Can we imagine a future where every city and its citizens claim a deep connection with its surroundings, history, heritage, culture, knowledge systems and the commons? A future where every individual shares a convivial and compassionate relationship with each other and the rest of nature? A future where its people are taken care of and journey towards a more inclusive and just world? This article seeks to explore some of the activities and processes that can be worked out in a city space from an individual action level to the community level and a governance level to achieve the same, through some of the existing initiatives in the country.
But, why cities? Isn’t such a visioning necessary for any kind of settlement–towns, villages, etc.? Yes, it is. The intention behind drawing attention to cities here is for the following reasons:
Cities, by design, are unsustainable. The resources required to sustain a city—food, water, electricity, material, labour, etc.—are brought or extracted from the suburbs, villages or elsewhere.
Further, the waste generated in cities is dumped elsewhere, affecting the natural ecosystem there.
Internal inequality in terms of access to dignified living conditions, healthcare, mobility and other services are observed to be the highest in cities.
Cities are responsible for more than two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions, fuelling the climate crisis.
It is reported that the number of people in India’s cities will overtake its rural population by 2050, which means the gravity of the situation will only be furthered. In such a scenario, what are the aspects wherein we can improve?
Learning & Education
The homogeneous nature of mainstream school curriculums facilitates varied forms of disconnections for the child. The mode of learning—classroom instruction—further distances the child from their immediate realities and the ecosystem. For someone who has lived in and completed schooling in Thrissur, Kerala, in the ICSE and ISC Boards, it was a late realisation for me that I had had very few chances to learn about Kerala and almost none to learn about Thrissur during schooling. Since then, it has been a self-educative process for me to understand the history and the present times of my city and my state. This realisation I had in my mid-twenties of my limited knowledge of my own city led me to co-create Learning City Thrissur (LCT) to facilitate city-based and context-based explorations, learnings and actions rooted in the local, including local history. But why is an understanding of and connection with one’s own locality really required, one may ask. The simplest answer is that the lack of understanding of and connection with one’s locality/surroundings/region is followed by a lack of ownership and responsibility. In such a scenario, when an ancient tree is cut off or a heritage lake is levelled for “developmental” projects, one wouldn’t feel for it, resist it. It would be just another piece of insignificant “news”. Most children today, living in the cities especially, would easily identify 100 different branded products, but how many trees or plants would they be able to identify? Well, most adults themselves don’t. This distancing from one’s immediate reality is used as a tool to control the population by powers that want us to be passive observers. But by (re)claiming one’s connection with one’s locality—ecology, governance, people—through varied pedagogies and processes, one can (re)claim one’s sense of sovereignty and autonomy too.
Yuvan Aves is a friend whom I keep connecting people with when they come up with the need to create an ecology curriculum. Yuvan is an ecology educator-facilitator-curriculum designer and has been introducing different place-based learning models in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. The 'Urban Wilderness Walks Internship' he hosts via the Madras Naturalists’ Society intends to create a city-wide network of young naturalists, facilitators, and anchor people around urban ecology. They dream to shift the city's culture towards one of eco-literacy and belonging, with its public ingraining the values of care for and interest in its ecosystem. The Wilderness is a card game based on ecology Yuvan and his friends have released through the Palluyir Trust, to familiarise people with local biodiversity, different habitats and the ecological roles of various species.
LCT hosts Thrissur City Connect, a programme for young adults of Thrissur to (re)establish their connection and relationship with their city. It is an interactive exploration where the group delves into multiple areas such as elements of history, heritage, localisation, active citizenry, pop culture, waste management, gendered lenses of the city and more, with activities intended to bring one closer to Thrissur and also to oneself. LCT identifies that integrating these different aspects in school and college curricula is a desirable future to ensure knowledge democracy.
A city where learning and self-education are seen as lifelong processes, one that keeps exploration at the centre of learning and has diverse spaces for this exploration to happen will be an alive city. These spaces that enable learning include spaces for recreation and expression, spaces to gather and meet, and spaces to listen, share and tell stories. Urban Sketchers Thrissur is a growing community that meets every Sunday in different parts of the city to sketch places. It is one such space which proves that sketching can be a fun and mindful activity to build one’s connection with their city.
Urban communities are heavily dependent on external sources for their food, most often on produce from rural areas. While there exist practical difficulties for cities to produce the entire food it requires, there are various successful attempts to localise food production and distribution within city spaces to the extent possible and weave communities around food. The local food system in Pondicherry was initiated by the French Institute of Pondicherry (IFP) in 2018 and the process now is taken forward with the active involvement of various other individuals and collectives in the bioregion. Their intention is to build a collaborative network that integrates sustainable food production, processing, distribution, and consumption to enhance Pondicherry’s environmental, economic, and social health. They have been facilitating urban farming and community gardening, finding markets for natural/organic produce and nudging more farmers to pursue natural/organic farming. Along with creating producer-consumer linkages—connecting farmers directly with consumers for the sale of the produce through e-commerce and farmers’ markets —they also conduct visits to farms for the consumers to understand the practices of farming, the values the farmers hold on to, the challenges they face, etc. Local procurement is another area they work on, connecting farmers to restaurants, cafeterias and canteens in Pondicherry. A possibility they see within this is the vegetables being cleaned, cut and peeled at the farm level and then transported to the restaurants so that the organic waste generated remains in the farm, thus adding to its nutrition and also resulting in lesser waste for the city to manage.
The Gurgaon Organic Farmer’s Market was established in 2014 with the intention of creating a local clean food ecosystem to make chemical-free, nutrition-rich, food accessible to all. The market is hosted every Saturday and Sunday, with both farmers and stores setting up their stalls, and prices being determined by the farmers themselves. Anant Mandi in Bhopal is a similar initiative where they bring organic producers together for the city’s consumer base. Bhoomi College in Bangalore hosts the Bhoomi Santhe every first and third Saturday. These markets are usually accompanied by various workshops, cultural activities, discussions and dialogues, etc., thus making the environment even more lively and vibrant.
The KeralaSree Agro Hyper Bazaar established in Thrissur in 2017 by the Department of Agriculture Development and Farmers’ Welfare was the first-of-its-kind initiative in India where a state government has set up a hypermarket for farmers’ produce to decrease the distance between producers and consumers. KeralaSree sources vegetables, rice, oils and other produce from societies, and farmers' groups which are either functioning under the government or operating with government aid, ensuring there is no pesticide residue. There is also a facility within the bazaar for organic producers from the city to directly sell their produce. Apart from Thrissur, the KeralaSree agro bazaars have been set up in Thiruvananthapuram and Ernakulam so far, and the state government intends to expand it to more districts.
The Organic Farmers’ Market in Chennai, Kitchen Gardeners Association in Bhubaneswar, Beejotsav in Nagpur, etc. are decade-old initiatives that are building conscious communities centred around food in different forms and formats. Some of the underlying aspects of consciousness when it comes to food are about understanding what we eat and where it comes from, who created it, what is in it, etc., which the mentioned initiatives actively work towards building. These initiatives also remind us about the importance of achieving food sovereignty as local as possible. The COVID-19 pandemic has also shown us that communities that worked on achieving food sovereignty were more resilient than others during times of crisis. Many such stories have been documented in the Extraordinary Work of Ordinary People series by Vikalp Sangam.
As someone who has grown up seeing waste lying around in my city and having seen huge landfills in all the big cities I’ve travelled to and lived in, the questions—what efforts go behind keeping a city clean, who takes the effort, who all should be taking the effort, where does the city’s waste end up, whom does it affect, etc.—are what I have tried to engage with for the last few years. While Alappuzha in Kerala stands as a model for the country in responsible waste management, I would like to offer an overview of the waste management practices in Thrissur, a model I have closely come in touch with and tried to understand, by the virtue of my living here and facilitating the LCT process.
Until 2011, for decades, the solid waste generated in Thrissur municipality, without any segregation, used to be dumped in the trenching ground in Laloor, a few kilometres outside the city, creating a huge landfill. As the landfill started affecting the soil, groundwater and air in the locality and the nearby residents started facing immense health issues, a series of protests started taking shape, following which the city for the first time thought about managing its waste responsibly. Different experiments followed with the municipal corporation taking the lead, a process which is still evolving, with the hope of turning the city into a zero-waste one by 2023. For achieving the same, a number of Haritha Karma Sena (HKS) initiatives (local self-help groups) supported by the corporation are in place. While the organic—biodegradable and kitchen—waste is to be managed at the source, the inorganic—plastic, paper, metal, glass, etc.—waste is to be handed over to the HKS that operates in one’s respective ward. The HKS collects inorganic waste from houses and shops at a nominal rate of Rs. 70 per month. This inorganic waste is then segregated into 16 different types at the Material Collection Facilities and managed appropriately. Recyclable waste in itself is categorised differently according to its grade and sold to the respective industries. Non-recyclable waste is shredded and either sent to cement-making companies for use as fuel or used during tarring of roads. To manage organic waste at source or household level, various kinds of composting units—pot compost, ring compost, bio-digester, bio-bin, and portable biogas plant—are provided at subsidised rates. The three organic waste convertors (OWC) set up in different parts of the city make large-scale conversion of organic waste to manure possible. This organic manure is then marketed by various government bodies such as Kerala Forest Research Institute, Kerala Agriculture University, Department of Agriculture, etc., while the public is also free to buy them directly from the OWC plants. Thumboormuzhi compost units have been set up in apartments and housing colonies for community-level composting. The legacy waste at Laloor landfill has now been biomined and the building of an indoor stadium with a football stadium, hockey stadium, and tennis court is currently in progress at the former trenching ground.
The above information was gathered from a study I did along with my friend Sukanya Venugopal, who is also a co-creator of LCT. While there are attempts in positive directions in waste management in Thrissur which other cities too can emulate, what will make it a success will be ensuring community participation and ownership, with attempts towards reducing the generation of waste in the first place.
Relationship with animals
What would a city-dweller’s relationship with animals, the strays that scavenge its food from humps of litter, be? In my experience, the majority population’s relationship with stray animals involves fear and disregard. While there are initiatives that provide rescue and shelter to affected animals, a more conscious attempt to reimagine our relationship with them is to be undertaken, to treat them with love and compassion, for it is their world too. People for Animal Welfare Services (PAWS) in Thrissur is an initiative that works in this direction. Even though a major chunk of their time goes into animal rescue, both strays and pets, they actively work towards building a compassionate relationship between humans and animals through their volunteer programmes. Preethi Sreevalsan, the founder of PAWS, is vocal about sensitising people, especially children and youth to animal welfare. Facilitating interaction with animals and exposure visits for schools and colleges can help build this to an extent, she asserts. Prani - The Pet Sanctuary in Bengaluru is one fine initiative that offers experiential learning in this regard. Active measures are to be taken to ensure humans are not affected or disadvantaged by the existence of these animals too.
And what about the wild beings who inhabit the city? The existence of some of these beings is central to the existence of our ecosystem, like butterflies, whose abundance can be directly linked to a thriving ecosystem. The role they serve is varied, from pollination to being indicators for climate change. Creating space for butterfly gardens and parks can ensure their protection. Ovalekar Wadi Butterfly Garden in Thane is such a fine space I have had the opportunity to explore, which is home to over 130 species of butterflies. The Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network in Chennai, most commonly known as the Chennai Sea Turtle group, and active for over three decades, work towards the conservation and awareness building of the endangered Olive Ridley sea turtle. These initiatives remind us that cities and city folks have an important role to play in the conservation and wellbeing of the rest of nature.
Civic consciousness & Governance
A city where its citizens display a strong sense of community and togetherness is an indicator of a thriving city, as it further leads to affirmative actions rooted in civic consciousness. Cultivating civic consciousness helps communities (re)claim their agency to bring change. The Community Connect initiative by Blue Ribbon Movement (BRM) in Mumbai nurtures active citizenship in youth to inspire civic action. They engage with the youth in Mumbai through short-term and long-term programmes such as Community Connect Act-a-thon, Community Connect Challenge and Community Connect Fellowship, and the process involves building awareness, increasing knowledge and empowering youth with skills and leadership tools to take action. This is then followed by engaging with the urban local bodies to build collaborative governance systems. BRM, in collaboration with SwaCardz, have designed a card game, Aamchi Mumbai, to explore one’s connection with the city, and uses the cards to engage with the public to collectively reimagine the city of their dreams.
Citizens for Bengaluru is a grassroots people's movement that originally came together to stop the VIP steel flyover project in 2016, which would have cost the lives of over 800 trees in the city. They communicated with the world in different ways—through social media, online petitions, press club meetings, etc.—and organised a ‘Beda (No) ballet’ where they collected people’s votes by keeping ballet boxes in public places. Daylong satyagrahas with music and art sessions were conducted, which included children creating art and communicating with the public on why the steel flyover was harmful to the rest of nature, successfully forcing the state government to scrap the project. Citizens for Bengaluru has so far initiated various participatory movements on matters related to the environment, policy, citizenship issues, violence against women, etc. One of their major interventions is around promoting public transport as the alternative to address the dual problems of traffic and pollution.
Civic consciousness and governance are aspects that mutually feed into each other. While a strong civic sense can aid good governance, governance that favours the needs of its people can establish an active citizenry. But what are these needs, considering the heterogeneity and the realities of the population? They can be articulated as access to safe and healthy environments and the ability to live a dignified and joyous life, in which the public infrastructure has a pivotal role to play.
Universal healthcare, education and housing, systems that facilitate mobility, access to food and nutrition, and measures to ensure the dignity of labour are areas where our cities still need to strive for. We have witnessed the vulnerability faced by the under-resourced, the financially unsound, and the migrant labourers, during the COVID-19 pandemic. If we are to be prepared for a crisis in future, affirmative actions are required to strengthen the public systems and community-driven alternatives to privately owned systems. A resilient city would have plans in place for energy, climate action, facilitation of the local economy and livelihood generation. A joyous city would also have cycle tracks, walkways, parks, libraries, play areas for children, and recreation spaces for the elderly.
Urban Commons & Reimagining Cities
Commons are the shared gifts, the cultural and natural resources we receive, or have access to, as members of any society. In a city space, the commons will include natural materials like air, public spaces like parks, living heritage like trees and lakes, etc. But any of this shall be considered truly commons when the citizens are involved in political action around it – asserting rights for clean air, (re)claiming access for all to public spaces, conserving living heritage, etc. This means that life in a city can be much more just, equitable and harmonious if we work towards commons. The act of commoning involves public participation at large, which includes governing, making decisions, monitoring and being accountable for the resources in the commons. Thus, working towards the commons is a way to abate loneliness and alienation in a time characterised by hyper-individualisation and private ownership. A way to resist subjugation, resist capitalism, the concentration of power, resources, access and ability in the hands of a few.
Pink City Feminist, a feminist community and a citizen action group in Jaipur hosts a series of walks, ‘Reclaim the Night’, to make the city a safer place for everyone, by occupying and celebrating public spaces. The group also conducts Public events—sharing circles, dining table conversations and film screenings—on gendered experiences to dismantle patriarchy. LCT hosts its sharing circles and gatherings in public spaces in Thrissur as an act of reclaiming the commons. City Sabha in Delhi works towards creating active and usable public places by engaging with the public and local governments. Rethink City is a platform dedicated to sharing cases and reports about marginalised people’s access to the city.
The Urban Futures programme by the People’s Resource Centre conducts research and publishes proposals and commentaries on what an alternative model of development can look like in cities in order to create conditions for resilient urban systems. The INHAF Habitat Forum hosts the Rethinking Cities webinar series that evaluates urban challenges and explores responses to the same. The Third Eye is a feminist think tank working on the intersections of gender, sexuality, violence, technology and education. Their documentation series on cities is a valuable resource for individuals, collectives, civil society organisations and policymakers to understand the plurality and heterogeneity of lived experiences in cities.
These initiatives are a testimony that alternatives to the exclusionary, non-participatory and unequal models are possible in cities. That inclusive and harmonious ways of doing and being are possible in our cities. That we can build cities of hope.
Originally published on Vikalp Sangam in October 2022: https://vikalpsangam.org/article/reimagining-cities/