In the past 50 years, green space in Bengaluru has declined from about 70% to what is expected to be less than 3% in 2020, per research conducted in 2017 by the Indian Institute of Science. Meanwhile, within the same time span, Singapore has seen a reverse trajectory - from being a congested city with slums, open sewers, and economic decline to a city with high density modern infrastructure and over 45% green space. One of the main reasons for Singapore’s success in urban greening can be attributed to the prioritization of sustainability and livability by the city-nation’s government right from the beginning, after its independence in 1965.

The rapid decline of green space in Bengaluru over the past decades can be directly linked to a host of other urban sustainability and livability issues such as decreased air quality, reduced groundwater retention, biodiversity loss, increasing urban heat island, low walkability, and higher incidences of public health issues. Currently, Bengaluru has about 2.2 square meters of parks and playgrounds per person, which is less than 25% of the area recommended by the World Health Organization for maintenance of basic ecosystem services to sustain society. The IISc study also states that respiratory carbon offset alone requires 8 trees per person, whereas Bengaluru currently has 1 tree per 7 persons.

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India’s commitment per the Paris Climate Agreement is to create an additional carbon sink for 2.5-3 billion tonnes of CO2 by 2030. In line with this commitment, the National Forest Policy of 2018 seeks to bring a third of India’s total land area under tree cover, and advocates for the promotion of urban greens on “mission mode”. The Karnataka State Tree Cover Enhancement Policy of 2016 as well, includes guidelines to increase tree cover to 33%. However, these international, national, and state commitments fail to reflect in our city level planning, and Bengaluru lacks a land-use based metric to advance urban greening. The IISc report mentioned above concluded that a minimum of one-third of Bengaluru’s land area would need to be green space in order to ensure the basic ecosystem services needed to sustain our current population.

Recently, the Bangalore Political Action Committee (B.PAC) hosted a roundtable, Aralikatte Charchegalu, on increasing urban green space in Bengaluru. The discussion was attended by representatives from the government, research organisations, citizen groups, and civic organisations. Echoing the above case for a land-use based target, many of them expressed that their biggest challenge to the urban afforestation efforts in the city is finding the land to do the planting, and then finding the community support to maintain the saplings and ensure success rate. Perhaps, following India’s climate action goals, our state level policy, and research, a mandate to allocate a third of urban land to green cover by 2030 would be a well-defined, maybe ambitious, but imperative goal.

Bridging the gap between challenging ground realities and necessary ideals calls for a bold and comprehensive city level vision for greening the city by 2030. Firstly, as discussed above, we will need to establish a land-use-based target to ensure transparency and accountability in meeting our urban greening goals. The vision will also need to be integrative and science based - leaning on multiple disciplines and sectors to ensure that we can create a healthy, resilient, and successful urban-natural ecosystem. Laws, policies, and guidelines will need to be strengthened to increase protections for existing green spaces, and the capacities of the forestry departments will need to mirror the weight we give this mission as a city.  Ecosystem diversity and connectivity in urban forests will need to be prioritised, and combined with other green infrastructure interventions such as green roofs, private gardens, vertical gardens, and pollinator habitats. Improved coordination and collaboration between government departments - such as the Karnataka State/BBMP Forestry Departments and KPTCL/BESCOM, and also between the government and the real estate industry, research organisations, and citizen groups will be critical to ensuring success. Education and community ownership will be crucial, especially in the post-planting maintenance phase to ensure that the ecosystem survives and thrives. Accountability will need to be built into the visioning and implementation plan to include performance based third party evaluations and continuous review. Finally, the comprehensive vision will need an equally substantial action plan that translates city level green master planning goals to ward level micro plans that can be advanced at the local neighborhood level by corporators, citizens, and local organisations. Ultimately, a combination of thoughtful planning, collaboration, aggressive action, and performance-based evaluation can lead this city towards planning with common sense that puts livability first.

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As it stands today, the Bengaluru Development Authority’s Master Plan for 2031 does not include any ambitious vision for increasing green space, let alone other critical environmental interventions. In fact, many of the ecological buffer zones mandated by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) are under threat of development. Further, NGT’s order to increase ecological buffer zones around lakes was reversed by the Supreme Court following appeals from the government and real estate industry. Before finalisation by the new government, it is absolutely necessary to include an ambitious greening goal if Bengaluru hopes to compete with other global cities in terms of providing quality of life for its citizens.

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations conducted a study of successful urban greening initiatives by cities in different contexts around the world and discovered a range of innovative strategies employed. Some recurring strategies include strong leadership at the city level and systematic inclusion of greening in planning and infrastructure development considerations, as well as robust engagement and stewardship from citizens, academics, and other local stakeholders. Every city that has taken on a greening strategy has seen direct economic benefits - in addition to multiple social, environmental, and indirect unquantifiable benefits, which incentivises them to sustain and grow their efforts. Bengaluru will need a combination of both these approaches to accomplish ambitious greening goals.

B.PAC will continue to research, organise, advocate, and act on the city level goal for a green Bengaluru by 2030. We invite interested collaborators to reach us at sumedha@bpac.in.

(Sumedha Rao is the Program Coordinator for Environment and Sustainability Programs at the Bangalore Political Action Committee (B.PAC). Contact: sumedha@bpac.in )