Edition 50: Nature in cities

Dear readers,

Welcome to the 50th edition of Question of Cities. Thank you for being a part of our journey so far.

As India braces for another harsh summer, we look at the important role nature plays in our cities. It isn’t about central parks and gardens, but all kinds of natural green spaces and watercourses which define cities, make them sustainable, and contribute to people’s well-being. As the climate crisis worsens, the significance of nature in keeping cities cooler, flood-resistant, clearing the air, and providing people space and relief from stress cannot be overlooked. India’s default approach to urbanisation has been to pursue development at the cost of nature, which has hurt millions who live and work in cities, and put a question mark on their future. Ladakh and Shimla, featured in this edition of Question of Cities, exemplify this. We urge building cities in nature, with nature-led planning as the norm.

In the lead essay, architect-activist PK Das, also founder of Question of Cities, argues that nature shapes and defines cities, but the prevailing model of city-making has led to a serious rupture in nature and segregation of nature from people. As cities become more vulnerable to heat stress, sea-level rise, increased floods, cyclonic winds, and forest fires, it is time to break the order and reimagine cities by placing nature at the heart of city-making. This calls for open and democratic mapping of natural areas, governments adopting nature-led planning, inter-connecting green and blue areas, and drawing neighbourhood communities into nurturing natural areas. Read it here.

The 21-day climate fast by engineer, educator and activist Sonam Wangchuk in March drew attention to the fragile ecology of Leh-Ladakh and the rights of local people over nature, as development projects made a beeline after Article 370 was read down in 2019, writes journalist and filmmaker Faisul Yaseen. The region has been facing climate impact like rapid glacier loss, erratic snowfall, sudden cloudbursts, and flash floods. Haphazard infrastructural development, the absence of a sensitive environmental policy, disregarding local knowledge and voices, and decisions made by people without a stake in the region spell doom. The climate fast is their cry. Read it here.

Manshi Asher, a researcher, writer and activist, brings a ground report from Shimla, the hill station from the British era that is still popular among tourists, on how its fragility and instability has contributed to landslides and flash floods. The brunt of the landslides is borne by residents in working class mohallas, as on August 15 last year in Krishna Nagar, deemed ineligible for rehabilitation and compensation. Shimla has seen land-use changes and deforestation – a study showed a 20 percent decrease in forests between 1980 and 2017. Yet, expansion continues unabated, much of it commercial. The way forward is a deeper engagement with the human-nature dialogue in all its complexities, on the ground amongst common and marginalised peoples. Read it here.

Mumbai’s geography makes it one of the cities most vulnerable to climate change. Top-down policies and the Mumbai Climate Action Plan, a non-statutory plan, have done little. Local initiatives by the civil society and communities have played an essential role in adaptation and mitigation, but these illustrate the failure of institutional frameworks, finds Ruchira Paul, a Master’s student in Urban Governance at Sciences Po, Paris, in her research paper. While there are excellent examples of the importance of non-state actors, these cannot replace institutional actors. Without active action from governments, Mumbai’s millions will experience more severe calamities in the future. Read it here.

And we are excited to be at The Nature of Cities (TNOC) Festival 2024. Here’s a short note with details about the virtual event later this month and the in-person celebration in Berlin from June 3 to 7. Question of Cities, India’s only online journal devoted to cities and sustainability, will feature both in the virtual and in-person formats. We have chosen to focus on water and watercourses in cities. Read the note to find out how you can be a part of it. Read it here.

In our News Digest, section, read interesting stories – including good news – on cities and climate change from around the world.

Hope you engage with the essays and find them worthwhile. Consider subscribing to Question of Cities if you haven’t done so already (it’s free), and help us by having your friends subscribe too. If you have something to say, write to us at [email protected]

Thank you,
Shobha Surin
April 5, 2024