Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Rewilding our cities: Many challenges, some opportunities

We face a densely packed urban future. But it won't be viable if we don't share it with the natural world

When was the last time you heard the symphony of toads or the chorus of cicadas? Saw a butterfly flutter around you, or a garden snail ambling on a patch of grass?

Have you missed the chirping of house sparrows; the playful palm squirrels on the balustrade; or the dance of fireflies on moonless nights?

Two great events are under way as you read this issue—the mass migration of humans from rural areas to urban centres, and the sixth mass extinction of species.

Both events are linked. It’s common knowledge that our cities are expanding at the cost of natural surroundings, pushing birds, animals, reptiles and insects to the edge of extinction or causing their populations to fall drastically.

This year, for the International Day of Forests (21 March) the United Nations puts the spotlight on our urban spaces, with the theme “Forests and sustainable cities".

The theme is a reality check on our unsustainable consumption patterns, and how we deal with air, water and light pollution. While sustainable development remains a challenge, some experts believe we may already have exceeded the planet’s ecological carrying capacity.

Global Footprint Network, an international think tank, has even suggested that to sustain our current rate of natural resource consumption, we need more than one planet—approximately 1.7 Earths. The future may look bleak, with 80% of the world population expected to be living in cities by 2050. India’s urban population has already touched 63%, according to satellite data, and forest land continues to be diverted for urban development projects.

But amidst the doom and gloom, there is still a beacon of hope.

The concept of green infrastructure is now taking form, and there is an effort to rewild degraded habitats in and around cities.

“Green buildings are key to smart, sustainable, environment-friendly cities. A certified green building is energy-efficient by 30-40%, water-efficient by 30% and uses environment-friendly construction material, such as fly-ash bricks (fly-ash waste from thermal power plants is removed by this process) and specially coated glass to reflect harmful ultraviolet rays. It also takes special care of indoor air quality and the type of furniture to eliminate emissions of volatile compounds. And least to mention, the quality of life inside the building," says S. Raghupathy, deputy director general and head of the green business centre, Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).

One of the lesser-known facts is that India ranks third this year on the US Green Building Council’s (USGBC’s) list of top 10 countries for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified buildings. The CII Sohrabji Godrej Green Business Centre in Hyderabad (2003) was the first LEED platinum-rated building in India.

The green building movement is now well and truly mainstream, with a footprint of 4.68 billion sq. ft. Today, there is even technology available to convert old structures into certified green buildings. “How the building blends with nature or becomes part of nature is now a major focus, with vertical gardens and green roofing in vogue. This has also helped sparrows and other animals to return," adds Raghupathy.

Last month, at a lecture in Delhi, Italian art historian Martina Corgnati remarked: “Nature is an unavoidable partner of any human society. We must preserve and protect nature as a part of cultural heritage as polluted or degraded habitat cannot convey any cultural heritage."

Can we rewild our degraded environment? Recent case studies in Delhi and adjoining Gurugram show that forests can rebound within city limits if the government, civic agencies and civil society have the vision and will.

The Aravallis (see page 13) in Delhi were plundered for red silica, sandstone and gravel. The area known as Bhatti Mines is now part of the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary, adjoining south Delhi’s Chattarpur area; the Aravalli Biodiversity Park between Vasant Kunj and Vasant Vihar in south Delhi, and the Aravalli Biodiversity Park in Gurugram, too were once mines and quarries supplying minerals and building material to the National Capital Region (NCR).

After the Supreme Court’s ban on mining in the NCR (2002), the Delhi government initiated a programme to turn the barren mining pits into biodiversity parks. The Bhatti Mines area (2,100 acres) was entrusted to the eco-task force of the Territorial Army, while the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) took charge of the abandoned mines in Vasant Kunj. DDA also developed two other green spaces, the Yamuna Biodiversity Park and the Tilpat Valley Biodiversity Park (near Asola Bhatti). Tilpat was inaugurated last month.

In Gurugram, concerned citizens came together to form “Iamgurgaon", an NGO, and proposed to the municipal corporation that the quarry be developed into an urban park.

Today, these sites are all micro-forest habitats sheltering not only a large number of birds and butterflies but also large carnivores such as leopards, hyenas and jackals (in Asola Bhatti).

As wild spaces shrink at an alarming rate, we urgently need to recalibrate our lives in tune with nature.

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