Does Nature need space in our cities? Study of Bengaluru's ecology offers answers

Nature in the City; Bengaluru in the Past, Present and Future — a recent book by Harini Nagendra — comes at an important time.

Three of the world’s 10 largest cities are in India: Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. Three of the world’s fastest growing cities are from also from India: Ghaziabad, Surat and Faridabad. It is estimated that 40 percent of India’s population will be living in its cities by 2030 and 50 percent by 2050. On another sobering note, 250 million more people are expected to be added to India’s urban areas in the next decade. So in this era of Anthropocene that humanity is believed to have created, where do so many people and their needs leave room for Nature? Is Nature something we need to even care about in our cities?

Harini Nagendra (L); the cover of her book

Harini Nagendra (L); the cover of her book

These were the kind of questions that were the trigger for Nagendra, a professor of Sustainability at Azim Premji University in Bengaluru, to write this book. Primarily an ecologist by training, Nagendra has for the past decade, been researching the biodiversity and ecology of different spaces like streets, parks, slums, home gardens, etc of Bengaluru.

Traditionally, ecologists notoriously have had a strong bias towards studying spaces that are found in their ‘natural’ environment. But what places have not been altered by humans at some point in time? Although, in the last couple of decades, the field of urban ecology where issues of ecology of the cities are studied, has been widely accepted as a field of its own. Having left Bengaluru in 2000 to work at Indiana University, USA with Elinor Ostrom (who received the Nobel Prize in Economics for her work on the importance of collective action by local communities for economic governance of common ecological resources), Nagendra returned to the city in 2003. Prior to this in the 1990s, she had focused on issues of forest change in different areas like the Western Ghats, central India, north Bengal and foothills and mountains of Nepal. However, on her return to her home city of Bengaluru, Nagendra was troubled to see the rapid changes unfolding there. She began a long-term research programme aimed at communicating with and involving people that are part of the problem. Nagendra’s book essentially highlights the research her colleagues, students and she undertook on different ecological aspects of the city.

The greatest contribution of the book is it is a first-of-its-kind that documents nature in a city — not only in India but from South Asia. Although this is a story that could have been about any city as similar patterns of development and insensitivity towards nature can be seen across the country, very little has been written on the role of nature shaping a city and its people.

For example, Nagendra writes in the opening chapter titled Bengaluru: City of Nature, “Bengaluru had a number of gundathopus (village forests) with native fruiting trees such as mango, jackfruit, tamarind, etc. These were used by local communities to harvest fruits, and provided important cultural services such as sacred groves for the worship of local deities, areas for children to play, and for women and village elders to congregate and socialize. With urbanisation, while some groves were converted into private buildings, others have been altered into landscaped urban parks, transforming an intensively used and experienced ecosystem into an exclusive recreational space.”

Children swinging from the trees to play in slums, where they lack playgrounds. Photograph by Seema Mundoli/Image courtesy Harini Nagendra

Children swinging from the trees to play in slums, where they lack playgrounds. Photograph by Seema Mundoli/Image courtesy Harini Nagendra

Such episodes are frequently repeated by urban planners who have ignored the social and ecological benefits of nature prevailing in the city to make way for large scale habitation and infrastructure projects. Children growing up in urban cities are likely to be worst affected with dwindling natural places as nature provides crucial opportunities for outdoor education shielding them from ‘nature deficit disorder’, a uniquely urban condition. Rapid urbanisation has seen Delhi emerge as the worst air polluted city in the world according to the World Health Organisation; on the other hand, climate change and the risk of rise in sea levels threatens several coastal cities like Mumbai, Visakhapatnam, Chennai, etc. Nagendra makes several such pertinent cases, for us to take into consideration the nature in our cities, to make them more robust and sustainable for future generations.

Nagendra lays the foundations of her story by putting the ecological history of Bengaluru in perspective. Citing discoveries of hundreds of Roman silver coins from the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula in areas of Yeshwantpur and Jalahalli of Bengaluru, she indicates vibrant trade in cotton fabric from the surrounding areas of Bengaluru to ports of Rome via coastal ports by the beginning of the Common Era. Four empires of the Gangas, the Cholas, the Hoysalas and the Vijayanagara laid claim to areas surrounding Bengaluru from the fourth to the sixth century. But the story of the city really begins from the time in 1537 CE when Bengaluru was founded by Kempe Gowda of the Yelehanka Nada Prabhu dynasty.

Nagendra writes: “On a hunt southwards from Yelankha, Kempe Gowda is believed to have encountered a large, open field, which he considered well suited for the construction of a new town.” From here the new town of Bengaluru was built. Over time he opened a market place for commerce and brought other surrounding areas under his governance. These initial beginnings of the town were protected by a mud fort and encircled by thorny bushes of shikakai. To meet the growing demands of an increasing population, Kempe Gowda and his successor, Immadi constructed five lakes around different parts of the town. One of those lakes, the Sampangi was drained and today the Sree Kanteerava stadium stands here, hosting football matches and other sporting events. After changing several hands between the Marathas, the Mughals and the Mysore kingdom, the city finally was in Hyder Ali’s hands — gifted to him by the Wodeyars of Mysore in recognition for his efforts in defeating the Marathas.

Nature in Bengaluru really blossomed under his able leadership. Apart from paying careful attention to protection of nature, Ali also took active interest in maintaining the lake systems. He was not only fond of his gardens but also created several parks across the city. The most famous of these, Lal Bagh, stands even today.

Under the British rule, the construction and reuse of lakes, at the same time increase in agricultural production was given a major thrust. By the later part of the 19th century, the British had succeeded in transforming the nature of the city. Large areas of the city and the cantonment that the British built away from the center of the city were lined with avenue trees on the roads providing shade to the travellers. Visitors remarked on the transformation of the city from a dry denuded landscape to one ‘completely hidden’ by dense grove of trees.

KR Road in the 1930s, with banyan trees. Photo from the archive of Chandra Ravikumar

KR Road in the 1930s, with banyan trees. Photo from the archive of Chandra Ravikumar

KR Road now, devoid of trees: all felled for the Metro. Photo by Hita Unnikrishnan

KR Road now, devoid of trees: all felled for the Metro. Photo by Hita Unnikrishnan

Winston Churchill, a resident of the city in 1896, observed, “Flowers, flowering shrubs and creepers blossom in glorious profusion. Snipe (and snakes) abound in the marshes, brilliant butterflies dance in the sunshine, and nautch-girls by the light of the moon." The British employed many prominent horticulturalists like John Cameron, Gustav Herman Krumbiegel, HC Javaraya and Mari Gowda who were largely responsible for greening the city from the mid-19th to the early 20th century. Taking inspiration from the Sanskrit poet Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara, they moved away from planting fruit-bearing trees such as mango and tamarind to selecting exotic trees from around the world such that they bloomed sequentially one after the other. This ensured Bangalore saw flowering of silk cottons and jacarandas in early January to yellow cassias in September. The moniker ‘Garden City’ that Bengaluru is known as could largely be related to the efforts of the British although they heavily relied on the efforts of their predecessors. But such idyllic pictures were to change post-India’s independence. It transformed from an agricultural center to being among the costliest real estate in the country.

Apart from the well described natural and ecological journey of a city, the fascinating part of the narrative is where Nagendra takes you very simply but beautifully to places where you can look for nature in a city. She starts with the evolution of Bengaluru’s home gardens. She describes some of the aesthetically maintained gardens that are their affluent owners' pride and neighbours' envy. But ordinary home gardens are no less well attended. She writes, no home garden is complete without a chilli, curry leaf, tulsi plants (depending on the religious beliefs of the owners) along with rose, marigold and jasmine bushes adding to the attraction. In contrast she moans the loss of such diversity to more ornamental plants as people’s preference changes to apartment blocks.

A pigeon drinking from the natural spring that comes through the mouth of the Nandi in the Nandi Teertha temple. Photo by Hita Unnikrishnan

A pigeon drinking from the natural spring that comes through the mouth of the Nandi in the Nandi Teertha temple. Photo by Hita Unnikrishnan

A complete revelation of a place to look for nature in our cities are the much neglected and scorned — slums. Although across the world, slums tend to be located in environmentally hazardous places, the people of the slum form an incredibly strong bond with nature. Through the surveys undertaken by the author and her colleagues, they found the people in the slums not only used nature in ingenious ways by planting useful native trees for various benefits but also showed an emotional connect with their natural surroundings.

Although the author frequently cites references in her narrative which sometimes breaks the flow and acts as a disturbance, and there are times when she could have built a more intriguing story around certain episodes and incidents, these are minor flows in an otherwise fascinating account of a city’s relationship with its nature. It not only fills a significant gap in our understanding of this relationship but also makes an important first contribution to the sparsely available literature on the subject.

Lastly, this book brings to the fore some incredible people and movements from the least expected corners of the city very actively engaged in saving the last remaining fragments of nature from the clutches of concretisation and civic apathy. This is the hope the author hopes to convey, if we are to see a different better tomorrow.