Urban Ecology: An interview with Harini Nagendra

Harini Nagendra is a Professor of Sustainability at Azim Premji University, Bangalore. She studies the interaction between humans and nature in cities using research methods spanning ecology and social sciences. Her book, Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present, and Future which was published by Oxford University Press in 2016, derives from several years of her work on the urban ecology of Bangalore.

Bharti Dharapuram: What motivated your work on urban landscapes, studying the ecology of cities?

Harini Nagendra: I moved to ecology to do something that was more meaningful. One of the big attractions for me was working on conservation challenges of direct and immediate relevance. I worked on forests in the Western Ghats for my Ph.D., then in Nepal, North Bengal, and a number of different places. The main shift was in 2005-06 when I started looking at some of the impacts of our work, its policy relevance. I found that if you are not living in the forest it is very hard to make the policy connect. You are always doing policy-relevant work but to see those results getting translated into practice is a frustrating exercise. It has worked for some people but it was really not working for me. I started thinking about being located in a place – my place being Bangalore, and a chance to do something meaningful there.
A couple of other things happened that were more personal. We were building a house in Bangalore and I started thinking about creating a new place in the peri-urban city. For instance, the very rapid land-use changes which nobody is paying attention to. When my daughter was born in 2007, I started thinking about what kind of an experience she would get growing up in a peri-urban city that is full of pollution and filth. At the same time, I became a part of this group of people working with BBMP to restore the Kaikondrahalli lake near our house, which was getting degraded. This work satisfied me much more in terms of policy relevance, at which point I said – let’s start looking at this city.

BD: What were the challenges you faced while starting out – especially because your work is at an intersection of various disciplines?

HN: When I started looking at urban ecology I thought it would be a side project, something that would help us quickly say what the changes in Bangalore are from the past to now. And then I realized that there is no baseline data, and we spent years getting baselines of various kinds. We realized that baselines in Bangalore are so driven by social context that you need a baseline for home gardens, parks, streets – each is different in nature. Documentation is important, if we need to know what is wrong with certain changes and how to fix them, we need to know how they were in the past and why they were that way. The inter-disciplinarity was woven into the heart of this project because when I started, it was to do something which was a mix of research, outreach, and practice. Every new method was prompted by how to engage with people. I found that if you have a little bit of history at the beginning of a story, it makes people interested. That started us off, but then we found that there is so much in history which explains why we do what we do in the present. So, we looked at archival work – didn’t know how to access the archives, didn’t know where the archives were or how to read archival material. We had to really train ourselves along the way. There have been a number of studies we have discarded because the methods weren’t quite right and we didn’t have conclusive answers.

BD: How was the history of Bangalore shaped by ecology?

HN: When I started looking at the oldest information we have on the city, it was from inscriptions and I started digging into these. One of the things we started seeing was how the city turns out to be two kinds of places. If you are looking at the topography of the city, there is one part to the east which is the maidan or the bayalu – grassy, rolling plains where the soil is fertile, and some people suggest it gets more rainfall. The area to the west is rocky, undulating, there are a couple of ridges around it and they call this the malnad area. It has granite rocks and the vegetation it supported was very thin with open thorny-scrub, dry deciduous forest with a lot of wildlife. And not much rain because reports suggest that these areas were in the rain shadow region of the Western Ghats. Early settlements started off in the maidan and the inscriptions tell you that they were practising a particular kind of livelihood – creating tanks and using that for irrigated agriculture of paddy, around which you would have orchards of fruits or flowers, a temple, and a village civilization. In the malnad, villages settled later and the descriptions are of a very different kind of ecology. They talk about a lot of cattle herding, wildlife attacks, and cattle raid fights. It is these inscriptions that made me really aware of the fact that the city is actually two ecologies coming together. It has disappeared from our popular imagination and knowledge at some point – people don’t see the topography except that the underlying ecology is still there. All the low-lying areas that get flooded during the monsoons are basically wetlands that were built on, and if you had the drought mapping of the city I suspect many of these areas are in rocky places to the west.

BD: In the same context, what was the importance of lakes in Bangalore’s past?

HN: Bangalore is an unusual old city because it is distant from a large water source. And we clearly have evidence that Bangalore was a settled city and a centre of market trade a very long time ago. How did they do that in the absence of water from a large water resource? They built tanks, which we now call lakes, and inscriptions talk about clearing the jungle, scooping off the sand in the depression, and basically creating a rainwater harvesting reservoir. Around that would be this system – the lake, kalyanis , very tiny pools called kuntes, and large open wells. They were used for various purposes – irrigation, drinking, clothes, and cattle washing. They were spatiotemporally variant and most of the small ones were seasonal. They would dry out in the summer and you would take the silt and use that for fields. Irrigation was an overflow system – you would open the sluice gate and the entire overflow area became your rice or sugarcane field or whatever else you grew. When the water receded you had these indigenous fish species which would flop around in the mud. When that went away, you had these greens – you would either harvest and cook them or cows would graze them. This landscape had a continuous system of some kind of ecological use.

BD: How has Bangalore’s relationship with its lakes changed now?

HN: You have a very different system now – there is a fence and a boundary and everything within that is the lake, but the wetlands around are lost. You don’t have the wetlands which used to clean away a lot of the pollutants, sewage is coming in, there is no slew absorption, and lakes are silting up very fast. You have high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous, and eutrophication. Which, all of this put together, means there is a complete change in the ecology and social use of lakes over time. You have sewage-filled areas, even when they are clean eutrophication is a big challenge, and all you can do there is bird watching, jogging, and some fishing contracts go out.

In terms of when this happened, we can really trace the shift. Bangalore had three years of successive drought in 1891-92 and they are running out of water. Arkavathy is dammed and they pump water into the city. Now the entire city gets piped water, and as soon as that happens, we see a complete decay in the way lakes, wells, and kalyanis were treated and conserved. They now start talking of them as cesspools of sewage and the cause of malaria, plague, and cholera. They drain the water because they say these are sources of flooding. They become waste space that gets absorbed by the city, so you have bus stands, malls and all kinds of other things. The whole narrative around water changes completely.

BD: What do you mean by urban commons? How can it guide nature conservation in cities?

HN: Commons can mean two things from a definitional perspective – common pooled resources or a common property regime. In a city, it is hard to find the ‘common property regime’ type of commons because everything is owned by the municipality. What I’m talking about is ‘common pooled resources’ owned and managed by the community that serves a large proportion of people’s needs. We find a lot of biodiversity in the commons that we’ve studied – slums, sacred places, lakes, gunduthopes . All of these are commons because they are used by the community, which informally manages it in certain ways. There are rules and no one person can overharvest or degrade the place. Commons is where biodiversity survives because people use them for a variety of things and would want to protect them. Different people want different things from them, and the idea of having diversity is valued. They also create a lot of social capital. When you have commons, you have a community and cross-talk. When you know everybody and are using this space, it is very difficult for the government to come and take it over.

BD: Being an intimate account of nature in Bangalore, do you think your narrative resonates with people from other places?

HN: I have talked to people from a number of different cities and I did expect that let’s say, a friend of my colleague working in Uganda, or Mexico would relate to it, and they have. But I didn’t expect someone from London would say, “Oh, we have the same patterns here”. I realize now that many of these patterns – simplification of biodiversity and ecosystem service uses, or the perception of a city as a flat space without terrain, geography, and ecology – are as much a part of London today as they are of India. The processes are very similar and the challenges they face in terms of the way people think about nature are very similar.

BD: Why are there so few urban ecologists? Do we not know of their work or there aren’t any?

HN: They just don’t exist, there are very few in India and also globally. I think it is partly the fascination for forests with ecologists, I have that too. I worked in places where communities manage forests and I heard a lot of comments early on saying – “These are not real forests, so you can’t be answering questions of real ecological importance here. Social sciences are soft sciences, ecology is a quantitative science and you must focus on that.” When I started off, there was a lot of this coming in but I hear less and less of that now. I think people are realizing that even in the most pristine of areas, humans are there and are doing positive things.

We really need more studies of this kind in India. Because ecologists don’t look at cities and people who study cities do not look at ecology. There is a lot of very rich urban work, but they think nature in cities doesn’t really exist or it is just a by-line in their focus. Now we have some people working in Bangalore, Delhi, Pune, Bombay, Calcutta – larger cities, but nothing from our small cities. That’s such a huge gap. The ecology of cities has to be a part of their resilience, especially under climate change.

A version of this interview has appeared in the December 2016 issue of CONNECT, the magazine of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

This article is from issue


2016 Dec