Maintaining sanctity of nature

The Centre's thrust to invest in blue-green infrastructure in urban areas will improve the quality of life for urban dwellers. But such efforts must be complimented with implementation systems.

It is said that out of sight is out of mind. A closer look at the way our urban lifestyles and cities in general have changed will make us ponder if mother Earth is facing this syndrome.

A few decades ago, the daily routine of an average urban dweller would start with their morning cup of tea; walking barefoot in the front lawn of their townhouse; enjoying the dew-drenched grass. He/she would go to the neighborhood park for their morning jog, walk or cycle to work and sit in the office under the fan with khas-drenched breeze coming in through the khas-curtains on the windows. He/she would then walk or cycle back home and eat dinner made out of the vegetables hand-picked from their kitchen garden.

Fast-forward to the present and we will meet an average metro dweller living in a multi-storied apartment. He/she goes to an air-conditioned gym for their morning jog on the treadmill to save themselves from the pollution outside.

Meanwhile, he/she traverses through at least 45 minutes of heavy traffic and honking to sit in climate-controlled work spaces with internal air purifiers and glass fa├žades and comes back home to dinner made from packaged or processed foods from super markets.

Our changed routines and lifestyles have not only reduced our interaction with the nature to a bare minimum but has also resulted in a number of health issues emerging as a result of this disconnect. Disconnected from nature as we are in our everyday lives, we are not able to fully appreciate the importance of resource conservation; protecting green areas and water bodies; and not polluting our environments in general, unless it is thrust upon us through some kind of a regulation.

In case of city development, these regulations or controls are typically prescribed in the form of 'master plans' that aim at providing a framework for urban growth. However, a closer look at the process of urban planning and development in India shows that the rate of growth has outpaced the rate of planned development.

This has resulted in unmanaged and rampant urbanisation in most of our cities, which has further contributed to our disconnect with the nature, with more and more natural habitats, forests, water bodies being sacrificed for the unending urban greed. This in turn, is also aggravating the vulnerability of our cities to the vagaries of weather and climate risks.

For example, Mumbai, Chennai, Visakhapatnam, Surat, Bhopal, Gurugram, Guwahati and many more cities are facing flood-like situations year after year.

Similarly, several hill cities such as Shimla, Mussoorie, and Srinagar among others, which were known for their naturally enriching environment, are now facing the challenges of insensitive urbanisation, which does not follow an ecosystem-based approach to urban growth.

Several cities, including the national capital city of Delhi, are facing alarming pollution levels and are enveloped in perennial haze, hampering the sunlight during the day - blocking the star-studded sky during the night.

What is more alarming is that our current stance on urban planning and policy-making is contributing to our disconnect with nature by investing more and more in building concrete jungles and brown infrastructure and neglecting the green and blue.

The current urban agenda in the country focuses on development of hard and smart infrastructure and the increased cost of providing these development 'essentials' has put the urban greens, water bodies and other natural assets on the backburner of political priorities.

However, it is important to realise that the popular perception of the dichotomy between environment and development does not actually exist and it is quite possible to improve the quality of life of urban dwellers without reclaiming the green areas and natural assets in a city.

Many cities across the globe have shown that it is, in fact, essential to invest in these 'nature hubs' for enhancing the livability and economic competitiveness of urban dwellers. In a span of over two-and-a-half decades, Seoul has undertaken path breaking initiatives for the revival of its water bodies and development of inclusive public spaces such as the Cheonggyecheon Park.

Similarly, Gorky Park in Moscow and Central Park in New York are classic examples of public spaces connecting urban dwellers to nature through green areas, water bodies and public plazas blended together.

Cities like Toronto in Canada and West Midlands in the United Kingdom have undertaken extensive urban forestry programmes and revived huge areas of derelict lands and dysfunctional industries.

Such initiatives become all the more important, especially in case of India, considering our high urbanisation rate. With more that 400 million people expected to reside in our cities by 2050, there is a greater need to invest in our green and blue infrastructure for following a sustainable development pathway. The advantage that India still has is that our cities score relatively well on the presence and growth of green cover than many cities abroad.

Delhi, Bengaluru, Chandigarh and Bhopal, among others, boast of a high green cover which is in line with and in some cases exceeds the global standards for per capita availability of green space.

However, there is a growing need to revive these spaces and make them accessible for connecting urban dwellers to nature. Similarly, pedestrianisation of natural precincts in Gangtok, and identification of periodic 'no-vehicle zones' along the beaches in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, and Panaji, Goa, aim at providing cleaner and inclusive spaces to urban dwellers for natural, social and cultural connect.

While the Centre's recent thrust to invest in blue-green infrastructure in urban areas is mirrored through the Urban Forestry scheme, the 'Clean Air Mission' and the 'City Liveability Index', all of them aiming at improving the quality of life of urban dwellers, there is an urgent need to tie these with innovative implementation mechanisms.

Moreover, it is equally important to formulate and enforce stringent regulations to maintain the sanctity of the urban natural assets while providing access to these 'nature hubs' for connecting urban dwellers to nature.