Harini Nagendra is a professor of sustainability at the School of Development at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. With a background in ecology, she has conducted research on the interaction between people and nature in forests and cities for over twenty-five years, with two main areas of focus – understanding the drivers of forest change in South Asia and the impact of urbanization on ecological sustainability in India. Her interest also lies in socio-ecological sustainability: studying how people can be both positive and negative agents of change, bringing about ecosystem degradation in some contexts and providing protection and restoration in others.
Over time, Harini realised that the one place she hadn’t studied was in fact the closest to her: her home city of Bengaluru. Cities have typically not been well studied by ecologists, yet, it is cities such as Bengaluru that have experienced exceedingly rapid and widespread changes in short periods of time, transforming them almost beyond recognition. Harini’s decade-long research in Bengaluru includes close engagement with local communities and colleges, and popular writing and outreach for local audiences by writing for newspapers, magazines and blogs.
Harini has authored three books – ‘Cities and Canopies – Trees in Indian Cities’, ‘Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present and Future’, and ‘Reforesting Landscapes: Linking Pattern and Process’. She received a 2013 Elinor Ostrom Senior Scholar Award for Collective Governance of the Commons for her diversity of work, innovation and use of different methodological approaches, and active participation as a practitioner on the commons.
Harini Nagendra was interviewed by Raji Sunderkrishnan, to gain clarity on some questions that are within the minds of many conflicted, nature-loving residents of a burgeoning city like Bengaluru.
What does being an urban ecologist mean? Most of us strongly associate ecologists with forests, so what does working on a city’s ecology entail?
Urban ecology is one of those little-explored interstitial spheres. Most ecologists focus on “wild” places of nature distant from people, or at least, from city people. Most people who study cities focus on people, machines and economies, and ecology rarely figures on their long list of things that make a city tick. Yet ecology thrives in the most unexpected of places in a city. You can work on a city’s ecology by looking at birds and butterflies in trees and lakes, tracking cockroaches and rats in drains and dustbins, or investigating trails of ants and lizards in offices and malls. Working on a city’s ecology entails keeping your eyes and ears open, and looking for unexpected interconnections between people and nature.
Tell us about the various research methodologies you use. Why is multidisciplinary research critical to urban ecology?
My work on urban ecology began with a focused desire to link research to public education and action. As a result, depending on what the question is, my colleagues and I have used a range of methodologies. One aspect we learnt to focus on quite early in the project was that of history. People are fascinated by the history of places, and history provides a hook that can help draw them into conversations about the city and their place in it. History also helps us understand how we got into this mess, when things began to deteriorate and why, and thus, helps us get a better understanding of how to address some problems. We use maps, old letters and files, books, and interviews with residents, to understand history from diverse perspectives.
While walking around a lake with different people—men, women, transgender, migrants and old settlers, rich and poor, and those from different castes—we understand how the same ecological space occupies different social significance in different lives, and therefore, see how to conserve and manage it as a socio-ecological space, not only a space of ecology. For instance, grazing, which is now banned from many lakes, is important for local livelihoods, but it is also useful ecologically because the regular removal of grass reduces the nitrogen content (a result of the high sewage load) in the water, thus reducing the likelihood of water weeds growing on the surface and leading to eutrophication.
We have monitored water content and bird and tree diversity in and around lakes. We have also mapped and measured trees on roads and in parks to understand the distribution of various species and see how planting preferences have changed over time, used satellite images to analyse land-cover change over decades and observe the impacts of urbanization on ecosystem change, and studied the impact of trees on air pollution and temperature to establish the importance of trees for human health. Depending on the question in focus, the methods of study must necessarily change – especially in a city which is so complex and where so much is going on.
What are some of the key sustainable practices at a city level?
Cities import food, energy and water from long distances, and send their waste to be dumped in faraway places, spoiling landscapes that are often quite removed from their surroundings. The biggest advance a city can make towards sustainability isn’t greening, as is commonly thought, but localising its footprint – buying and consuming what is locally produced; harvesting, recycling and reusing rainwater; using renewable, local-grid energy wherever possible; and disposing of waste locally.
How can the development versus protection/conservation see-saw be balanced? Especially when public transport projects—essential for sustainable living—often result in road widening and other collateral damages.
It’s a difficult trade-off, and there is no denying that hard choices need to be made at some points in time. But most of the time, the trade-offs can be reduced, though we don’t attempt to do so. For example, Metro projects, road widening designs, and other infrastructure planning do not take the environment into account during design. Simple changes in their design such as taking the Metro underground in places, or leaving the trees in a median while widening the road, could save a lot of trees. But these plans come to the public for approval at a stage when it is often considered to be too late to make these changes. Similarly, compensatory planting is rarely done as promised, with no care given to selecting the location or ensuring the survival and growth of newly planted saplings. We need to seek a balance while designing projects, at their very start, and not be confronted with supposedly unavoidable trade-offs and “tough choices” at the end.
Your take on “smart cities”, as currently proposed and being implemented?
Smart cities, at least in the way they have been imagined and implemented in most parts of the world–certainly in India–have a predominant focus on technology, and have deep challenges in terms of the impact on ecology and social justice. We have conducted field studies in all the proposed smart cities in Karnataka, and found cookie-cutter approaches to ecological restoration being proposed in many cities, with an emphasis on “beautification” and restoration for tourism and recreation, lacking any understanding of the importance of ecosystems for the resilience of cities, and especially for the livelihoods of the poor in those cities.
Any city in the world that’s got it right? What are they doing?
Many cities have got parts of the puzzle right, but cities are such unsustainable constructs because they guzzle resources from different parts of the world, that they cannot ever be defined as sustainable as-such. But take the case of Taiwan, a country that has steadily reduced waste and worked on its waste management programme, or Cape Town, which has worked with poor communities in slums to set up home gardens to improve ecology and nutrition – there are good examples we can learn from, around the world.
Have you been able to engage with Bengaluru’s decision-makers about the city’s way forward? Or have they approached you after reading your papers or books?
Yes; over the years, we have worked with a number of decision makers including community groups, civic activists, forest officers, planners, and government officers working on lake development. Some engagements have been very fruitful – for instance, on lake rejuvenation. Other interventions have been less successful – for example, efforts to stop tree felling or encourage large-scale tree plantation. But we are in this for the long haul, and any change in policy requires sustained engagement. It will not happen in a day or year, maybe not even in a decade. But given the scale of the problems we now see, change has to happen someday.
Other than the very visible impacts of a city’s consumption, like water shortage or garbage crisis, what are some of the hidden impacts of any growing city that we might only realise after it is too late?
There are so many impacts that are currently hidden from sight: for instance, the growing crisis of disease epidemics. Once an epidemic of dengue or swine flu hits, it is too late to act! We need to monitor mosquitoes and disease carriers like rats and pigs, to track changes in their population and distribution, and address the underlying factors before it becomes too late. Similarly, the growing challenge of antibiotic contamination in India’s urban water-bodies, and the impacts this will have in the future on our health system, needs to be studied on a war footing. Otherwise, we will soon get to the stage where antibiotic-resistant bacteria spread widely, leaving us with a big challenge.
What are some of the effects of climate change that Bengaluru has seen, other than the obvious rise in temperature? As a long-time resident of the city, I am sure that the changes are more apparent to you.
In cities, the effects of climate change and urbanization are inextricably linked – temperature, for instance. The increased heat we now experience in summer in Bengaluru is a result of many factors – climate change, erratic and unpredictable monsoons, increased concretization of the city and heat-island effects, felling of trees and lack of shade, and the filling-up of lakes and water bodies that helped keep the city cool. So it is difficult to specify which effects of climate change we obviously notice.
There is also evidence from other cities that urban areas can modify their own climate, with cities changing local rainfall patterns, for instance, due to the changes in temperature that they bring about. I think we are in for long periods of heat and drought, and unpredictable rains that come in intense, short bursts, leading to flooding. We need to plan better to help us withstand these changes, by planting trees, restoring wetlands and de-concretizing the city as much as we can.
Have Bengaluru’s flora and fauna evolved to adapt to the city’s changes?
Evolution and adaptation must have taken place at every stage of development. Centuries ago—before the city of Bengaluru and the surrounding villages were established—there existed a semi-arid landscape with few trees and water bodies, and the flora and fauna must have been very different. The advent of people and settlements, with agriculture, tanks, orchards and cattle, must have led to significant changes in ecology. A second massive change would have taken place in the mid-19th century, in British colonial times, when administrators brought in a number of tree species from different parts of the world, and systematically greened Bengaluru.
We are now in a third era of large-scale change – with increased urban footprint, noise, pollution, heat, traffic, and other human impacts on flora and fauna. Some species–like crows and pigeons–seem to be thriving, while others, such as the once-common sparrows, have clearly not fared as well. We are now working on research to try and understand what kinds of traits or characteristics (such as feeding behaviour, nesting sites etc.) influence the selection of species in Indian urban environments. As of now, despite the critical importance of this question, there is barely any research.
Have Bengaluru’s non-native tree species adapted to suit the local conditions? There are theories that non-native species, unlike invasive species, tend to adapt?
Again, this is a very important question, but we lack answers. We certainly see that a number of non-native species—from gulmohar to copper pod to tabebuia—attract a diversity of pollinators and dispersers. They also seem to have leaf predators and get diseased. It would be fascinating to compare tree species to understand how invasive, non-native and native trees have evolved and adapted to life in urban contexts, and if there are any general principles that we can extract in the Indian context. These are exciting ideas for future Masters and PhD students to take up.
You have worked and taught in India as well as abroad. Is the attitude towards sustainability different amongst students everywhere? How do they connect with and recall nature?
Students are as diverse in opinions and attitudes as anyone else! I have not found any substantial differences in attitudes towards sustainability between students in India, Europe or the USA. However, those students whose family backgrounds or life experiences have provided them with first-hand experiences of discrimination and social injustice—either to themselves or to others—have a much more grounded understanding that sustainability is not just a scientific or technical challenge, but at its core, also a social issue.
Background exposure to nature also matters substantially. Those who grew up in surroundings where they had close contact with nature, whether in cities or rural areas, have a much more visceral feeling for sustainability, which drives them to action; that is clear and apparent. It also points to the fact that we cannot afford to wipe out nature from our cities, if we are to protect spaces where an imagination and awareness of nature is nurtured through daily encounters, at close quarters.
Any lessons Bengaluru can learn from its own history?
The biggest lesson is, I think, that a city cannot continue to grow and have happy and healthy residents, if it doesn’t pay attention to nature. Nature is not something we need to protect and nurture outside the city. None of us can live well in the absence of fresh air, clean water, and a healthy environment. For centuries, Bengaluru grew precisely because its residents paid attention to the environment: planting trees and creating tanks and lakes to improve their neighbourhoods and quality of life. We have forgotten the importance of the environment now – we need to relearn our history to restore that imagination and awareness of the importance of nature within the city, not just in distant “wild” places.
How can residents contribute towards making a difference to the city’s problems? Many do adopt sustainable life choices, but is there something that could directly benefit the way the city’s ecosystem functions?
There are a number of individual actions that can help make a difference: composting your waste, reducing the trash you throw, planting trees etc. But the biggest impact we can have is as communities, to try and bring about systemic change – by working in groups for lake restoration, to change public transport policies etc., as a number of civic groups across Bengaluru have been doing, with impressive results. This is also contagious – by seeing what they have achieved, all of us get hope. And in a time of increased social, ecological and political chaos, the one thing we all need is hope!