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EXCLUSIVE: Redesigning cities to achieve urban ecosystem services


Several countries across the globe, as in Europe, East Asia and the Americas are going in for designing cities with nature as a basic element of the overall framework of the urban landscape. The concept of green buildings and green spaces are the by-word in the new-look designing of cities with the critical terminology “sustainable cities”.

By Salam Rajesh

Achieving ecosystem services in the urban environment are more essential than ever for the long term sustainability of cities, says editors Alessio Russo and Giuseppe T.Cirella in introducing MDPI’s latest publication “Urban Ecosystem Services II: Toward a Sustainable Future” (Land, 2021).

The long term sustainability of cities is dependent on how people plan cities and how ecosystem services become an integral part of spatial planning and design, the editors say, stressing on the need to design cities with nature and that it is important for politicians, designers, and all people involved in the city-design process to understand its role as well as any associated ecosystem services (Land:ix).

This outlook for new growth urban cities comes in the light of the global pursuance of ‘green cities’ that can sustain regulatory measures to contain greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

The global community is racing to meet the Paris Climate Agreement target of limiting global temperature rise by 1.5 degree Celsius by the year 2030, or face imminent natural catastrophe and other climate related hazards including unprecedented tropical cyclones, tidal waves, heat waves, wildfires, snow storms, glacial ice melts, and even droughts.

Several countries across the globe, as in Europe, East Asia and the Americas are going in for designing cities with nature as a basic element of the overall framework of the urban landscape. The concept of green buildings and green spaces are the by-word in the new-look designing of cities with the critical terminology “sustainable cities”.

In their editorial, Alessio and Giuseppe writes that, “ecosystem services evaluation offers a sound foundation for selecting development alternatives, identifying compensation areas, and estimating compensation amounts, with the added advantage of enhancing the environmental quality of the impacted areas” (Land:3).

This analysis is reflective of the many forms of conflicts of interest between State and impacted communities whenever the State(s) decides on a major developmental project or scheme that has tremendous influences on the land, forest, people and biodiversity of a given space.

Developmental alternatives is the essence in which the model is to deviate from the conventional method of project execution in which everything is concretized without consideration of the long term impacts on the land, people and localized biological diversity. For instance, the expansion of a city by encroaching on a wetland or peatland area can drastically reduce the biodiversity in that zone, including threat to extinction of wetland-dependent species, or increase the level of urban heat island.

Karen T. Lourdes et al in their paper, ‘A Review of Urban Ecosystem Services Research in Southeast Asia’ opines thatresearch on urban ecosystem services in the Global South has not been reviewed as systematically as in the Global North (Land:5).

This reference indicates that countries lying in the southern hemisphere are not as well updated as their counterparts in the northern hemisphere with respect to scientific temper and treatment on urban ecosystem services, albeit the cost-benefit analysis of the growing needs to understand the dynamics of growing cities and expanding populations.

The discussions at the global forums appear to be far removed from here when Manipur does not exhibit evidences of policy planning with substantiated scientific temper and far reaching goals. Much of the so-said ‘developmental’ projects and schemes do seem to be stuck in the cauldron of conventional mindset of that typical fable of the frog in the well for whom everything is limited to his miniscule space, neither worried nor aware of the outside world.

Imphal city is mired in its scheme of things under the ‘Smart City’ scheme of affairs, whereas, so far there are hardly any visible output that the planning is in rhyme with the scientific temperament infused for smart urban cities. The focus is understandably to what extent urban ecosystem services can be reasonably derived from the developmental schemes.

Imphal urban area is basically growing unplanned, randomly without any control and oversees by relevant government offices. For example, the Government enacted legislation to control the unwise use and conversion of paddy lands to non-agricultural uses, whereas, agricultural fields and water bodies in the urban and suburban areas had been continuously reclaimed for constructions of private and public structures.

The other element of non-viable urban city planning is seen in the manner in which water bodies in Imphal urban area, specifically the Nambul and Naga rivers, have been neglected to an extent in which hardly any ecosystem services are available or achieved from these water bodies. In fact, Naga Turel is almost dead and the Nambul River is largely polluted and degraded. Lamphelpat and Porompat wetlands in suburban Imphal which are significant for flood moderation and other ecosystem services have been reduced to a status that can be described as ‘dead’.

Coming to a conclusive conclusion, Karen T.Lourdes et al observes that, “Conserving nature and supporting the provision of UES is often more cost effective and practical than restoring degraded ecosystems, so a worthwhile objective for cities in the region is avoiding the loss of natural ecosystems through the consideration of UES in planning” (Lands:18).

This, again, can be seen as suggestive for retaining the near natural status of existing ecosystems rather than endeavouring to re-structure evidently degraded or ‘dead’ ecosystems. It comes back to the question on the urgency for protection and conservation of existing water bodies and wooded pockets in urban areas to serve multiple end benefits in the long term. ‘Building with nature’ is the mantra being promoted by the United Nations on its decade-long campaign on ecosystem restoration.

The Land publication while referring to ecosystem services primarily as the benefits that people obtain from ecosystems, there is an equal emphasis on cultural ecosystem services (CES) which is the non-material benefits that people get from ecosystems. CES are regarded as directly influencing human-wellbeing and having the potential to motivate people’s willingness to protect urban greens.

The cultivation and propagation of bamboo forests in urban spaces as developmental alternative provides green space beneficial to human health while contributing much as carbon sinks. Bamboo forest therapy combined with ecotourism as adopted in Japan can be a learning lesson for Manipur city planners and designers.

(The writer is a media professional working on environmental issues. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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