Governance

Urban commons: Almost ignored in city planning

Commons act as a nutritional buffer, safety net for migrants; middle-class, wealthy residents no less dependent

 
By Harini Nagendra
Last Updated: Thursday 27 February 2020
Jakkur lake, Bengaluru. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Jakkur lake. In Bengaluru commons, cows graze on the edges of lakes and community fishing is practiced in waste weirs. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Jakkur lake. In Bengaluru commons, cows graze on the edges of lakes and community fishing is practiced in waste weirs. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Professor of sustainability,  Azim Premji University, Bengaluru

The word commons evokes the imagery of a rural landscape — a village with ponds and grazing lands surrounded by forests. Though commons are equally essential for cities, the fact remains almost ignored in urban policy and planning.

Thus, in the heart of Bengaluru, cows graze on the edges of lakes and community fishing is practised in waste weirs; and in Mumbai, adivasis hunt and forage for food in Sanjay Gandhi National Park and Agaris use coastal and creek-side land for salt panning.

We have forgotten that the commons act as a nutritional buffer and safety net for migrants who flock to cities from distressed parts of the country by providing them with wild plants, greens and brushwood, places to bathe, defecate, wash clothes and protection from winter nights.

The middle-class and wealthy residents of the city are no less dependent on the commons, though they may not recognise the extent of it. Lakes, parks, wetlands, rivers and even roadside trees play a role in cleaning the air, raising groundwater levels and maintaining people’s physical and mental well-being.

Yet, across cities the commons seem to be the most dispensable of spaces. Forests like Mumbai’s Aarey are threatened for infrastructure projects, wetlands in Thiruvananthapuram acquired for technoparks and trees in South Delhi felled to build apartments.

While the ecological consequences of the damage (which include floods, droughts and heat waves) are widely discussed, the social outcomes receive less attention. Commons represent those rare spaces in increasingly segregated cities where the rich and the poor can still meet, children of all classes play together and collaborations for conservation can occur.

However, smart city plans and restoration projects take an approach that de-commonises the commons by evicting people who depend on them most. Beach sides, river fronts, lakes and parks become gated spaces, accessible only to those who can pay, and available only for recreational use, often coupled with “entertainment” in the form of flashing lights, loud music and food courts that evict wildlife. Our cities can hold out any promise of a better future only if the commons play a central role in urban planning. 

The author is professor of sustainability at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru

This was first published in Down To Earth's print edition (dated 16-29 September, 2020)

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