Thinking Ecologically About Development in India’s Cities

Soumyadip Chattopadhyay, Arjun Kumar, Manoswini Sarkar

“Poorly managed urban growth and development in a rapidly urbanizing India has exacerbated inequalities, exclusion, and vulnerabilities, especially among the marginalized population” highlighted Dr Soumyadip Chattopadhyay in a webinar organized by Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies (CHURS), IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute on Thinking Ecologically About Development in India’s Cities as part of the series The State of the Cities- #CityConversations.

He highlighted the importance of prioritizing sustainability issues as it can contribute to determining the quality of life for urban residents, the economic productivity of Indian cities, and the natural environment.

“Thinking ecologically about cities often seems like an oxymoron as people don’t see cities as places of ecology.”

Dr Harini Nagendra, Director, Research Centre, Azim Premji University, Bangalore, highlighted the need for thinking ecologically about cities by discussing how the environment and geography shape the city’s culture as much as the two shapes the ecology. She discussed how these challenges would increase in the future due to increasing urbanization.

However, she drew attention to how most cited papers on urban sustainability were authored by academicians in the Global North, and Indians contributed to only around 0.1 percent of the literature. She maintained that urban theory is driven by the Global North, which shapes the inquiry methods that influence our cities’ practice, planning, and designing.

She further contrasted how cities’ Southern imagination is very different from the prevalent urban imagination and highlighted how policymakers overlook these imaginations when they plan, design, and implement urbanization plans. Across the Global South, we have incomplete theorization, inappropriate methods, and ill-designed planning. This begs the question of what kind of imagination guides our ideas of a modern city.

She concluded her talk by highlighting the need for better integration of research into planning through place-based research. She called for the need for embedded research to understand what shapes cities and reimagine nature as a part of a healthy city where there is a coexistence of both skyscrapers and people foraging along with grazers.

Prof Sucharita Sen, Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, added the need for a convergence of development policy with the environmental vision and not a mere addition. She reiterated Prof Nagendra’s point on the need to question how we make our cities and who the city actually belongs to.

She maintained the relation between the historicity of people and the environment. She discussed how migrant workers, slum dwellers, and people whose land is acquired for developmental plans contribute to this vision of development but are ultimately pushed into the fringes. Finally, she also expressed concern for the urgent need to create citizen-oriented policies and engage more in this developmental process.

Dr Jenia Mukherjee, Assistant Professor, IIT Kharagpur, agreed with Prof. Nagendra’s points and talked about ‘ecology of affluence vs environmentalism of the poor’ and maintained the need for urban imaginations to capture the micro political realities, situatedness, environmental placemaking, and everydayness.

She expressed concern for the need to contextualize big developmental plans within the socio-political and cultural realities that remain enmeshed together as part of Urban nature. She finally called for a shift from the idea of ‘ecology in’ to ‘ecology for’ and finally ‘ecology for’ cities; only then there will be less scope of cityscapes being ghettoized or gentrified and more scope of it being more and more inclusive.

Dr Simi Mehta, CEO, IMPRI further highlighted how the implications of urbanization, which is the key ingredient for a country’s development, sometimes being unrestrained and unplanned, often compromises social stability. This often translates into environmental and ecological challenges and the environment being the direct casualty. She drew attention to the disaggregated effects of environmental pollution on the poor and vulnerable and their inability to deal with it. She advocated for the importance of urban agriculture and technology related to it and called for advocacy related to urban agriculture at the policy level.

Mr Sameer Unhale, Joint Commissioner, Department of Municipal Administration, Government of Maharashtra also focused on the importance of the linkage between humanity and habitat and called for an increase in the man to tree ratio. The ethos of the city needs to be connected with the ecosystem, of which trees are an important part.

He propounded collective climate wisdom, which is an emergent phenomenon and could be considered an important strategy to engage with this decade’s challenges. He observed how there had been adequate discussion in the last decade about the importance of environmental policy but what is now required is action in execution and implementation. In addition to governments’ efforts, he called for the participation of private entities and citizen partnerships.

Answering the questions raised by the panelists, Prof Nagendra elucidated the importance of interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity so there can be a convergence of interests between the researchers and the policymakers. She further acknowledged how her optimism arose from the environmental consciousness and activism prevalent in the Bangalore region.

She called for a collaboration of all kinds, remarking that research should not just be about people but also where people can inform the city. Echoing Dr Jenia Mukherjee’s thoughts, she reiterated the need for  ‘Ecologically-Wise Cities’ and not just ’Smart Cities’.

YouTube Video for Thinking Ecologically About Development in India’s Cities

Picture Courtesy: Google Images