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Urban jungles of the green kind
By Tasneem Balasinorwala

I was at the entrance of the compound leading up to my house when I saw the most spectacular sight: a magnificent hooded cobra. It was a baby cobra fighting off a crow. This was not the first time I had come face to face with the wild in the busy polluted city of Pune; I have counted at least 54 different species of birds from my window, thanks to the surrounding trees and green areas. 

But ask any city child to list the names of birds and the response will be: ‘crow’, ‘sparrow’, ‘pigeon’, and that’s it. It’s sad that many of us remain totally ignorant of the countless natural life forms that exist in our cities. At one exhibition, when we asked children to name some trees many answered ‘grapes’! 

Though cities have transformed into metropolises, there are lots of beautiful unnoticed living things lurking in your backyard. You just have to go out and discover them. Trees, birds, streams, open land, hills, waterbodies, parks, lakes, institutional areas, public spaces, built-up areas and open spaces -- all are part of the urban environment. 

One term that I would like to introduce to you is ‘biodiversity’, which basically refers to the diversity of life forms. The belief that biodiversity mostly exists out of city areas is a common misconception. Simply put, a tree, a puddle, a forest, a huge lake or pond, a hill, the beach, grain, the fruits we eat, the plants in your garden or terrace -- all constitute biodiversity. Cities in India and around the world harbour biodiversity; we just do not know it as such. 

For instance, the city of São Paulo in Brazil has 33 urban parks and is surrounded by a green belt that’s classified as a biosphere reserve and houses 47 endemic species of mammal, 31 species of reptile and 40 species of amphibian. Nairobi National Park (Kenya) is home to over 400 species of birds (imagine the array of colours and sounds!). In terms of plant diversity, Cape Town in South Africa hosts over 2,300 plant species. Back home, Delhi and Pune have a checklist of over 400 bird species. Mumbai’s biodiversity is a product of the confluence of the Arabian Sea to the west and the Western Ghats to the east. In fact, cities like Mumbai, Chennai and Vishakapatnam contain important coastal habitats complete with mangroves, turtle-nesting sites and other important flora and fauna. Mumbai supports a vibrant national park right in its midst. Loss of life and property during the July 2005 Mumbai floods would have been a lot worse had it not been for the heavily-forested park that absorbed a lot of the rainfall. 

Chennai also has the Guindy National Park at the centre, while Delhi has the Ridge forest running from south to north. 

Cities are developing in leaps and bounds in the race to become the next big habitat for humankind. The year 2007 marked a major shift in humanity’s history: for the first time, the world’s urban population exceeded its rural population. Today, more than 50% of the world’s population lives in cities. Two centuries ago, the number was a mere 3%. As a result, cities are becoming the planet’s largest and most chaotic resource-guzzlers. Rapid urbanisation is leading to a massive onslaught on the environment. We are all only too aware of issues such as air and water pollution, waste generation, and rising temperatures. 

With this, the importance of maintaining a clean, green urban environment is growing. But can cities really contribute to biodiversity conservation? It would seem impossible, but if you look up the Internet you will see innumerable examples of how city-dwellers are trying to save their green spaces from the greedy grasp of development, be it real estate or infrastructure. 

How can you contribute your bit? 

The simplest thing one can do, in fact, is to plant a tree and nourish it. Make gardening a habit and you will see a small micro world (birds, insects, worms, fallen leaves, flowers and bees) unfold right in front of your eyes. Also figure out how you can turn your kitchen waste into manure. Start growing plants and trees and see how they quickly begin to grow on you! 

(Tasneem Balasinorwala works with the environment action group Kalpavriksh and is a member of Pune Tree Watch) 

InfoChange News & Features, October 2008 

  Urban jungles of the green kind
  Bawris and johars: Rainwater harvesting in the old days
  Many drops of rain
  Rooftop revolution
  Microcredit: How a little money goes a long way
  Organic farming
  The Gaia hypothesis
  Doing without money