Needed … a Science–Policy–Community Interface for Better Integration of Nature within Human Settlements

A rejuvenated pond in Gautam Buddha Nagar, Uttar Pradesh (implemented with support from HCL Foundation)

The UN decade on Ecosystem Restoration or the Decade for Nature started quite sombrely with the COVID-19 pandemic engulfing the world. Even as the world struggled with multiple lockdowns losing lives and livelihoods, we saw what a lower capital growth orientation could do for Nature’s recovery. The temporary relief for Nature at the local, regional, and global levels in 2020 and 2021 was primarily on an account of the closure of industrial activities and reduced mobility worldwide, resulting in considerable economic downslide in almost every country. However, it provided an opportunity to critically rethink and redesign economic and industrial activities necessary for human development such that they are more in sync with Nature. It called for an inclusive green recovery and highlighted the need for a transformative approach to our production and consumption methods. The approach emphasises on integrating human development with Nature in contrast to exploiting Nature for economic growth.

Rapidly urbanising human settlements, such as those in India, are a critical actor in this inclusive green recovery. The ecological impacts of human settlements go far beyond their geographical boundaries. Increased densities with demands on natural ecosystems as sources for food, minerals, and metals and a sink for wastes have unfortunately become a hallmark of our rapidly urbanising settlements. Together with increasing concretisation of land surfaces and reduced green cover, cities are in direct conflict with the natural ecosystems they are embedded in, much to the detriment of their own survival and prosperity.

In this context, Nature-based Solutions (NbS) and Blue-Green Infrastructure (B-GI) have been identified as a potential game-changing strategy for the green recovery and green growth of cities. The UNFCCC’s AR-6 released in February 2022 has also identified the tremendous potential of NbS in all spheres of life – both rural and urban. Urban NbS integrate Nature and natural processes in their design to deliver urban services. They are of various types ranging from porous pavements to green walls and roofs, swales, urban agriculture, human-made and upgraded wetlands, biodiversity parks, and urban forests. Cities across the world and many in India are experimenting with NbS/B-GI to respond to the demands of urbanisation and climate change-induced risks. However, many apprehensions exist around the efficacy and effectiveness of NbS, especially those related to unintended social equity impacts and financial viability concerns in the global South.

While urban planners and municipal managers do track the quality and access of urban services such as water supply, mobility, energy and housing for citizens, primarily from a human health perspective, they rarely track the health of the natural eco-system on which these services depend. There are gaps in monitoring ecosystem health at local levels and tracking the carrying capacities of bioregions, and therefore, in our ability to design transformative models for human habitations and urban services. Thus, it is imperative that while designing NbS/B-GI, we address the creation of systems and structures for receiving and responding to feedback of ecological and social (including economic, institutional, and technological) shifts at local, regional and global levels.

Among such processes and structures are those that foster robust, credible, and timely information and enable co-creation of knowledge and decision-making for collaborative management of NbS. Such mechanisms would create greater awareness regarding scientific data and trends from natural ecosystems and social systems among local communities and support sustainable consumption behaviour. These would also facilitate the integration of societal concerns and traditional wisdom to support responsive and empathetic policymaking with adequate checks and balances in place.

Citizen science and citizen journalism are possibly such mechanisms that would benefit both science and policymaking. Citizen science and documentation of Nature by local communities to aid scientific research and generate evidence for policymaking such as people’s biodiversity registers are not new. However, these have not been actively integrated into planning and management of human settlements. A conscious effort to encourage school and college students, community groups, and community media to engage with people’s science and policymaking will go a long way towards bringing our human settlements in sync with Nature, enabling a symbiotic co-existence.

This editorial has been inspired by a citizen science effort of the DA Group in Udaipur, Rajasthan and a corresponding PhD research on urban resilience by the author.

Zeenat Niazi

The views expressed in the article are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Development Alternatives. 

This blog first appeared as an editorial in Development Alternatives Newsletter October, 2022

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