Take a deep breath!

Feel good? “Yes” or “no” depends on your geography. Among other things. Today, I want to share a few thoughts about healthscapes (landscapes of health).

Places have character. The notion of ‘character’ is human. We ascribe ‘character’ to places based on our own psychological make-up. Beauty in the eyes of the beholder and all that, you know.

The character that we see in a place is a result of how we engage with it – how we view it, what we value in it, what we do in that place, etc. Thus, we develop affinity for some places – what Dr Yi-Fu Tuan calls tophophilia. There are also places we don’t like; we may fear, despise, hate, etc. – would that be ‘topophobia’? Feelings for places come from our perception of their usefulness to us in some way – ranging from the material to the physical, spiritual, and psychological.

Our actions in – and on – places contribute to the character of the places. Hence we create recreational places, sacred places, places to be feared (think of a prison!), and so on. These actions come from our needs, psychology, value system, etc.

These psychologies and value systems are, in turn, influenced by the places we live in. We interact with geography. The result of our interaction results in modification of places. Geographers call the resulting, modified landscapes “cultural landscapes”, “cultural environments”, or “built environments”. How do these reflect larger patterns of society?

Simple example: In the pre-industrial era, the tallest structures on the cultural landscapes were religious – the gopuram, steeple, pagoda, or minaret. Those were times when the primary sector of the economy was the mainstay. When the industrial revolution took hold and spread, the tallest structures were the industrial chimneys (also called ‘smokestacks’). This was the era of the secondary sector. Eventually, manufacturing led to more service-oriented economic activities (tertiary sector) and led to the post-industrial societies. Here, the tallest structures on the cultural landscapes became the financial towers (business oriented skyscrapers, the office buildings).

As you go from the primary to the tertiary sector, wealth generation increases rapidly. (The distribution of the wealth in society is another matter.)

Let us come to the scale of the city – Bangalore. When I was a child, we studied that Bangalore has salubrious climate. (Look up salubrious in dictionary.) We learned the soubriquets for Bangalore – ‘Garden City’, ‘Air-Conditioned City’. There were fewer people, buildings, motor vehicles, and paved surfaces. There were many lakes (all interconnected), gardens, trees in public and private spaces, and the city was spacious. Over time, especially with the arrival of the IT industry (tertiary sector), all that changed.

Large numbers of people immigrated to Bangalore, the tertiary sector expanded to cover not just IT, but medical, financial, commercial, entertainment, and many other enterprises. These people consume air, water, food, space, and many non-renewable and indestructible resources. They produce a lot of ‘waste’ – solids, liquids, and gases of varying degrees of poisonousness. The hydrography of Bangalore has been unable to effectively deal with taking the wastes away – most drainage structures are clogged.

Solid waste is trucked to nearby areas and dumped into ‘landfills’. Those, in turn, produce many solid, liquid, and gaseous substances that come back to bite us on our legs!

Net effect? That salubrious air-conditioned garden city is pretty much on its last legs.

But people react! There are those who try to make a difference in the place. I call them citizen geographers. As individuals and organizations, they try to change the way we engage with the city. It is a struggle that can often be frustrating. You read about many of them in this very newspaper.

These efforts are on to recover some of the lost ‘lung spaces’ of Bangalore. These are made up of the green cover and the lakes. These lungs of the city work unlike our lungs. The city’s lung spaces take in carbon dioxide and give out oxygen – they capture and store carbon from the atmosphere. Every green leaf (and sometimes even stem) does this. Every time we pluck a leaf, we are reducing the carbon capturing capacity of the city. So, don’t pluck leaves unless you plan to use them for food or medicine! If you see others doing it, give them a lecture and this column to read (followed by a quiz with 22 questions of 10 marks each!).

Along with all this, we are cutting down trees to widen roads, build elevated sections (flyovers), and the like. This has many impacts on the landscape. Loss of tree cover obviously negatively affects the carbon capture process. More surface is paved. Rainwater (whatever we get of it nowadays) has no way to percolate into the ground to recharge the natural underground water storage, nor does it flow slowly into the drainage routes (drains, canals, etc.). The rainwater rushes on the paved surface into the storm water drains which are unable to handle the rush of all this water. Plus people throw rubbish into the drains, blocking them. Citizens and our government actively cooperate in causing floods even with a little bit of rain. So, citizen geographers are addressing these problems also; each in their own ways.

Along with the changing urban character of Bangalore, more and more people lead sedentary lives. The technologically ‘backward’ days of my childhood kept us active because we had to walk to many places, we cycled, and all that. Now, even shopping for monthly provisions has become so easy that you order online and it is delivered home! The sedentary lifestyles are leading urban illnesses – diabetes, hypertension (‘blood pressure’), psychological problems such as depression, road rage, murders, suicides, etc.

Combating these ailments is big business! Enter the tertiary sector in the form of medical services (hospitals, medicines) and wellness services (gyms, therapeutic centres that offer yoga, ayurveda, etc.). So, urban life in the metropolis has become a vicious spiral that we are not able to get out of. Why is this? Send your views on this to geo@tiigs.org

Many people go for regular exercises now. This time has to be set aside from the daily grind of urban life. I, too, am under doctor’s orders to walk for an hour daily, or else! So, I go to a public park near my home. Beautifully maintained. The citizen geographers who use the park have formed a group and help the authorities maintain it well. This has become a city-wide phenomenon.

I have seen at least two out-door, public, and free gyms for people to use – one is in the park I go to. And, guess what? No one rushes! They wait for their turn to use the equipment.

The lakes are pretty much gone, but at least our citizen geographers are helping to keep the parks for us.

Bless them!

– Dr Chandra Shekhar Balachandran (TIIGS)

[A version of this post appears in the Deccan Herald student edition on Monday 24 February 2014 under the regular weekly geography column.]

Join us for the National Geography Youth Summit – 2014; 9-11 June, Bangalore. Details are here.


3 Responses

  1. The interconnected lakes’ system of Old Bangalore have been disrupted by the land mafia-politician-beauracratic nexus.The resultant systematic conversion of old lakes into residential/commercial spaces(e.g..the nonexistent Nagashetti lake) has lead to flooding of houses built in the low-lying areas(probably the residents/ owners living there now are unaware of this fact). No amount of remedial measures can redress the water gradient.Any wonder that even a few mm of rain & people lose valuable goods ,etc by flooding into homes?

    Garbage management which is right now in the hands of corporators or their henchmen is another sticky issue-efficient management means having to employ people of at least some education.But that will not fit into the politicians'(corporators are budding politicians after all) money raking plans, for they will have to pay the workforce more,give them employment benefits, & so on.Citizens pay the price by having unclean roads,uncleared rubbish,etc.

    There are poorer countries than India, but which are much cleaner.Goes to prove cleanliness is not directly proportional to GDP. High time cleanliness(domestic & industrial) was given paramount importance.Both Jayaram(the Mantri ji) of Congress & Narendra Modi of BJP (toilet first , temple next) were inclined to implement some measures, but were commanded by their Party Bosses to shut up! What a pity.

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