Biodiversity in Bangalore: Considering the value of “weeds” in the Garden City

Written By Daniel Phillips

As urban ecologists and landscape designers, we like to view cities as complex, messy ecosystems. One of the phenomena we seek to understand is the growth of “spontaneous” urban vegetation.  What makes vegetation spontaneous you may ask?  These are the cosmopolitan species that are growing outside of the radar of cultivation, and human intention.  They spring up in the cracks of sidewalks, and the niches of urban flyovers. They are un-maintained, and sometimes unwanted, and yet thrive all around us.

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Spontaneous aquatic vegetation within a nallah near Ulsoor Lake (Photo Credit: Daniel Phillips)

Bangalore—or the “Garden City” as it’s sometimes referred to—offers a complex and rapidly expanding urban ecosystem in which to explore these issues at many scales. Because of its year-round growing climate and sprawling urban conditions, Bangalore offers an ideal context in which to explore spontaneous vegetation as it occurs within empty lots, medians, sidewalks and other in-between spaces. One of our favorite modes of inquiry is to walk the city in search of opportunistic plants.On a recent walk in the neighborhood of Kodigehalli, we observed 17 species of spontaneous species, including local natives such as Peepal (Ficus religiosa) and Crown flower (Calotropis gigantea).We collect and tag these observations using citizen science smartphone applications such as iNaturalist and India Biodiversity Portal.

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Daniel collecting a sample of a Crown Flower plant (Calotropis gigantea) (Photo Credit: Kim Karlsrud)

Beyond merely documenting where and how they’re growing, we also try to to understand their role and value within the urban ecosystem.  Despite their scrappy or unsightly appearance, many of the spontaneous plant communities that we observe along our roadsides, within vacant lots and alleyways are already actively involved in a number of beneficial “ecosystem services”, including the absorption of particulate pollution from car exhaust, active remediation of contaminated soils and water, increase in localized biodiversity, provision of food to local pollinators, and the reduction of urban heat-islands.  Better understanding of the services provided by these novel ecosystems is of particular and urgent relevance in the context of large scale urban challenges, where environmental contaminants and inhospitable conditions pose imminent risks to human health and quality of life.

Conducting this work with within the culture of ATREE has already had profound reverberations within our professional and personal life.  Working with the dynamic and capable scientists of ATREE’s water and soil lab, we are able to supplement our expertise in design with rigorous scientific tools and skillsets. Gaining access to these new voices and perspectives has not only helpedthe development of the project at hand, but the ways in which we think about the context of our creative and intellectual pursuits in a broader global context. We’ve already met many new friends and continue to be struck by the warmth and encouragement of the community in south India. Thanks to the ATREE community, we are looking forward to continuing this work in the coming months (and years)!  You can view more of our work and progress at www.thecommonstudio.com

About the Author:

Daniel Phillips is a landscape architect and urban ecologist. His interests in the contemporary issues of the human habitat have fueled a range of self-initiated research and design projects across many scales and urban contexts. He is the co-founder of COMMONStudio, a collaborative creative practice. Their work has been recognized by Core77, Fast Company, The Buckminster Fuller Institute, and exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Venice Design Biennale. Daniel is currently immersed in a 2016-2017 Fulbright-Nehru design research grant in Bangalore in partnership with ATREE.

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