If you look out of the window of a plane as it circles Chennai, what you see, is only a few patches of solid green

Ours is an incipient megapolis, if you adopt the latest definitions for high-growth cities. Chennai is achieving economic expansion through various activities, and, in the absence of further land to develop in the city’s core, it is creating fragmented peripheral communities. This is typical of many Indian cities.

While such amorphous development is inevitable because governments have little to contribute by way of enlightened urban development policies — and they extend tacit approval to speculation in land — the effects are terrible. Our water bodies have been turned into garbage dumps and cesspools, trees are cut mindlessly and there is just a monoculture of cars and soulless concrete structures.

But a new report on how the diversity of life represented by plants, animals, and supportive natural elements is important for the urban economy and our personal well-being is getting ready.

With some luck, our city bosses and the Tamil Nadu government, which holds the veto on all development, will learn from it. One segment of the report titled ‘Cities and Biodiversity Outlook’ dealing with urbanisation, ecosystems and biodiversity was released at the recent global summit of the convention on biological diversity in Hyderabad. The full volume produced for the CBO with help from the ICLEI – local governments for sustainability and Swedish authorities will be out in the first half of 2013.

The analysis released so far covers Bangalore, but it holds lessons for everyone. It talks of the loss of urban water bodies, the rise of concrete jungles, the encroachment of public spaces, the importance of biodiversity to slums and, very importantly, of the role of active citizen civic engagement.

In Chennai, what we see on the ground often looks welcoming — there are old and dense trees in places such as Presidency College, Pachaiyappa’s and so on — but overall, the perspective changes from above. If you were to look out of an airplane window as it circles over Chennai, what you see, is only a few patches of solid green (Google Earth is a virtual option). These are the Theosophical Society forest and the Guindy National Park area. The rest of the landscape is dotted with trees, some in clumps, but there seem to be no comparably significant patches of scale.

Not many of these roadside trees are fruiting native species that attract birds and small animals either. Around the city’s periphery, in Chengalpattu, Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram, there are, what look like temporary wetlands, filled in by the recent rain. Much of the landscape appears dull from high up and merits closer study. As this newspaper frequently points out, water bodies in the suburbs are no more than giant trash bins – there is one even on the banks of the Adyar in Saidapet, not quite visible from the main roads.

Sadly, few community lands reserved under housing development permits have been have turned into woodlands by municipalities and panchayats. Which brings us to the point. Is it because the middle class cares little for green commons? The CBO report segment talks of Tree Watch groups in Pune and Surat that have done good work. In Bangalore, civic groups are deeply involved in retrieval of their urban (man-made) wetlands.

Do we in Chennai have vocal groups that can confront the establishment, including real estate developers who care little for nature? What we read about Chennai efforts is that a tree census in which the Forest Department participated was conducted in 2011 and volunteers from several city colleges were listed as participants. The census counter for trees listed on the hashtrees website, however, reads: ‘000 – data to be updated online soon!’

Since we are now at the tail end of 2012, it would be reasonable to expect some insight from the census – or perhaps the data is elsewhere?

We should certainly borrow an idea from Hyderabad, which now has the latest illustrated printed directory of plants and animals in that city, and create a current one for Chennai. We should also be pursuing roof gardens more. When native trees come back everywhere, our lives will get richer.

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