In conversation with ecologists Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli

Harini Nagendra
Seema Mundoli

Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli are ecologists interested in the urban, its commons and sustainability issues. Their freshly minted book titled Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities has just hit the stands. The book celebrates select Indian trees and dwells on stories surrounding them. 
Here, over telephonic conversations, the duo speaks to Bengaluru Sustainability Forum about what trees mean to exploding Indian cities, their connections to other urban commons, their vision for cities of the future and motivations for writing the book.

Question: What do trees mean to modern-day urban cities?

Harini: Modern-day urban cities are very dystopic with the honking, the pollution, the chaos, the business of our lives, the waste, the disease – they are dystopic in so many ways. I think in modern-day India, trees represent some kind of an oasis of peace and serenity, hope and something that makes living in the cities worthwhile – this is at the very core of the matter. Then of course there are ecosystem services the trees provide, the pollution removal, stress release on the mental side, etc. Trees are a symbol of an imagination of a different future, helping us believe that dystopia is not all there is, there is a possibility of something else.

Seema: There are multiple ways in which people in cities relate to trees. To some they provide direct employment, to others they provide indirect benefits like shade for all, and fuel and food especially for the marginalised. Then there are the environmental uses – reducing pollution or protecting against heat. These are the kinds of uses to which we don’t pay too much attention as trees in cities are associated with recreation, for example, trees parks in cities where families come together. Having said that there are those who say that there is no place for trees in cities. Trees are the first casualty of any developmental projects. Trees are seen as encroachers. There are many positives that are lost once there is only way of looking at trees that is as an obstacle to development.

Question: How can cities be more sustainable by keeping nature in rather than taking it out?

Harini: I think we have to be aggressive towards this. Because if we are going to do business-as-usual, it is not going to work. We have to focus on trees, keep them at the center, and have our business and development around them. So for instance, Bangalore needs to undertake an aggressive million trees planting programme like many other cities have done. Something large scale like this is what we need. That’s our only hope. 

Seema: In our research we are also trying to look at how nature acts as a buffer to the challenges people in cities are facing today. Most common sustainability challenges would be flooding, urban heat island and more recently food security. We haven’t even considered how plants and trees can contribute to food security. So when we reduce natural spaces in  cities we are automatically contributing to the disasters we are seeing. There are predictions on how many work hours will be lost for every one degree rise in temperature in countries, this means huge economic losses. So, if nature is taken out of cities then there is so much taken out of cities – how we live, how we work, how we eat, how much one earns. These are all questions of sustainability linked to nature. 

Question: How do you think trees can contribute to sustainability?

Harini: In multiple ways. The core lies in understanding the importance of the ecosystem services they provide. There is new research pointing out to the fact that the loss of greenery and urban heat island effect in cities is exacerbating climate change effects locally. It is a fact that you’re going to have an increase in extreme events – so when rainfall comes it will be in short bursts and because of the concretisation of the city, the force of the rain will wash away everything, leading to floods. But if you plant trees, they will combat some of the local effects of variation in rainfall, and reduce the force of the rain water, helping in greater groundwater percolation and reducing the likelihood of floods and droughts . Trees reduce the extremity of urban heat island effect, they buffer the worst effects of air pollution, and also reduce the likelihood of some communicable diseases – the worst epidemic disease outbreaks are in places that are already heat stressed, as well as non-communicable diseases. There is new research from different cities showing that people living in tree-lined neighbourhoods have a lower likelihood of obesity, diabetes and blood pressure. But also from the Indian city perspective trees are integral to the ritual aspects of our daily lives – you see people going around trees, hugging them, placing their foreheads on them, worshipping sacred trees in the middle of busy neighbourhoods. 

Illustration by Alisha Dutt Islam

Question: How do you think trees and cities can play off each other, especially in the Indian context?

Harini: In the Indian context, cities are going to grow – there are no two ways about that. We need to find ways of making them liveable. The core of making cities liveable are trees. Apart from the issues we discussed already, Indian cities are also highly inequitable places for the most vulnerable. Already there are a lot of urban migrants and poor. In this context we need trees that help buffer this vulnerability. For instance trees like the drumstick that contributes – helps those on the margins. 

Seema: You can’t have one over the other. We know that the quality of life hugely improves with trees in cities. Cities are centres of economic development but if you remove one element that contributes to the way of life, it will surely impact the output of cities. 

Question: Can you throw light on any connection between trees and urban commons?

Seema: If we look at Bangalore, wooded groves locally known as gunda thopes were planted by local communities for various purposes. So these became a larger part of the landscape of commons in the cities. Cattle herders, in the past, would graze their cattle along the lakes and during the hot part of the day would rest in the shade of the trees. When we look at commons, we are looking at not only the tangible benefits but also the connections people have. So trees could be meeting grounds for people, hold sacred value, etc. There are other examples like these from around the country. So, many commons are knitted together with trees in them and people continue to make use of them seamlessly. 

Harini: I think Indian cities which are cramped for space in the first place should make trees urban commons. If you look at places where trees are planted, many are in private properties – apartments, gated communities, private layouts, corporates campus. But if you look at whatever was commons – streets, parks, lakes, wooded groves, even public sector campuses, they were open to the public, and commons. So we must focus on the public access to trees in the cities as commons. If there are not enough trees that are commons, they are not serving their purpose.

Let’s take the steel flyover in Bangalore – the project seems now to be abandoned – but say if it was being built and you were cutting thousands of trees and compensating by planting them somewhere else outside the city. How does that help the people living in the place that gets polluted because the trees are gone? 

Question: In what ways can cities make trees an integral part of their being?

Seema: We need to move away from the thinking that trees are dispensable and replaceable. Planners need to acknowledge that trees mean different things to different people. Now trees are seen only as roadblocks to development. Loss of trees also means loss of rights over many things that people get from nature. One of the ways to get the message across to the planners is for people to talk to them about trees. Perhaps planners too have some memories of trees that could be invoked by interactions.

Harini: By citizen movements around trees. There are multiple ways to do it. Ideally you’d have a collaboration between citizen groups and the government. Citizen led movements seem to be taking off, whether it is Chennai, Delhi or Bangalore. Once you have people initiating movements, that’s when you have something going on. 

We’ve got to do multiple things. In addition to aggressively planting trees in public spaces we have to protect and preserve our oldest trees, as they are our natural heritage. Some of the research mentioned in the book shows that the oldest trees in a forest act like mother trees or nodes in the wood wide web. Assuming it is the same in cities, then we need to protect our largest trees – because if we cut them down then we impact the entire interconnected underground network of tree communication. At the same time we need to be much more aggressive in planting. Across Indian cities you need multiple million-tree planting programmes. 

Illustration by Alisha Dutt Islam

Question: What is your vision for the cities of the future?

Seema: Definitely green with trees, open spaces for people to engage with nature in many different ways they want. I would like to do some birdwatching or have a quiet walk in the park. People dependent on trees for fuel or other subsistence uses should be allowed to access trees. Urban greenery has diverse uses and people should be able to access easily. Cities should also be walkable. It’s a utopian vision, perhaps.

Harini: A city where development happens because of nature – which is the way it used to be. Cities grew because they were good places environmentally – there was enough water, enough shade. So we have to get back to the idea that cities had a local loop. One of the things we must have for the cities to be sustainable is to try and close the local loop as much as possible. The local loop at least in terms of some kind of resources. In terms of economics we aren’t going to get self sufficient cities but in terms of water, food, energy, shade and greenery. The second thing is to see some kind of a multi-level government system where you have the city government is in charge. But the implementation happens in collaboration with wards and nested representatives. So, if you are looking at governance system, that would be my dream city.

Question: What were your motivations for writing the book Cities and Canopies? 

Seema: Personally, I’ve always loved nature. Trees have always been in my fondest childhood memories. They have been one element in my life that has been constant. So, when Harini suggested we write a book on trees, how could I’ve turned it down? I’ve not only loved trees as entities but also the mythical stories that were narrated, fun and games I played as a child, history and facts I read as an adult. 

Harini: I think one of the reasons for writing this book was to rekindle our own multisensory connection with trees – not just the science but the feeling, the warmth, the imagination, the ideas, the happiness. And that is what we are hoping people will pick up with the book. You can walk below a shaded canopy and not look up and realise the awe and glory of the tree because your head is buried in your phone or ipad. But if you stop and look up, I think your world changes – and that’s what we are hoping to encourage – this stopping and looking up. 

Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities by Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli is published by Penguin Random House India.