Harini Nagendra has spent more than a decade studying the growth and functioning of cities in South Asia, supported in part by grants from the National Geographic Society in 2006 and 2011. In her new book, Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present, and Future she focuses in on the booming modern city of Bangalore, India. Going back through historical and archaeological data, and examining present-day biodiversity distribution, she looks in particular at the relationship between the human-constructed landscape and its natural surroundings, and how that relationship has changed since the advent of early settlements in the landscape 15 centuries ago.
Here, she answers our questions and reveals what lessons Bangalore’s story has for human habitations everywhere.
What is the relationship between “city” and “wild” in India?
As cities expand in size and footprint across India, human-wildlife encounters in cities are becoming increasingly frequent. Many Indian cities have wildlife parks at their periphery, now engulfed within the growing city.
Thus elephants come into parts of Bangalore from Bannerghatta National Park, leopards into Mumbai from Sanjay Gandhi National Park [or a school in Dhirenpara], and pangolins into Chennai from Guindy National Park. These encounters usually become occasions for panic, with schools closing because of leopard and elephant sightings, and incessant media coverage of animals “invading” urban territories.
Yet the reality is that people and cities have invaded wildlife habitats.
Older Indian settlers knew this well, and had a much better appreciation of wildlife. In Bangalore, epigraphic inscriptions on stone describe wildlife hunts and encounters with wild beasts, recording deaths of people and hunting dogs from attack by tigers and wild boar. Later rulers such as Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan used an intimate knowledge of the terrain and seasonal movement of animals to tame and hunt wildlife such as leopards and elephants. Colonial British administrators recreated the royal hunt via gruesome farces, bringing caged tigers and leopards into the city for hunts.
As the colonial city grew, so did the distance between people and wildlife. During an 18 month period from 1835-1836 in Bangalore, 1 elephant, 1 bear, 21 leopards, 22 tigers, and 55 cheetahs were killed! This loss destroyed a once-intimate [and widespread] knowledge of animal behavior. Thus people now panic at finding rat snakes and bats in their garden.
Changing this relationship will require much patience, and a different approach towards nature education—one that is hands-on, and goes alongside the creation of wildlife refuges in the heart of the city—at least for pangolins and slender lorises, though perhaps not for elephants and tigers!
How have India’s cities transformed from their ancient plans to their modern uses?
Older cities like Bangalore knew the importance of natural resources for survival. Successive settlers improved the quality of their environment by planting trees and creating tanks or lakes to store seasonal water.
From a semi-arid, hot, and dusty environment, the city grew to become known as India’s Garden City and Lake City. By the 1880s, the city was covered with lakes and majestic tree-lined avenues, keeping the climate cool and pleasant year-round [see the second map below].
This changed in the 20th century. With the advent of piped water, lakes became irrelevant for water supply and instead became considered malarial and unhealthy areas. They were coveted for their real estate value, and converted into malls, bus terminals, and residential settlements. Trees were cut by the hundreds of thousands to make way for infrastructural projects of urban expansion.
The lack of a local dependence on nature seems to have blinded policy makers and planners to the importance of ecosystem protection in the city.
How can they transform again to make better use of their ancient infrastructure?
With increasing air pollution and depleting ground water, citizens and planners are waking up to the importance of trees for clean air, and lakes for water security.
Citizen movements have put pressure on administrators to ban ill-conceived infrastructure projects that will further impact trees negatively, and a growing number of community groups have come forth to adopt and restore local lakes. These local movements have been very effective at local scales. Yet the challenge they face is that of fragmentation.
Previously, lakes were connected across topographic gradients, such that excess water could flow from one lake to another, lower down. Unless there is a concerted effort by the city government to protect the entire network of channels to maintain flows, restoring a local lake will not protect the neighborhood from flooding, as Bangalore recently witnessed. Similarly, planting trees in a few isolated parks will not help provide clean air to all residents. This requires systematic planning and plantation of trees along high-traffic roads.
Citizen activism is probably at its highest levels, but official apathy is tremendous, and needs to be dealt with. This is a problem across Indian cities. Delhi, with its unprecedented levels of air pollution, is perhaps one of the worst examples.
What can other locations around the world learn from India’s approach to cities and nature?
In many Indian cities, people retain a strong spiritual and secular connection to nature that mirrors the connection in rural areas.
In Bangalore, for instance, ashwath kattes—platforms with sacred Ficus keystone trees and neem (Azadirachta indica)—are nurtured by communities even in the most congested parts of the city. These act as small but important nodes for insects, birds, and urban wildlife.
Termite mounds and bat roosting sites are often protected as sacred sites.
Urban foraging—the collection of fruits, wild greens, medicinal herbs, reeds, fish, flowers for worship, grass for cattle, wood for fuel—is widespread, especially in low-income communities.
Home gardeners in Bangalore, especially in low-income communities, have substantial knowledge about plant uses. These home gardens contain the highest proportion of native plants compared to all other land use types in the city.
These direct, daily contacts with nature in cities, whether for personal use or for cultural and spiritual reasons, are important in giving urban communities a reason to appreciate the importance of nature, and to invest in its nurture and protection. Thus sacred spaces such as temples, churches, and cemeteries are biodiverse refuges for urban wildlife. When local users such as fishers and grazers are incorporated into lake protection, they act as vigilant voices that make a significant difference to nature protection.
These are ways of co-existence that many other cities around the world can learn from.