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Re-inventing Roads is Essential for the Survival of Urban Ecosystems in India

India, a country known for its celebrations and steady economic growth, came to a halt on March 24, 2020, when a nationwide lockdown was implemented to curb the transmission of the Covid-19 virus. While several world leaders have expressed their resentment towards the Chinese Government or accused them of waging a biological war, research shows that climate change may have played a crucial role in the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 which is directly responsible for the pandemic. The coronavirus pandemic is not an isolated event that may have had its origin due to ecological imbalances. According to Dr. Aaron Berstein, Director of Harvard Chan C-CHANGE, deforestation leads to loss of habitat which forces animals to migrate and potentially spread germs thereby increasing the risk of pandemics.

India ranks high both in deforestation and in urbanisation and it is this that may turn out to be detrimental in the long run if urban ecosystems are not given the importance it deserves. India has been steadily urbanising since 1911 and The National Commission on Population has revealed its plans to bring 38.6% or 600 million Indians into the urban space by 2036. To put the magnitude into perspective, India has a forest cover of only 24.56 per cent and is still struggling to meet its target of 33 per cent.

The importance of Urban Ecosystems:

The act of urbanization, unfortunately, involves the destruction of the local environment and the same trend shall continue if efficient environmental policies and sustainability programmes are not introduced to protect the ecosystem of the urban spaces. The urban ecosystem is not only required to battle climate change at large but it has several benefits that people can experience on an individual level. Research states that access to green spaces is not only preferred by urbanites but also has a dominant effect on the social psyche which helps in the development of peaceful social interaction and is a key to the overall improvement of urban life quality.

Kathpalia and Punj, environmental activists, have been protecting Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESAS) across the country despite calls threatening them and their families. They convinced the Ministry of Environments and Forests to declare Murud-Janjira, the Doon Valley, Dahanu, the Aravallis, and several other such green spaces as ESAS. The constant degradation in the life quality of urbanites and the inability of local governing bodies to protect the same led to these citizens taking up this initiative. (Source: Vanishing Ecosystems by Shyam Divan, Economic & Political Weekly EPW MAY 29, 2009 vol xlv no 22)

The role of roads in the Urban Ecosystem:

The most overlooked element of urbanization as well as the element that requires urgent innovation is the network of roads in India. On 20th May, 2020 West Bengal was engulfed by the darkness as a consequence of Amphan. Kolkata observed around 5000 carcasses of its greenery the very next morning. The trees fell not only because of the strong winds but because of the obsession with concretisation. Concretisation not only weakens the foundation of the trees but depletes the rate of groundwater recharge which in turn deprives the trees of the required amount of water. Bengaluru alone has recorded a massive 1028% increase in concretisation. The foundation of the trees gets disturbed, if not completely uprooted, every time a new sewage system line is laid or a road is built. India has the second largest network of roads and almost 25,000 hectares of forests, which is equivalent to twice Chandigarh’s area, are used for “non-forestry activities” every year. The roads, therefore, inherently become non-environment friendly.

The solution to the above problem being “Compensatory Afforestation” is the practice of planting trees to compensate for the loss of forests. Experts criticised compensatory afforestation as an “unscientific” and “flawed concept”. “The loss of forests is not a loss of trees alone but the collapse of an ecosystem”, said Samarpita Roy, an environmental scientist and a research scholar from Pune University. Studies comparing roads with and without trees at twenty different locations in Bangalore have confirmed that streets with trees have an effectively lower temperature, humidity, pollution, road surface temperature and SO2 levels thereby establishing the importance of trees in urban planning to battle microclimatic changes. Hence, restoration of urban ecosystems will fail to thrive unless the existing ecosystem is protected first.

Possible Solutions:

While green roads made from recycled plastics exist in India, it has not been able to solve the issue of tree felling and has given the rise to another equally worrisome problem of microplastics seeping into the underground water table. Certain measures such as the use of porous tiles and the practice of tiling only those pavements which have heavy pedestrian traffic can be put into immediate effect to protect the urban greenery.

A case study on Biophilic Streets Design Framework had been analysed through the four street revitalisation projects: Vitoria-Gasteiz, Berkeley, Portland and Melbourne. Its practical applications have been of enormous benefit to street designers on an international scale. The structures mentioned in The Biophilic Streets Design Framework - tree pits, street trees, linear gardens, pocket parks, bioswales, rain gardens and daylighting streams - can be referred to while introducing green roads in India. Several countries such as Singapore are already being used as examples of “Biophilic Urbanism” for their excellence in blending nature with urbanisation.

The concretisation and the lack of innovation to make roads more nature inclusive can be fatal according to History. As has been mentioned in Civilizations rise and fall on the quality of their soil – “Great civilizations have fallen because they failed to prevent the degradation of the soils on which they were founded. The modern world could suffer the same fate” - one can only predict the unimaginable doom looming over us if these issues are not given priority. Re-inventing roads is a necessity that has the potential to not only protect and restore the urban ecosystems drastically but the battle against the increasing risk of pandemics and climate change on a larger scale.

Sadhika Saha is an aspiring writer based in Kolkata with a keen interest in psychology and sustainability.

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