Need for Ecologically Smart Cities in India

Harini Nagendra

India has been urbanizing rapidly in recent years, but the poorly managed urban growth and development have exacerbated inequalities, exclusion, and vulnerabilities, especially among the marginalized population. Additionally, sustainability issues also need to be prioritized to determine the quality of life for urban residents, the economic productivity of Indian cities, and the natural environment’s state.

Harini Nagendra

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

Why do we need to think ecologically about cities?

There’s a considerable amount of academic scholarship on Indian cities, but ecology is hardly included. Ecology defines the city. For instance, Delhi ridge and Yamuna river represent Delhi and wetlands in Kolkata defines Kolkata. This shapes the culture and the commerce of the town as much as it shapes the ecology. On the other hand, when ecologists write about pristine landscapes, they overlook cities, so Indian cities’ ecological thinking has always fallen through the cracks.

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By 2050, the world will be 75% urbanized. It is also projected that even India will be almost 50% urbanized by then. It can be confirmed that India has the world’s largest cities, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Delhi, and three of the world’s fastest-growing cities, Ghaziabad, Surat, and Faridabad. So, these upcoming urban cities have to be built while considering formidable sustainability challenges and opportunities, which are yet to be harnessed.

What is the problem?

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The issue is that the Global South’s urbanization and sustainability challenges are very different from the Global North. Yet, analysis has shown that papers over a decade of work on urban sustainability have most citations from the Global North’s authors. One-third of papers are from the US and Europe, both maintaining 70 percent of the urban theory. 20% of the papers are from China, and only 0.1% are from India, and the remaining do not fit the Indian context.

So, the urban theory is driven by the Global North, which shapes inquiry methods and influences the practice, planning, and designing of our cities. While further analysis of the growth rates between the developing countries of Global North and Global South, it is found that the latter is growing at a faster rate.

The differences in the sustainability challenegs of global north and global south can be found in the UN database on infrastructure development on city prosperity, quality of life, and environmental sustainability. It shows global north is in better shape. The not so good performance of the global south is attributed to high levels of youth unemployment, mortality rates, low access to water, high concentration of slums, low access to internet facilities, air pollution, poverty and many more.

Ill designed planning and practices

So we typically look at cities from an anthropocentric view or a biocentric view. These dictate our views on whether we should protect diversity for its own sake or because it is useful to us. However, in India, it is difficult to impose this logic on our understanding of Indian cities. The southern imagination of cities is very different from the prevalent urban imagination.

Some inscriptions on stone and copper found from the 14th and 15th centuries in Bangalore’s different areas highlight a community feeling attached to land and landscape. It sees land as life-giving and thus showcases the need to invest in it for future generations to come, not just for humans but also for animals and birds. Similarly, different imaginations of cities exist for different communities of people, such as for migrant workers, village residents, transgenders, special children, etc.

These imaginations are being overlooked in planning, designing and implementing of our urbanization plans. There is an exclusion of commons in our smart cities, not just ecologically but also socially. They are being stripped away of wetlands, dhobis, grazers, migrant workers, women who forage for weeds, etc. 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.

Need for locally embedded research

There is a need for better integration of research into planning through place-based research. The first focus should be on the importance of street trees. Trees reduce heat and pollution, but research shows that it has a huge impact on our health. There are a significant difference in suspended particulate matter (SPM) levels and sulfur dioxide levels when trees are on the road. In addition to that, ambient air temperature and road surface temperature also decreases, which cools down cities.

There is a need for an urban design for biodiversity. The urban context, such as air and sound pollution, impacts biodiversity in the city. An increase in parks and lakes make it a safer environment for birds and animals to inhabit. Third is foraging, which is often overlooked or ignored by policymakers. Women from urban and semi-urban areas forage for plant species and know many of these plant species and weeds.

So, there is a need for embedded research to understand what shapes cities. There is need to reimagine nature as a part of a healthy city where there is a coexistence of both skyscrapers and people foraging along with grazers.

A version of this work was earlier published in The Nature of Cities by Harini Nagendra.. The link can be found here.

Acknowledgement: Manoswini Sarkar is research intern at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI) and Masters Candidate of Development Studies at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, Switzerland.

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

Picture Courtesy: Rethinking the Future


  • Ritika Gupta

    Ritika Gupta is a senior research assistant at Impact and Policy Research Institute. Her research Interests include Gender Studies, Public Policy and Development, Climate Change and Sustainable Development.

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