The Tree as an Urban Coordinate

A mature tree creates a sense of civilisation the way a manicured green belt cannot

The ongoing protests in some of India’s largest cities (these include Delhi and Mumbai) to save natural and not built entities — trees in urban spaces — are remarkable, even though we understand that cities are centres of construction; spaces curated and created mainly by the human hand.

Hundreds of Delhi residents took to the streets in protest against a plan to have 14,000 trees cut for the “redevelopment” of government colonies in South Delhi. In Mumbai, citizens have been fighting for years to save over 2,000 trees in Aarey, slated to be felled for another kind of development — to make way for a metro line car shed.

The idea of an urban tree, one that is outside of a lush forest, does not resonate ecologically as much as a forest or a ‘pristine’ national park. Yet for urban activists protesting for their trees to be saved, the fight is for the tree they can see near their front porch; not one that has been marked for transplantation in unreachable parts of the city.

For them, it is the tree that situates a particular part of the city by becoming an immutable part of the integrity of the landscape.

Laburnum 1
A grand old Delhi tree: the Amaltas

Trees outside a forest

It is well known that forests are invaluable as ecological entities. The UN’s REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries, programme lays emphasis on planting and maintaining forests as a means to counter climate change. In India, forests are governed under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, State laws, and the Indian Forest Act, 1927, which lay down elaborate rules for the conservation and diversion of forests. Despite this, forests are the first targets when it comes to projects such as mining, dams, highways, industrial projects and so on, to be offset by compensatory afforestation. Former Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar once remarked that diversion of forest should be seen as ‘reforestation’. As far as the issue of trees outside forest areas is concerned — city trees — the situation is much worse.

Trees in cities usually come under State Tree Acts; they can have variable descriptions. In Delhi, for example, these are usually avenue or colony trees. In the case of Aarey, it is a green belt or green patch. The monikers of ‘green belts’ or ‘green cover’ suggest a transferable quality in management — that the city would not be worse off if another tree or green belt comes up elsewhere, as long as it is green. Therefore, it is important that urban citizens are fighting to keep city trees where they are. They argue that the age and very place of the tree is an important fulcrum for their activism.

In a sense then, a mature tree creates a sense of civilisation.

Bada Peelu 1
Bada Peelu in Qutab Complex

Shared habitat

As India moves towards more urbanisation, can cities be looked at more as shared habitats between humans and biodiversity, rather than a jungle of buildings? The question, even if not consciously faced through planning strategies, will need to be tackled in one form or the other as cities become progressively more unliveable. With its year-round hazardous air quality and an increase in cars and inhabitants, Delhi is a tough city to live in. Trees in Delhi do not just purify the air; they are also visual relief.

The fact that cities need open spaces and greenery is clear from the number of people crowding parks, be it Central Park in New York or Lodhi Gardens in New Delhi. The earlier wave of tree plantation in Delhi which included Sarojini Nagar, Nauroji Nagar, and Netaji Nagar, marked for redevelopment, have trees beneficial for biodiversity — native and naturalised trees such as neem, banyan, peepal, semal, arjuna, and siris. These large, old trees have become markers for Delhi. Yet, several new constructions in the cities belie these values even though they look green or have green belts. Buildings with basements are made in ways that allow only shallow beds which would not withstand deep-rooted, native trees. In sum, many new apartment complexes have green belts that do very little for biodiversity or the ecological idea of greenery.

Thus the fight for Delhi’s trees is also a fight for the right kind of species to be allowed to grow to the right size; this flies in the face of quickly manicured or manufactured ‘green belts’. It outlines a struggle for cities which have a civilisation of shared meaning and relationships between people and nature. And clearly this relationship comes through size, age and the tree as an optic for a lived, native habitat for birds and wildlife. Urban biodiversity then can be its own form of civilisation — one that our air as well as our urban identity needs desperately.

Golden Flameback
Woodpecker on an old tree.

This first appeared as an oped in The Hindu.

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