Harini Nagendra is a professor of ecology at Azim Premji University and a well-known public speaker and writer on issues of nature and sustainability. She is internationally recognised for her scholarship on sustainability. Nature in the City is a book that explores the past, present, and future of the city of Bangalore, one of India’s fastest-growing cities. It documents the journey of the urban landscape and urban ecology in Bangalore from the 6th century CE to the 21st century CE and how nature has grown around the city’s development. It talks about the importance of nature in the city and how nature has been adapted into people’s modern lives.
The book focuses on the different forms of nature present in the city. From nature in public places like parks and gardens, to the small home gardens present in apartments, to the nature present in slums, It also discusses nature from a religious point of view. It maps out and documents the entire story and evolution of nature within the city and points out the importance of preserving it for the future.
The urban landscape of a city is always changing with time. As the city advances and grows, it has an effect on nature in that city. This does not mean that it is particularly a bad effect. The cities evolve and grow, and as Bangalore evolved, the governing authorities understood the need for the presence of greenery in it. In the early history of Bangalore, it is mentioned how Kempegowda used thorny bushes to protect the fort from enemies, and hence kept a thick growth of bushes around it. This fact saved the city from being captured by enemies on multiple occasions. As the city expanded, the shrubs were lost. However, the people living here grew dense orchards of oranges, apples, and such along the sides of the road, giving rise to wide boulevards mimicking the English streets of the British. The Indian locals worshiped the landscape, be it trees, water, or any other form of nature. This worship is seen even today in small glimpses throughout the city in the form of Ashwath kattes, which still form an important part of the social, cultural, and commercial life of the inhabitants. This book talks exactly about this evolving change that is occurring in the forms of nature present. Nature does not have to be present in the city the same way as it was years ago, but nature must be somehow incorporated into the new evolving world of today.
The book’s first chapter, Bengaluru: The City of Nature, talks about the versatility of a city. A city is ever-growing, and with it comes development that one cannot stop. This invites a constant conflict between nature and man. Harini Nagendra, in this book, concentrates on the effect this development has had on the urban ecology of the city. She also mentions that not all is doom and gloom, but certain developments have had a positive impact on nature. For instance, the lakes once covered in sewerage and filled with hyacinth plants have become a place of community interaction where people come for morning jogs, weekend bird-watching activities, nature walks, and many other such activities. The development of the city has brought people out and has made them interact with nature that is present around them. She started to map out the history of nature in the city and started to understand the importance of understanding the evolution of the city.
Nature in the City addresses some core issues of urban ecology and tries to investigate broader themes like-Is there hope for nature in rapidly urbanizing Indian cities such as Bengaluru? Often, the answer is assumed to be negative. The author, however, tries to prove otherwise and says that there is a better and different tomorrow within reach. The book provides a positive side to urbanization. It outlines the various ways in which the community, society, and citizens have planted, nurtured, and restored nature in their unconventional methods in the city.
The second chapter, The Resilient City: From Colonial to Independent Bangalore, talks about the time of the late 1800s when Bangalore was at a point of political stability and was back as an important centre of economic and agricultural activity. Like many Indian cities, Bangalore was also divided into two parts: the Old City, or the Pete area, and the Cantonment, where the British officials resided. The British moved their garrison from Srirangapatnam to Bangalore in 1809. This is when the cantonment was set up to house the British troops and officials.
Though established in Bangalore, the cantonment was quite separate from the Old City. A distinct difference can be observed between the two areas. The Pete had narrow winding streets, congested and highly populated with nature present in the form of ashwath kattes (a Kannada term to describe a platform built around a tree) or as open courtyards in religious places and various public places. The cantonment was a settlement with large tree-lined avenues and bungalows with lawns, manicured gardens, and huge open areas.
Early pictures of Bangalore show a barren landscape that was mostly flat and dry with man-made lakes sprinkled across the city, and slowly, as time passed by, the landscape of Bangalore changed and evolved with time. Then, the then barren landscape turned into a garden city. A huge garden called Cubbon Park divides the Cantonment from the Pete area, and this park to date serves as the main component of nature in the city. Interaction between these twin cities led to the creation of unique hybridization and the intersection of the different traditions and cultures of the two areas.
In 1881, Chamaraja Wodeyar took over the rule and bought into administration with a focus on the modernization of the city. The railway lines between Bangalore and Mysore were laid, the road network was expanded, and the city was the first in the country to get electricity in 1902. As a consequence of these modern changes, the city grew and expanded vastly. The population proliferated. With this expanding city, its ecological footprint changes drastically too. The demand for water supply increased to cater to the needs of the population.
The city has a fascinating cascading structure of lakes, which supplies water to the population. But with time, the city needs to outgrow what the lakes can provide. In 1896, water in the Arkavati River was dammed to create the Hesaraghatta reservoir, bringing water in from 20 km away from the city!
The third chapter-Nature in personal spaces: home gardens in Bengaluru-talks about how the presence of lawns in houses might have given the city its name—the Garden City. A key component for it to get this image is the picturesque bungalows with their manicured gardens and lawns. A visitor moving through any part of the city, be it the commercial area of MG Road, the residential area of Basavanagudi, or the peri-urban areas of Varthur, is struck by several houses overflowing with plants. Even today, the huge sky-scapers and residential towers have terrace gardens, vertical gardens, or balcony gardens in them. But these bungalows are only one end of the spectrum of home gardens in the city.
Other home gardens are smaller, with a cottage resting against a wall and a narrow pathway leading to a garden. The garden itself consists of small plants of curry leaves, chili plants, tomatoes, brinjal plants, and many other such vegetables. The gate acts like a trellis, supporting the creepers of beans and lentils. The aesthetic is not completely taken over by culinary but also has some rose bushes, some jasmine planters, and hibiscus flowers. Depending on the religious beliefs of the household, there is also the occasional presence of a tulsi plant in front of the house.
Bengaluru has a long history of home gardens, which have been deeply embedded into the culture and social fabric of the city for several centuries, supporting a rich ecosystem of flora and fauna. Home gardens range from small pocket-sized to big landscaped gardens with ornamental trees, but they form a very important component of the open green spaces in the city.
The chapter “Nature and poverty: nature in slums” talks about the peculiar relationship of slums with nature. With the rapid urbanization and economic growth of the city, there has been a slight rise in the number of slums. Such areas share an intense relationship with nature, as most activities that the slum dwellers do are often outdoors under the shade of trees. The children play under the trees, and women do various activities like cleaning rice, washing clothes, and combing hair outdoors. Even small open spaces in slums have garden spaces where they grow vegetables. Slums also lack access to safe and sanitary conditions, making it difficult for women to live in slums. Access to safe drinking water is one of the biggest problems that they face.
The chapter-Nature on the Road: Street Trees in Bangalore-talks about the most recognised form of nature in the city of Bangalore, which is the canopy of trees that line the streets in Bangalore. These came into the picture when the streets in the cantonment area had beautiful wide roads with a canopy of trees above. A few of the streets in the city, like Sampige Road and Margosa Road, are named after the species of trees that were planted there. These wooded roads are a tribute to the time of collaboration between the local citizens and the governing officials. Within the cantonment, the British wanted to create visually appealing streets. Rather than choosing trees like tamarind, jackfruit, sampige, frangipani, mango, and Indian cork trees for their fruits, flowers, and fragrance, they chose the trees based on visual appearance. As a result, each city now has its own distinct aroma, such as Madras, which smells of cumin, and Bangalore, which smells of diesel exhaust, success, and modernity.
The chapter “Parks: Nature in Public Spaces” talks about the various parks in the city. The most famous are the Cubbon Park and the Lal Bagh, which act as the major lungs of the city. They are one of the most public spaces, with a mix of local and exotic species of trees in them. The parks in the city influence the ecology and environment of the city. The parks tend to shape the social life of cities. They have a huge hand in the psychological well-being of the city as well.
The chapter-Sacred Nature: Places of Worship-refers to the wooded areas in the city called gundathopus (sacred groves) and devarakadu (village forests), which were sacred areas belonging to the entire community. These trees were usually found along with a body of water and usually consisted of a wide variety of sacred species of plants. Ashwath kattes, or platforms under trees, are another form of sacred tree that was worshipped by the community. Thus, even today, we can notice that certain urban developments tend to go around such structures and don’t touch or destroy them to keep the religious sentiments of the people intact.
The chapter—Blue Nature: City of Lakes—discusses the ancient tradition of the use of tanks or lakes for the daily use of people. In the mid-19th century, there were as many as 20,000 such reservoirs distributed along the region. The lakes play a key role in the cultural life of the community. Various traditions and festivals are linked to the water bodies in the city, like the Karaga. As the water needs of people shifted from the lakes to the Cauvery, the importance of the various lakes also reduced, and slowly they started drying up. When the lakes dried up and there was an increased demand for land in the city, these lakes were converted into public places and residential layouts.
In the concluding chapter, the author talks about the need to envision an inclusive future. A suite of social and environmental challenges are about to embark on the country soon. Restoring and preserving nature is one way to enable the environment to be more adaptive to these challenges. Water, the flora, and the fauna are all important aspects of a city, and in order to keep cities alive, one must learn to adapt and keep nature in it.
“The future of urban nature is urban nurture, and ultimately of human survival in the cities of the new millennium”-Harini Nagendra
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