Seeking nature; embracing the city

Delhi. A warm April day. The buzz of traffic. The chirping of birds and the bright green foliage of spring. I consider myself fortunate to be able to experience nature in one of the most populous and polluted cities in the world.

For those of us who have chosen, for whatever reasons, to live in and around metropolitan cities in India, the loss of nature is perhaps the most regrettable manifestations of our choice. In part, the actual reduction in the flora and fauna of our environment means less chance to experience and encounter birds, insects, shrubs and trees. It also means that we are less informed about nature and our curiosity reduces with each passing year. As a result, our children are growing up treating nature as an academic curiosity, with fewer opportunities to experience the natural world well ‘naturally’.

Experiencing nature is also categorized into one of those organized, deliberate, do-good experiences for our children. They see animals in cages and plants that try hard to survive the hostile environment. They rarely dig in real mud, but are rather exposed to relatively sterile sandpits that dot the designed landscapes of our housing complexes.

Clearly we do long for nature. Look up casually at any multistory housing complex, drive through Delhi’s residential colonies. Families have greened whatever bits of spaces they can. Healthy potted plants and well-kept gardens are the norm rather than the exception.

Why not, then, make a more concerted effort to create and nurture havens of wilderness and nature within our cities? And to use the ones that exist!

The ridge, for instance, offers the rare opportunity to the residents of Delhi to explore nature within the city and yet, the ridge lies largely neglected and unfortunately, unused. I was struck, recently, by the enthusiasm of an American expat newly arrived in Delhi to walk from his place of work to where he lives by finding new nature-filled routes. I recall trying to do so when I lived in south Delhi several years ago, but my enthusiasm was muted and I soon gave up. The idea of crossing traffic-filled streets to reach a green belt was nauseating and the idea of driving there even more so. Access, therefore, is one deterrent. Visibility of the access points may be another issue; easily solved by signage design and placement.

What’s more worrying though, is the disconnect between thought and action, desire and aspiration among the middle classes that inhabit Delhi (or indeed any Indian city). Healthy living is an aspiration that has not yet been internalized; rather, it is a concept thrust at us by doctors, newspapers and social pressure. Paying for a gym, or for a dieticians services, can easily address the guilt of not attempting to be healthy. However, utilizing the outdoor spaces in the city seems impractical to most of us. Do we perceive these spaces as hostile and unfriendly? Unsafe, perhaps?

There must be some way to marry these separate ideas together. The quest for nature on one hand, the quest for fitness on the other. Let’s Walk Gurgaon, an enthusiastic group of walkers in Gurgaon have accomplished this balance. The group, which has maybe 40-odd active members and hundreds of ‘like’ on facebook (!), walks twice a week- a shorter urban walk on Wednesdays and a longer walk on a weekend morning that gives them a chance to explore some of the rural and forest areas surrounding Gurgaon. It’s a great initiative and I have seen the group bond, grow and really experience a unique kind if happiness in the few months I have known them.

Its time to get out of our complacency and really see the city around us. Its time to stop feeling alien and actually walking the streets, embracing the reality around us. Its time to show our kids whats real and not offer them the view through the car window as their only choice. If cities are our future, lets face our future squarely and act to make it greener, more beautiful, more akin to the future we fantasize about :)

The city is my home: How do I influence it?

I won’t bore you with statistics about how many people will live in cities by 2050. For many of us, the city has been home since we were born and the only existence we can possibly imagine is urban.

When I was a child, most books we read (Enid Blyton, for instance) idealised the rural life, described the country as the epitome of health and good living, while the city was portrayed as somewhere some of us had to live to earn a living. In the last three-odd decades since I have roamed this earth, urban lives and urban writing have taken centre-stage and the country life is something reserved for short idyllic holidays.

So this extension of our neighbourhood into our friends’ neighbourhoods, this city is in fact an extension of our home. In every sense, we embrace this large social and physical space as our own. We relate to it, love parts of it, criticise bits and pieces, certainly opine on it. And yet, we feel no sense of control over its destiny the way we feel over that of our home. It is this gap that city governments have failed to fill while failing in nearly all aspects of governance. And while the lack of infrastructure and civic amenities are what draw most flak, what we are secretly complaining about is this total disconnect between our lives and the theatre in which we play our lives out, the city.

I’m not saying the onus of bridging the gap lies with governments alone. Civic society can also initiate this. However, as we have seen with Anna Hazare’s campaign, civic movements gain much momentum but require government support and understanding to realize the ultimate objectives.

Its about shaking hands then and putting heads together, collaboration and PPP and what have you. All these wonderful concepts that are yet to stand the test of time in the tricky turf of collaboration between the public and the private.

I’m still seeking my own personal answers to how I can engage with my city. Participate in its improvement just as I, from time to time, clean my home or paint it. After all, the city is my home too, on whose streets my children roam and whose community shapes their thought processes. Do you think making efforts to find ways for us citizens to play a part in the city’s destiny is worth our time? Do let me know; would be glad to find support and more defined thoughts on this.