Rediscovering common ground between the city and nature

The Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability talks about the nature of urban sustainability and the impact of rapid urbanisation on a city. 

Urban commons 2

The late 1880s were a difficult time for the nascent metropolis of Bengaluru. The city struggled with intense water scarcity. The city is at the present time worse off for water than at any previous period in its history”, said a panicked memo from the Karnataka State Archives in 1892, when Bengaluru had 4.5 lakh inhabitants. 

Over a hundred years later, the population of Bengaluru is now over 95 lakh and the city covers an area of over 750 square kilometres. Water scarcity is a greater concern as urbanisation has been rapid, and lakes have depleted. The city has expanded into the peri-urban areas, and there is intense loss of green and open spaces. 

The biggest loss is of urban commons.

How do we save our urban commons?

Rapid urbanisation entails significant losses for a city that is closely linked with the region’s ecology and has a long history of human interactions with nature. Seema Mundoli and Harini Nagendra examine the impact of these losses in their work on themes of urban sustainability. They study India’s urban growth via the lens of social justice, climate change and equity. Framing some of their concerns in terms of resilience” and sustainability”, their work looks at contemporary thought on urban growth and how it impacts ecosystems and strategies through which to protect urban commons.

Their research questions revolve around a central theme of what a city in the Global South could, and should be, and especially how to imagine urban ecological landscapes. As India urbanises rapidly, what happens to the people in cities and the natural spaces on which the vulnerable depend? 

Their work points to the fact that the evolution of the city of the form cannot ignore the ecology of the region. It is crucial, they say, to look at a number of social and cultural relationships that residents of cities have with woods and water bodies around them. In India, there is extensive research that shows us that rivers, wetlands and lakes are used by urban residents in metropolitan cities. For example, the Sabarmati dhobi ghats, the banks of the Yamuna for seasonal agriculture, and wetlands in Kolkata that support agrofisheries. These spaces tend to provide ecological benefits to the city in addition to supporting livelihoods, often serving to conserve biodiversity, groundwater and preventing flooding. 

What does this moment of rapid urbanisation entail for Bengaluru?

Bengaluru is a city with no perennial water source, and in the rain shadow of the Deccan Plateau. The city planners of the early twentieth century used the undulating topography of the region to create a series of interconnected lakes for its water needs. From Kempe Gowda I to Tipu Sultan to the British Crown, city governance developed tanks and lakes for the growing water needs of the city: Sampangi, Karanji, Dharmambudhi, Millers Tank, Sankey and Halasur.

By the early 1900s, several schemes were created to attend to the needs of the growing population of the city. By 1925, when lakes began to dry up as a result of a poor north-east monsoon, the government made its first attempt to replenish tanks. Water was pumped from Y Chetty lake which was 16 kilometres from the city, to offer a supplement until the monsoons. But the city’s needs kept growing, despite water conservation and scarcity measures.

Finally, new solutions were made with the Thippagondanahalli dam and Cauvery schemes between the mid-1950s and 70s. Despite these measures, the problem of water remains as pressing, alongside the rapid loss of urban commons.

To what extent do smart cities projects take into account ecological sustainability and resilience? What do they make of people’s participation and how do they ask questions of who the city should be for?

Gunda Thopes and Endangered Lakes

Mundoli and Nagendra examine wooded groves or gunda thopes that have been a part of the historical landscape of Karnataka to explain how commons are, or were, very deeply a part of urban landscapes. These thopes have native varieties of trees adjacent to lakes that are looked after by villages and households. For a long time, these commons were considered a feature of the village or the rural.

In the course of three-year study of 23 thopes across 18 villages, Mundoli and Nagendra used village maps, government records and GPS positioning and a qualitative questionnaire to reconstruct the ecosystems and ecosystem services provided by the thopes. These groves were in different conditions, with nearly 18 in a degraded state, now home to illegal dumping and wastelands. In their original form, these wooded groves served a number of functions for the communities that lived alongside or maintained them. They were sources of livelihood, subsistence, rich ecosystems home to several species of birds and insects,and regulating the micro-climate. Fruit and yield from the trees were often shared by the community and various nomadic communities took residence in the groves.

Given a great deal of land use changes, conversion, encroachment and degradation, the nature of the wooded groves have rapidly changed. Communities have a smaller role in maintaining the thopes, and new legislations have made the use of trees for firewood or lumber illegal.

Lakes, too, tend to be first casualties of urbanisation. In another study of 31 lakes in 30 sites identified from archival data, and Kannur, Nallurhalli and their management structures, Mundoli and Nagendra established that only 12 lakes remain in usable condition. They used GIS and GPS mapping, filed RTIs and did field surveys to analyse aspects of the lake system in periurban Bengaluru, tracing changes from the past to present. In total, 212 lakes over the span of 365 hectares face the problems of conversion, encroachment and pollution. The surrounding ecosystems of lakes that include village forests, sacred groves and pastures are closed off and there is inequity in access to these commons. Gentrification had entailed the loss of cultivation of millets on lake beds, and fodder grazing for livestock. What were important resources in the time of need for the poor were now closed off private spaces or parks. 

Restless landscapes’ and ecological degradation

These erstwhile commons are now peri-urban restless landscapes” that have led to problems of governance, ecological degradation and poverty.

India’s ambitious Smart City Mission dreams of a future in which a hundred cities in India are crafted to a vision of economic and technical perfection; with information, communication, technology and infrastructure as key pillars of their development. Deep at the heart of these aspirations for the future is the absence of the natural world, or ecological commons, that have long sustained and supported the needs of human beings. As India rapidly urbanises, with 50% of the population expected to live in cities by 2020, lakes, wooded groves and ponds, and with them the people who take care of and depend on these spaces, are being crowded out or forgotten.

The use of land and water by marginalised communities is often ignored or written away by new policies as India urbanises. As the urban sprawls into the rural areas, those common spaces on which people depend rapidly deplete and are repurposed for more commercial or industrial use. A notion of the urban has come to exist in which it is seen as an environment that has nothing to do with city.

Cities and canopies

Challenging the views and formulations of development speak in urban mission and planning, Mundoli and Nagendra draw attention to the idea of cities as places of deep socio-ecological balance. It’s common to think about nature or ecology as environments that have nothing to do with city; hills and rivers far away from our roads and traffic and congestion. But cities can be places where lakes and ponds and trees coexist, and are taken care of by the people who live near them. For a long time, commons were considered a feature of the village or the rural. Their work tells us that commons are, or were, very deeply a part of urban landscapes.

It is important that cities, regardless of their need to ensure employment generation and economic development, plan for resilience. Urbanisation presents an opportunity to build sustainable cities that incorporate commons. Natural spaces within cities can prove to be crucial commons.