Although only 30% of India’s population lives in cities now, this proportion is expected to increase to 50% in the next two decades. It is becoming increasingly important, therefore, to have a good understanding of the processes that shape ecology and conservation in Indian cities. Unfortunately, we have very little information to draw on. The attention of Indian ecologists and conservation biologists has largely focused on understanding ‘natural’ ecosystems such as forests in protected areas, while cities have largely remained in the background of ecological conversation.
Bangalore has a long history of settlement from at least the 4th century and has been an important Indian urban commercial centre since the 16th century. Well known for its green spaces and lakes, in recent years it has witnessed accelerated and highly unequal growth, transforming urban forests, orchards, pastures and fertile agricultural fields into a sea of concrete apartments and commercial complexes. What does this rapid recent growth hold in store for the prospect of maintaining urban biodiversity? We are fortunate in Bangalore to be able to draw on a great deal of research, both of our own and by a number of others, as Bangalore is unique in having a large number of highly committed, experienced and knowledgeable naturalists and scientists with long term information on changes in biodiversity.
Human choice, behaviour and policies directly impact plant diversity in cities, further shaping the bird, insect and animal fauna present. For instance, literature suggests that the landscape of Bangalore was quite dry and scrubby prior to the mid-19th century, when the impact of urbanisation on increased temperature begins to be discussed in British records. Yet plantation of trees was fairly extensive in the older parts of Bangalore prior to British entry, with old maps and paintings of the city suggesting that there were extensive tree plantations on many of the city’s streets and in and around the fort area during Tipu’s reign.
Further, extensive plantation seems to have taken place in many parts of Bangalore city and cantonment areas from the mid-1850s onwards, with the expressed aim of providing shade, greenery and visual relief. The species selected were a careful mix of local and exotic, with a focus on ensuring that at any point in time, some species of trees would be flowering, providing a spectacular visual pageant across the city. Thus, for instance, the book by John Cameron, “Catalogue of Plants in the Botanical Garden, Bangalore (Second Edition, 1891)” describes 3,222 species planted in Lal Bagh alone at this time. Sadly, no consistent record has been maintained over the years and we do not know how many of these originally planted species are still in existence in Lal Bagh today. The older parks in Bangalore are wooded, and more ‘naturally’ landscaped, looking very different from the host of small neighbourhood parks that sprung up across the city in the mid-1990s which give a more landscaped look, with manicured hedges and greater lawn area, with fewer trees. These parks are more input-intensive, but research by Savitha Swamy, a PhD graduate from ATREE, has demonstrated that even these pocket-sized parks are also important in supporting biodiversity, especially for mobile taxa such as birds and butterflies.
Home gardens form another variety of pocket green space that is critical for biodiversity support in Bangalore, which is famous for its bungalows. A study of 328 domestic gardens and apartments in Bangalore documented over 1668 trees belonging to 91 species, in addition to 192 species of shrubs and herbs. Of these, only the ubiquitous Bangalore coconut was widespread, encountered in more than 30% of locations. Bangalore’s domestic garden owners seem to value the unusual, with 90% of the tree species and 80% found in less than 5% of the gardens. Compared to many other studies in domestic gardens in western countries which report a focus on ornamental plants, we found many species planted for their food, medicinal or religious properties, including trees such as jackfruit, mango and drumstick, and plants such as papaya, banana, coriander and sacred basil. Domestic gardeners in Bangalore are extremely creative, finding ways to host plants even in congested homes!
In addition to land use, people’s management practices impact faunal and insect biodiversity. Many of the older homeowners we interviewed said they made special efforts to support biodiversity, by placing rice out to feed birds, providing water baths, and leaving sugar out for ants. Pesticide and herbicide use was also rare, with most residents indicating they avoided extensive spraying because of health concerns. Unfortunately, in many locations biodiversity rich locations such as gardens are being converted to ‘new’ city habitats including corporate campuses and upscale gated residential communities, dominated by manicured landscapes, with exotic turf grasses, non-flowering variegated shrubs and herbs, and hybridized small-sized flowering trees and exotic palms that do not provide fruits, flowers, insect habitat and nesting areas for butterflies, birds, and insects. The extensive use of pesticides in these landscapes also impacts bird feeding, nesting and breeding.
The pressures of urbanization on Indian cities are not unique to Bangalore, nor are they new. The role and influence of the citizen and the community may provide a path forward for conservation in our environments, where city planning and development may well pose the biggest threat to biodiversity, rather than helping in its protection.
For instance, we have seen that historic cemeteries and churches serve as sites for heritage tree protection in many parts of Bangalore, along with sacred traditions of conservation of aspects of nature such as anthills in temples, and the feeding of species such as pigeons and goats in mosques. Slums in Bangalore, despite being cramped and difficult environments, have a strong interest in planting and a commitment to tree protection, as our studies have shown.
The rich diversity of cultural and spiritual traditions of personal and community relationship with nature thus holds promise for the future of biodiversity in Indian cities. Yet new paths of conservation need to be forged that can integrate these traditional approaches with modernization, ensuring their continued importance in urban management practices.
Note: This article is a modified version of H. Nagendra (6th February 2013). Biodiversity and the city— challenges for India. The Nature of Cities collective blog.