When You Focus on Place, You do Everything Differently!

By Ailbhe Murphy

Over the last one-and-half years, I have been studying Sustainable Development at the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden. This winter I visited Bengaluru for two and a half months to collect interviews and observations for my master’s thesis. The purpose of my visit was to meet with local community groups who have taken on the  responsibility of maintaining restored lakes within the city. During my visit I hoped to investigate the extent to which these voluntary lake custodians help protect and manage the city’s lakes. I also wanted to understand what local people can do for their open spaces that public agencies cannot.floating-island-at-the-lake

What I observed is that local people greatly complement public agencies by developing an approach to maintenance that is lake-specific and community oriented. They cultivate an eye for detail and a knowledge of how to adapt infrastructural and ecological design so that it becomes tailored and appropriate to the places they care for. When a stormwater  in-flow pipe was being laid at Puttenahalli lake, for example, PNLIT founder Usha Rajagopalan had the inspired idea that a shallow series of steps, lined with protruding stones should be built beneath the pipe’s out let. The steps would help break the force of the inflowing water while the protruding “teeth” would help capture any in-coming debris and garbage, preventing it from entering the lake. Ideas, such as these, that come from observation and familiarity with place stand out as being effective, practical and beautiful in their simplicity.

Forced to work with limited funds and man-power the community groups I met are also highly creative and experimental when seeking out solutions to the social and ecological problems they face. PNLIT’s latest initiative to hand-make and install artificial floating islands at Puttenahalli perfectly exemplifies the kind of innovation I am talking about – a DIY, low-budget approach to filtering lake water and a visual way of creating awareness amongst lake visitors about water quality.

Additionally, not being forced to work under deadlines community groups are willing to take their time when decision-making and exercise patience when waiting to see the results of their labour. This cultivates a mentality of long-term thinking and allows flexibility in terms of when decisions can be most appropriately implemented to suit community needs and ecological conditions.

Unfortunately though, a common challenge amongst all the lake groups I met was lack of members. In general the maintenance of each lake I visited was resting on the shoulders of 4-6 committed individuals while the number of people using the lake as a space to walk, jog and sit was well in the 100s. Isn’t it ironic that we all want to live in a place that is great but the majority of us do not contribute to making where we live great? We are happy to think that paying our taxes absolves us of this responsibility. But are we also denying ourselves the right to take an active role in shaping where we live?

As American novelist Wendell E. Berry says, “people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love”.  So if you live near a lake in Bengaluru give yourself the chance to not only value it but fall in love with it too, by contributing to its upkeep. Get involved with groups such as PNLIT who are very much exercising their right to make their and your local place great. And give yourself a chance to taste the sense of purpose and satisfaction that their members are so obviously brimming with, in the knowledge that they are doing something good for their community and environment.