and urban Indians apart from people from other countries move to Bangalore, citizens become more diverse in terms of languages, social and cultural background. Is it still possible to unite people across the city, to protecting urban greenery?

I spent three months in Bangalore studying how citizens communicate and collaborate around urban issues. In particular, I met members of the group ‘Hasiru Usiru’, a loosely organised network of citizens that work on issues ranging from protecting trees and reducing waste to pedestrian safety and street vendors’ rights.

During my study, I found some striking similarities in how citizens in Stockholm and Bangalore organise themselves. In Stockholm, local user groups could monitor different areas of the National Urban Park and notify others if areas were being encroached upon.

Similarly, ‘Hasiru Usiru’ members monitor greenery across Bangalore and can quickly get help from other network members, with e.g. filing a Public Interest Litigation, mobilising a group to protest publicly, or by sharing information on what types of permissions developers are required to have.

In one example from my stay in Bangalore, local ‘Hasiru Usiru’ members reported, reacted to and prevented an attempt to completely drain Yediyur Lake – all in just one afternoon, actually so fast that when I heard about the situation it had already been stopped. Naturally, there are also differences between Stockholm and Bangalore. The network in Stockholm had some key leaders who used their contacts strategically to mobilise support or focus monitoring to particular areas.

In Bangalore, ‘Hasiru Usiru’ emphasise democratic participation and transparency, and uses IT and email lists to enable direct, non-hierarchical communication between hundreds of members.

While the network in Stockholm drew upon the political contacts of a few members to influence decision-makers, groups in Bangalore often use courtrooms to ensure that authorities follow state laws. Rather than contacts with those in power, ‘Hasiru Usiru’ members mention strong connections to other citizen groups, organisations and residents associations as crucial for legitimising the claims for environmental protection.

Citizens’ groups & their impact

These experiences from two very dissimilar cities show that networks of citizens with different backgrounds can be very effective in protecting urban ecosystems, to the benefit of the City. But there are also challenges. The diversity of members and lack of hierarchy sometimes prevent quick decision-making if there is disagreement among members, reducing efficiency as organisations grow larger.

However, this might be necessary in a context where public support and legitimacy is crucial – compared to Stockholm, Bangalore has more marginalised groups whose rights are sometimes neglected. Urban ecosystems generate benefits for all citizens, so forming broad alliances and building public awareness are important if Bangaloreans want to shape a sustainable future for their city.

Groups like ‘Hasiru Usiru’ demonstrate a capacity to monitor urban greenery and hold authorities accountable for their actions. Through them, the IT that is re-shaping the Garden City can also provide technology to better protect critical biodiversity values. Bangalore is actually illustrating the CBO report’s final key message: “Cities have a large potential to generate innovations and governance tools and therefore can – and must – take the lead in sustainable development.”

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