Biophilic Urban Acupuncture for Human Health

Kavyashree Swamygowda, Linda Heiß and Yasodhara Peddi
University of Stuttgart, Germany

A studio at the Institute for Landscape Planning and Ecology, the University of Stuttgart, named Urban Green and Public Health, brought us — Kavya, Linda and Yasodhara — together in looking at off-beat approaches to improving residents’ health in cities. With two of us hailing from India and the other an ardent enthusiast of the Indian culture, we chose Bengaluru, a city in India, as our focal area for our studio project, where we were tasked with exploring greening strategies in cities that could enhance public health.

Garden City to Silicon Valley: Transformation of Bengaluru City

Park culture was introduced in Bengaluru during the British occupation and locals took to it enthusiastically by planting street trees and growing produce in their home gardens. At one point, the city had earned itself the title of “Garden city of India.” A boom in information technology turned Bengaluru into the Silicon Valley of India, luring people from across the country to seek out employment opportunities here.

Today, Bengaluru has a population density of 12,000/sq.km, with a population growth of 3.56% in comparison to the global average of 1.05% (as of 2021). Undoubtedly, these numbers are only set to increase. Urban green spaces are rapidly shrinking due to changes in land-use patterns, causing the city to lose 78% of its vegetation in just four decades!

Figure 1: The changing image of Bengaluru. Illustration Credits: Authors. Picture Credits: Chirag Roy, Bangalore Visits and MGS Architecture

The exponential growth and changing landscape of Bengaluru poses several challenges for urban planning, many of which take a toll on public health. Mental, physical, and social health all contribute to overall human health. In India, obesity levels have reached epidemic proportions with 135 million obese individuals overall. Alarmingly, this is a cause of concern even among the younger populations with around 25% of children in Bengaluru suffering from obesity. Being an IT hub, Bengaluru is a hive of stressed-out professionals and techies, among whom anxiety and depression are on a rise.

Even though the need and appreciation for green spaces is undisputed, Bengaluru’s current urban development plan does not reflect it. Inequitable distribution of greenspaces proves to be a challenge for many residents who are often deprived of access to vast open spaces. Our view is that the challenges of limited space availability in cities could be tackled with small, simple interventions in areas that are either overlooked or used for other purposes.

At a time when the world is grappling with a global pandemic, it was especially interesting for us to examine Malleswaram, a neighbourhood within Bengaluru, which was founded in 1898 to provide temporary shelter during a large plague and famine. We looked at ways to implement greening strategies in this dense urban neighbourhood where there is a dearth of green spaces. This led to the idea of exploring unconventional spaces in the neighbourhood that present opportunities for greening. We therefore studied some in-between spaces in Malleswaram, aptly captioning our project ‘Kasadinda Rasa’, a Kannada (a South Indian language) phrase which means to create something meaningful from something unused.

Biophilic Urban Acupuncture

Biophilia is a term that can be defined as humankind’s innate biological need to connect with nature. Many studies have demonstrated that connection with nature positively impacts people’s overall health. Urban acupuncture deals with transforming spaces through small-scale interventions. These socio-environmental theories combined became our concept — Biophilic Urban Acupuncture — for transforming the unconventional and underutilised spaces of Malleswaram into active green spaces through small-scale interventions (Fig 2a). Historically, people of Malleswaram have been known for their love for nature. This relationship can be witnessed from the two main roads — Margosa road and Sampige road, which are named after the trees — Magnolia champaca and Azadirachta indica found in this area. Even small greenspaces in urban areas are said to have ecological benefits.

Figure 2a: Concept of Biophilic Urban Acupuncture. Illustration Credits: Authors
Figure 2b: Goals for strengthening the human-nature relationship in cities. Illustration Credits: Authors

With the vision of reimagining a neighbourhood with green spaces in unconventional areas, we charted out six goals to support our aim of creating active green spaces through small-scale interventions. The six goals are (also see, Fig.2b):

i) Strengthen Human-Nature Relationships: We believe that greening these unconventional spaces will make people feel that they are part of nature even if it is on a smaller scale.

ii) Improve Public Health: Through organised efforts, our goal is to promote a healthy lifestyle that improves communities’ health.

iii) Create a Healthy Urban Environment: A neighbourhood that is green, accessible, and active is healthy.

iv) Preserve Traditional Knowledge: The synergy of people from all walks of life and all age groups allows the exchange of knowledge.

v) Increase Biodiversity: As Harvard Professor Edward O Wilson said, Our health depends on biodiversity.

vi) Promote Participation and Stewardship: Harnessing people’s sense of belonging to a place provides an opportunity to care and participate.

Off-beat Interventions

Figure 3: Greening conservancy lanes. Illustration Credits: Authors.

Our area of interest, Malleswaram, was planned to ensure hygienic living conditions during the 1898 epidemic; today it is a highly dense neighbourhood where buildings are springing up cheek by jowl and once spacious houses are giving way to apartments.

We identified the following four unconventional spaces within Malleswaram that would be found in many Indian neighbourhoods (Fig.4).

i) Along Railway Lines

A railway line passes Malleswaram along its Western boundary. The rail traffic here is minimal, and the adjacent area has the potential to accommodate a green walkway, with adequate safety measures. The atmosphere in Malleswaram during the mornings and evenings is sprightly and energetic with walkers and joggers filling up parks and residential streets. A walkway along the railway line could be implemented with minimal effort and would be a cherished upgrade.

ii) Eateries along Footpaths

Malleswaram is well known for its street food and hole-in-the-wall eateries with crowds spilling onto the footpaths, eating their meals alongside the traffic, noise, and pollution. Planning such eateries next to a Katte (a traditional raised platform around the base of a tree usually used by people to rest and for informal meetings) would make eating street food a more nourishing activity.

iii) Temple Yards

Malleswaram also boasts of its many temples. Its very name comes from the Kadu Malleswara Temple. Temple yards are one of those few spaces left in cities where sacred old trees and native plant species thrive. They also attract many birds, butterflies, and animals. Yoga and meditation practised within these spaces could greatly benefit both mental and physical health.

iv) Conservancy Lanes

Another space that can be reclaimed and transformed into a green and activity-filled space is conservancy lanes. Conservancy lanes were introduced during colonial times. They were mainly used for manual scavenging and ran parallel to the main roads in residential areas. Often these lanes are used for garbage disposal and are generally considered unsafe and isolated. Cleaning up these lanes and installing planter beds and seating would create a lively atmosphere (Fig 3).

Furthermore, engaging and involving the residents in transforming these spaces would be a great chance to bring the community together. It will also imbue in them a sense of responsibility to look after the spaces that they helped create.

Figure 4: Our vision for a green, healthy, and active neighbourhood in Bengaluru, India. Illustration Credits: Authors

Idea to Action

Transforming unconventional urban spaces into active green spaces requires careful planning, and the contributions of multiple stakeholders come into play. Synergies between municipalities and active local civic organisations along with the residents need to come together for a successful implementation. Figure 5 illustrates the steps one could take in planning and implementing the interventions. The goal of this proposal is to develop a transferable approach towards greening unconventional, in-between spaces in a neighbourhood. Since the interventions are small in scale, we recommend their implementation through 24-hour action days or perhaps even quick ‘spot fixes.’ Throughout the year, specific days such as the UN awareness days and regional holidays, can be earmarked as action days. This idea is showcased as seen in the action day calendar in figure 5.

Figure 5: Steps for small-scale interventions and action day calendar. Illustration Credits: Authors

Our investigation for the studio project taught us how people can make the best use of limited resources to improve public health. The issue of density and limited space availability in rapidly growing cities calls for out-of-the-ordinary approaches to placemaking, especially regarding green spaces. To realise this potential, we must create awareness about the capacity neighbourhoods hold. We argue that even the smallest actions in most unconventional spaces can bring about a positive impact on the well-being of the residents and the environment. Furthermore, this information can be used to develop targeted interventions in similar contexts in order to create healthy cities.

On World Health Day, 7th of April, the executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity called for the consideration of human health in its broader ecosystem in order to build a healthier world. As per WHO estimates, 24 percent of all global deaths are linked to environmental conditions, making it all the more important to recognize the intricate linkages between the health of people and the health of the planet.

Generating better understanding of the links between accelerating global environmental change and human health to support policy making and public education