Urban parks have long been recognised for their aesthetic value and for their role in improving the quality of crowded city neighbourhoods. Only recently however, are public parks and gardens being termed ‘essential infrastructure’ in urban landscapes because of their extended social and environmental benefits. As spaces for play, recreation and relaxation, the role of parks in enhancing physical and mental well-being is probably their most obvious benefit.
Well-managed parks also act as free and inclusive meeting spaces for citizens of all socio-economic backgrounds, gender and age to come together. They are sites where communities are built and social bonds strengthened. In rapidly urbanising environments, the few remaining green spaces are treasured havens of nature and biodiversity, and sites to manage waste, conserve water and build environmental resilience. Surely, there must be a (very large) number that one can put to measure the economic benefits of better health, safe, accessible public spaces, clean air and fewer floods.
Urban parks are also the very definition of ‘mixed land use’ that the Modi Government’s flagship Smart City Mission aspires to, but it remains to be seen if parks, not parking lots, is what the Mission will reward.
A sensory feast
The Udaan Biodiversity Park in Pune’s Viman Nagar is a great example of mixed land use. The park rubs shoulders with an airport, sky high apartment complexes, a mall, several offices and commercial establishments, and the majestic 19th century Aga Khan Palace. The 2-acre garden, in what was once barren, rocky landscape, was designed and developed in 2012 by Zensar Foundation (now RPG Foundation) in partnership with the Pune Municipal Corporation. Udaan was developed as a space for education, relaxation, recreation and more, offering something for everyone. Today it is a biodiverse ecosystem that serves as a useful, open space for the local community. “The idea for a biodiversity park came up because mere park maintenance did not appeal to us. We wanted to do something more; to create a nature and education-friendly space that would evolve with time,” explains Sharada Singh, who oversees CSR at Zensar Foundation.
The park is divided into six sections, each showcasing native species of plants. They’re all easy to relate to: either you’ve seen them as dried, powdered ingredients in your kitchen, as contents in your cosmetics or they’ve been an integral part of your grandmother'’s arsenal of home remedies. For me, a walk through the park is a lesson in botany accompanied by a big wave of nostalgia. I follow the instructions on the signs and bend down and put a stevia leaf in my mouth, savouring its mild sweetness. I move on, pore over the information on the signs, and absent-mindedly chew on a leaf from the neighbouring plot. Suddenly, like a bolt of lighting, a strange, tingling feeling takes over my mouth. It begins with an explosion on my tongue and spreads in veins through the rest of my body; it's unlike anything I've ever tasted before. I’ve just encountered the innocent-looking crimson and yellow buds of akarkara (Anacyclus pyrethrum), a plant whose root is used in Ayurveda to treat a variety of ailments.
A walk through the park is an interactive experience and a party for the senses. There are colourful shrubs, flowers and butterflies; aromatic medicinal herbs and common spices; the sounds of birdsong, the gurgling of water and the unmistakable crunch of dry leaves underfoot; and of course, all the plucking, crushing, tasting of flowers and leaves I’m doing at the park authority’s urging.
An integrated ecosystem
In one shaded corner, there’s a leaf-shredder at work and two vermicompost pits, and I learn that all the garden’s waste is turned into compost by the gardening staff and fed back into the soil. This has completely eliminated their dependence on chemical fertilisers and pest repellants. Plant beds are regularly mulched with dry leaves to retain moisture and reduce the frequency of watering.
I stop and taste 3 different kinds of basil, inhale the fragrance of the marwa (Origanum majorana) and learn that galangal leaves are just as fragrant as the root, before moving on to a bed of Chinese chives which smell of both garlic and onion and keep pests away.
The latest addition to the park is the community farm - 6 plots tended by citizen farmers from Viman Nagar. Ranging from 6 to 60 in age, the group, formed in 2016 with 20 members, began with very little knowledge of edible gardening. They spent weeks determining the perfect medium for their crops, trying various combinations of soil and different kinds of compost, before finally zeroing in on soil and kitchen compost! So, they began carrying their kitchen waste to be composted at the park.
Today, they are 60 members strong and have harvested tens of kilos of food - bitter gourds, pumpkins, tomatoes, greens, chillies, mango ginger (ambe halad) and more. What’s harvested is shared among the group along with recipes and remedies.
The park maintains a nursery of useful, edible plants and visitors are encouraged to take home saplings to propagate them in their own home gardens. The saplings sit not in nursery bags but in empty milk packets sent over from the company’s canteen. In 2017, the park gave away more than 2,700 free saplings to eager citizen gardeners giving them a tangible way to take a piece of the park into their homes.
At the centre of the park is a pond fashioned out of some of the original boulders from the park. It shelters a micro-habitat for fish, insects, birds and aquatic plants. Beside it is a small patch of millet and maize that attracts hungry birds. As we walk along the pond, Sharada explains the interesting way in which the park gets its water: a neighbouring stormwater drain serves as its primary water source. Stormwater is pumped into the pond where a simple but sophisticated water treatment system containing gravel and clay removes foul odour and bacteria, and aerates the water before it is disseminated throughout the park. An unforeseen side effect? The fish droppings become a source of valuable nitrate for the plants!
Many rare, threatened and endangered plant species grow in the park including shindel makudi (Frerea indica), a small succulent endemic to Maharashtra and once listed by IUCN as one of the earth’s most endangered plants. A memorial to extinct plant species is a grim reminder of the quick but quiet disappearance of biodiversity in India.
In 2017, Udaan conducted its first citizen assessment of the park’s biodiversity. Visitors turned surveyors to document a remarkable rise in faunal and floral species over the previous year: 188 plant species belonging to 70 botanical families were recorded, including 10 belonging to the rare, endangered and threatened category. They found 74 faunal species and 21 species of birds. 8 new-to-the-park butterfly species brought the total butterfly count up to 25.
Watching nature and science in action
Whether you're a photographer, avid birder, student on an interactive botany excursion, or designer looking for inspiration, there’s always something new to learn from a visit to Udaan Biodiversity Park. It could be observing food webs in the park or discovering that mandukaparni (Centella asiatica) works excellently as an alternative ground cover to lawn. Nearly all the plants in the park are native to Maharashtra, and hence immediately recognisable to many visitors. In the monsoon, the park’s woody gulvel (Tinospora cordifolia ) creeper is in demand for its twigs which are a cure for fever. Come July and the bare, skeletal stems of panphuti (Bryophyllum pinnatum), a favourite host plant of the Red Pierrot butterflies, draw curious crowds.
A variety of sustainability workshops conducted by the park - on composting, urban farming, carbon footprint calculation - bring experts, passionate environmentalists and others citizens together. Regular guided tours are arranged for educational institutions. “We’ve shown with Udaan that it is possible to create a biodiverse space in the heart of a city where many different species of flora and fauna co-exist, one that is freely accessible to all sections of society,” says Sharada Singh, Head of Zensar CSR whose involvement with the park goes back to its inception. I leave feeling that the park is very close to achieving its stated goals of deepening the human-nature connect, creating a biodiverse environment that supports various ecosystems, and serving as a habitat for urban wildlife.
No walk in the park
The question of the park’s long-term sustainability is something that Zensar Foundation tried to incorporate into its efforts from the very beginning. Building similar parks across Pune and in other cities is operationally intensive and limited in scale. They believe instead in enabling the replication of this model by citizens, private entities and governments on a larger scale. To this end, they work in close collaboration with PMC officials who visit the park regularly, supply saplings and most encouragingly, are replicating the example of planting native species in public parks in Pune with a view to conserving water, reducing time and costs of maintenance, and improving survival rates. At the same time, the focus is on building the capacities of the park’s on-ground staff whose traditional knowledge of indigenous plants and sustainable farming practices makes the park the integrated ecosystem it is. Equally important is for communities to need and use the space, and want to preserve it.
Over the world, as cities expand and the value of green, open spaces is being re-examined, a system of public-private partnership is emerging as the preferred model to create green infrastructure, with New York’s Central Park probably the oldest and most successful (and critiqued) example. In instances of privatisation and corporate control over the commons, much of how these spaces or services are designed and used is dependent on the interests, motives and knowhow of the private entity and how well it agrees with their larger business goals. But in an era when the world’s social and environmental problems are too grand for the public or private sectors to tackle alone, could the pooling of the public sector’s resources and policymaking prowess and the financial and intellectual of the private sector, together with community custodianship, be one way to revitalise urban environments and enable people to enjoy a richer quality of life?
Featured image: Ashwagandha or winter cherry has numerous health benefits and is sometimes an ingredient in cosmetics. Source: Wikipedia Commons
Maya is a social researcher by training. Her writing has appeared in Scroll, YourStory and The Alternative. She is the Founder of Eartha and tweets @Maya_Kilpadi.