World Environment Day thoughts: Can our cities adopt and uphold a new normal?


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Today, 7.8 billion people celebrate the World Environment Day amidst circumstances that are far rare and different from anything we’ve been through − we have been massively hit by a pandemic, the economy faces a sharp slowdown, swarms of locusts have destroyed food crops in the Middle East, the horn of Africa and many states in India, fires have burnt down million hectares of forests worldwide, ocean temperatures are rising and cyclones have become frequent and fierce destroying cities in a matter of hours and impacting urban services and infrastructure.

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Our rivers and oceans have become a plastic soup, many species have become extinct due to habitat loss; many developing countries are grappling with the issue of safer sanitation and hygiene.

I often question whether this is what ‘going forward’ means, or if we have, in fact, taken many steps back.

We cannot conserve or mend our wrong doings to the environment in a day, we need to sit back, go to the blackboard and chalk out plans which are circular, sustainable, affordable, inclusive and effective.

We need to redesign our cities and address urban fragility in order to reduce and mitigate risks. We need to shift from the use, take, make, throw away models to circularity.

For instance, look at resource (waste) management. What is clear is that sustainable models are reduced to pilots in smaller cities, however, I highly recommend that we upscale and replicate the success stories. What if Delhi adopted what Panchgani and Ambikapur are doing in at least 10 of its wards? It could be a game changer.

What is stopping our cities from doing it? Metropolitans need hybrid models, a mix of centralized and decentralised. That’s the way to go forward.

We need to design cities that are pedestrian friendly just as we need policymakers to push for cleaner mobility options to curb vehicular pollution. We need to have state/city plans and strategies based on participatory governance with active involvement of civic groups, community-based organisations, self-help groups, private sector amongst others.

Decentralised governance and practices are the key to effective environmental responses in cities, especially during disasters, and we must draw our learnings from the Kerala model.  

What if Delhi adopted what Panchgani and Ambikapur are doing in at least 10 of its wards? It could be a game changer.

Also, we need to move beyond the concrete jungles that our cities have become. We all run to the mountains to absorb nature, but why not re-design our cities into green spaces? Urban greening needs to be encouraged in cities by undertaking public landscaping and urban forestry projects that create mutually beneficial relationships between city dwellers and their environments.

In the end, a quote by Henry David Thoreau and from one of my favourite books, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods,

We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.

We can never have enough of nature indeed; time we respect it, acknowledge it and do something about it. It is just the right time to not go back to our normal ways of living, they weren’t normal in the first place.

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About Swati Singh Sambyal 3 Articles
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