Ecosystems comprise biotic and abiotic elements functioning together as a unit. The theme of this year's World Environment Day, on 5th June, is Ecosystem Restoration. World Environment Day is an occasion to create awareness about the need and urgency for preserving environmental resources, and has been celebrated since the year 1972, when the United Nations adopted it.
Deforestation, forest degradation, freshwater depletion, material extraction, overfishing, unplanned industrial expansion, and urban sprawl, etc. have unfortunately pushed many ecosystems to the brink. Given our dependencies on these ecosystems, this is perilous for human wellbeing and existence.
Ecosystem restoration involves preventing, halting, and reversing the degradation of ecosystems. World leaders and influencers would give a clarion call once again this 5th June highlighting this interconnectedness between us and the ecosystems that sustain us. It is upon each one of us, as we may still make it work! 5th June 2021 will also mark the launch of UN's Decade for Ecosystem Restoration 2021-30.
I was quite intrigued about one of the ecosystems that stood out for me, while going through the details of this year's World Environment Day – and thought of writing this piece around it. This ecosystem is closely impacted by and impacts many of us on a day-to-day basis, yet gets ignored often in sustainability discourses – urban ecosystems. The theme page of the world environment day recognises this need and perhaps also our oblivion, hence a drop-down on urban ecosystems highlights the need for greater attention towards resilient urbanisation.
Nearly two-third of the world's population and rising reside in urban areas and depends on 70-75 per cent of natural resources in some way or the other. The impact of consumption (patterns) and economic activities based out of urban agglomerations have their imprint far beyond the city limits.
Resilience is the ability of a system to resist, absorb, accommodate or recover from the effects of hazards in a timely and efficient manner. The resilience framework (below) provides a continuum that moves from coping to adaptive to transformative responses to hazards and shocks. Experts believe when systems are exposed to such changes in the external environment, could lead to responses in one of these three ways: coping, adapting, or transforming. The important thing is for all systems (institutions, societies) to be built with capabilities to respond in all these areas, depending on the nature and magnitude of a particular hazard or shock.
UN Environment Programme (UNEP) recommends four characteristics and twelve factors critical for building resilient urbanisation:
Leadership & Strategy
- Integrated development planning
- Effective leadership and management
- Broad range of stakeholders empowered
Health & Wellbeing
- Minimal human vulnerability
- Diverse livelihood and employment
- Safeguard to human life and health
Infrastructure & Environment
- Reliable communications and mobility
- Continuity of critical services
- Reduced physical exposure of natural and manmade assets
Economy & Society
- Economic prosperity and availability of financial resources and contingency funds
- Social stability, security and justice
- Collective identity and mutual support within communities
Resilient Urbanisation in India
Urban areas in India are prone to various social, environmental, political, cultural hazards that affect particularly the most vulnerable urban denizens including women, children, specially-abled and the elderly. Problems of vehicular air pollution, mobility, road accidents, poor sewerage and sanitation, lack of street lighting, safety of women, etc. are some of the most common hazards in our cities. According to an IDFC Institute report 2019, Indian cities contribute anything between 59-70% to the GDP in spite of these hazards and are likely to remain hotbeds of economic activity. Strengthening the resilience of Indian cities will not only help them in responding to these hazards now and in the future, but also ensure that people and the States benefit from their economic activities and growth.
What are some ways to help Indian urban areas strengthen their capability to cope, adapt and transform in response to the nature and magnitude of the above hazards?
The IDFC 2019 report underlines the lack of finance, expertise, personnel in urban local bodies. There are a number of cases of how urban local bodies partnered with citizens' groups in reforming various urban ecosystems in India, including Dehradoon, Surat, Delhi, Pune among others.
Greater attention has to be accorded to design initiatives that enable effective citizen engagement to build urban resilience and restore urban ecosystems. While various schemes and initiatives have been designed by the government to promote urbanisation, the opportunity to involve citizens and resident groups have been a feature of the Smart Cities Mission initiative. SCM requires the development of Smart City Proposal (SCP) involving consultations with citizens. However, the nature and quality of citizens' engagement in this process has varied considerably.
Assessments undertaken by specialised agencies and organisations highlight some key elements for making citizen's engagement in urban reforms effective, viz. engagement of citizens in urban planning to be outcome-oriented; ensure better visibility of municipalities initiatives on urban reforms for citizens; use technology to improve the efficacy of citizens participation and impacts, etc., The National Urban Digital Mission (NUDM) launched end-February 2021 is a step in the right direction, creating a digital infrastructure for cities in India, to enable more effective citizen participation in making our cities sustainable and resilient. Initiatives like Engaging People for Inclusive Cities (EPIC) that bring the public, private sector and civil society together raise hope and expectations.
The Sustainable Development Goal 11 (SDG 11) emphasises on making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. One of the targets, SDG target 11.3 calls all countries to "…enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanisation and capacity for participatory, integrates and sustainable human settlement planning and management…". The national SDGs indicators framework for India, doesn't include an indicator to assess the level of or effectiveness of citizens' participation in the planning and management of our cities.
Urban communities and stakeholders in India have played leading roles in making their surroundings a better place. Efforts are needed to see how people/citizens can shape the future of our cities – working together with the urban local body, private sector, colleges and universities and other key stakeholders to make this happen. There are compelling reasons why they would be interested. An enabling and supporting environment should be created to encourage, support and measure our advancement towards people-centric urban resilience across Indian cities.
We all have to be involved in restoring this ecosystem that sustains us and our families. Our time is running out.