Natural disorder

Narendar Pani | Updated on January 17, 2018

Title: Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present, and Future; Author: Harini Nagendra; Publisher: Oxford University Press. Price: ₹795


A new book studies how Bengaluru has grown out-of-sync with its ecology

Modern cities are typically imagined as large expanses of built up space with some of those buildings reaching out to the sky. Cities are sometimes captured as areas of light in satellite images taken in the night, thereby emphasising the critical role that infrastructure plays in our conception of cities.

In this imagination people are often little more than numbers; numbers that can be made to grow by simply redrawing the city’s boundaries to include villages, as Bengaluru did in the last decade. In this mix of buildings, infrastructure and people-as-numbers there is little space for nature.

And yet, as Harini Nagendra brings out so vividly in her book, nature simply does not go away. It can be used to make a more liveable, and efficient, city, or it can be so badly battered that it hits back through diseases and ecological disasters.

Nature’s eye view

In this pioneering work Nagendra provides a nature’s eye view of the growth of Bengaluru. Beginning with an ecological history of the city, it presents Bengaluru’s growth through the way it has treated its natural spaces.

This journey takes the book through domains not usually explored in Indian urban literature; from home gardens to sacred nature. At the end of this fascinating journey, Nagendra is left with three trends that are starkly visible to all who want to see, but still tend to be ignored.

The first of these trends, and one that planners would do well to take note of, is its exploration of “the way nature acts as a driving force to configure human settlements in the city” (p187).

It very effectively traces the movement in Bengaluru from ‘first nature’ where terrain shapes the growth of the city, to ‘second nature’ where human actions modify nature and are in turn modified by it, and to ‘third nature’ where humans believe they have complete control over nature as they fill wetlands, raze hillocks, and use technology to overcome nature in other ways. But the damage to nature takes its toll through water crises, air pollution and disease.

The second trend, and in some senses one of the more important contributions of this book, is the “move from the multifunctional social and ecological use of nature, to a largely aesthetic and scientific conceptualisation of nature for recreational and environmental and ecological support” (p 190).

Even as this transition occurs around us we rarely care to notice it. Nagendra takes us from the traditional anarchy of the home garden to the order of the parks, a fascinating intellectual journey in itself.

The third trend brings out the inequality over something that earlier societies could take for granted: the access to nature. The book traces the growing tendency to make public spaces private; the “increasing gating and exclusion from access to nature” (p 190).

And this access is for the poor not just a matter of aesthetics, but often one of survival. Whether it is migrant workers who depend on urban commons for fuel, street vendors or those who had the skill to fish in the lakes, the gating of public spaces hurts their basic access to essential elements of urban life.

Back to us

The significance of these three trends throws up new questions. Would our understanding of the role of nature in a city have grown further if the book had gone beyond noticing the three trends, to exploring the interaction between them?

It is quite possible to argue that the three trends are closely interlinked and perhaps reinforce each other. As we move towards a collective consciousness where we believe that the material is all that matters, it is only to be expected that we destroy all that comes in the way of our material progress.

The first trend of technology attempting to take complete control over nature is a natural corollary of this process. This dominance over nature in the material domain also affects our sensibilities.

Our fascination with the rationality and order of technology is so overwhelming that it cannot be constrained to that domain. It affects our perception of nature itself. We thus move towards a scientific conceptualisation of nature, or Nagendra’s second trend.

As the sense of order can take many forms, there is a tendency for the individual to first define his or her sense of order and then impose that on others.

This can only be done if we first create individual gardens dominated by individual aesthetics and then slowly step out to conquer public spaces.

Indeed, in Bengaluru the first target in this process is the pavement outside the house. House owners in the city have no qualms about converting the pavements into private gardens, forcing pedestrians on to overcrowded roads. Once the pavement is conquered, moving on to form groups to control parks is but the next step.

Understanding these processes may have made Nagendra just a touch more sceptical about the steps she advocates for managing the future.

She tends to put her faith for the future entirely on the courts being prompted into action by civil society. Such interventions however tend to be isolated and dramatic rather than being an effective intervention in the larger social process.

At the end of an endearing journey, Nature in the City not unlike other pioneering works, throws up as many important questions as it answers.


Harini Nagendra is a native of Bengaluru. She is a professor of sustainability at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. Her publications include Reforesting Landscapes: Linking Pattern and Process (co-edited, 2010).

The reviewer is a professor at the School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru

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Published on July 10, 2016
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