Making space for biodiversity in urban areas

A few years ago, almost every day, I took my coffee in the balcony, observing the extremely animated and expeditious parakeets that never failed to keep an appointment with the old trees huddled on the side of the road.


A year later, there were no trees, and more birds went homeless. Richard Mabey once said, “To be without trees would, in the most literal way, to be without our roots.” By being a mute witness to this slow and deliberate felling of trees in the city, we are unknowingly parting ways with our much-coveted memories, experiences and with it a part of our culture.

A recent report released by the Azim Premji University, Bengaluru states that we are set to lose 2244 trees, and 205 saplings from 71 species and 26 families to the proposed steel flyover and road- widening projects. A city known for trees like fig and neem that clean our air and cool our surroundings are all going to be axed, rendering the sky empty of birds.

Disastrous impacts

Bengaluru’s population has been increasing steadily from 8.7 million in 2011 to over 11.5 million in 2016. We hold the third position for being the most populous and second as the most polluted city, besides coming second for generating the highest amount of CO2 in India. Our air quality, drinking water pollution, noise and light pollution is appallingly high. Lung cancer accounts for about 10.8% of all new cancers in Bengaluru and pulmonologists hold the increasing air pollution as one of the primary perpetrators.

Now, you might wonder what difference will 2,244 trees make to your life? For starters, all the above mentioned dismal statistics may inch higher, and other problems will come up as well. No shade, merciless summers and roads lined with closely hugging endless lines of ugly buildings are just some of the problems.

Aesthetics aside, without trees, where will the pollinators go? Even the snakes and geckos are biological pest control agents. Let’s not forget that these complex ecosystems contribute to the bio-geo-chemical cycle in an urban environment. Change is inevitable and development is central to this shifting landscape, but at what cost? What we haven’t addressed is its impact on our social, economic, cultural and physical environment.

Just one large tree can absorb 150 kg of CO2 a year. While you are stuck in traffic, a visual treat of a tree can reduce your heart rate, blood pressure and stress levels. In the study, Street trees in Bangalore: Density, diversity, composition and distribution, authors Harini Nagendra and Divya Gopal highlight the need to protect large street trees on wide roads from tree felling while also stressing on its benefits.

“Tree lined streets supply a range of psychological, social and economic benefits for residents and businesses including reductions in domestic violence, lowering of obesity, higher property values, reductions in asthma levels, traffic speeds, and auto accidents, and overall improvements in human well-being and community vitality,” they state. A similar study was carried out in Chicago’s housing estate in USA. It was proved that women living near trees reported less mental fatigue and less violent tendencies that those in barren areas in other parts of the city.

Let’s not forget the role of trees as natural sound-proofers and as air purifiers. In another paper titled Effect of street trees on microclimate and air pollution in a tropical city, the authors assessed the impact of street trees and its role in mitigating air pollution. Taking into account 20 different locations in Bengaluru, and comparing areas with and without trees, the study proves that “street segments with trees had on average lower temperature, humidity and pollution, with afternoon ambient air temperatures lower by as much as 5.6 °C, road surface temperatures lower by as much as 27.5 °C, and SO2 levels reduced by as much as 65%. Suspended Particulate Matter (SPM) levels were very high on exposed roads, with 50% of the roads showing levels approaching twice the permissible limits, while 80% of the street segments with trees had SPM levels within prescribed limits.”

Across the globe, there have been several examples of people in cities having set out to reclaim what’s theirs — their immediate surroundings sans influence of non-inclusive developments. For instance, Vancouver, Canada will be planting 1,50,000 trees as part of its greenest city 2020 plan. Yet, here we are, shredding the city off its natural cape and mutely accepting a hazy future filled with poisonous gasses warranting more days in hospitals.

Marcel Proust aptly said, “We have nothing to fear and a great deal to learn from trees, that vigorous and pacific tribe which without stint produces strengthening essences for us, soothing balms, and in whose gracious company we spend so many cool, silent, and intimate hours.” If we want to imbibe this capacity for quietness and protect our time in company of the most penetrating of preachers — then we need to voice out and fight for them.

Trees are social beings, they share food, register pain and communicate via the worldwide web as proved by several scientists over the years. It’s time to hold on those roots and provide an opportunity to future generations to relish what we still have.

The article was published in the Deccan Herald

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