Bangalore, India’s fourth largest “megacity”, has a distinctive relationship to its urban trees. From the ubiquitous presence of the Sacred Fig (Ficus religiosa) in context of the Ashwath Katte, to the cavernous rows of Rain Trees (Samanea saman) that define the historic boulevards of Malleshwaram, trees offer a multifunctional public amenity to an ever growing urban region. But the case of the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) is perhaps the most fascinating. Over many thousands of years of human assisted migration and cultivation, this tree, a native of southern India, has insinuated itself into a distinctive place in local diets, landscapes, and hearts. It’s perhaps for these reasons that it’s considered extremely inauspicious to cut one down unnecessarily, at least in Bangalore.
Commonstudio (a collaborative creative practice currently based in Michigan, USA) recently produced a short, unnarrated documentary highlighting the daily lives of urban palm trees in Bangalore. 11 Palms bears witness to how the city maintains its everyday sense of the sacred in the midst of rapid urbanization. This phenomenon also speaks to an intriguing inversion of a predominant pattern: that landscapes must always be subordinate to urban architectures. Rather than employing a reverence to landscapes in metaphorical terms, we observe a condition in which elements of the landscape actively inflect and inform architectural expression and subjective experience: Residential and commercial architectures with floor plates and roofs literally pierced by tree trunks.
Is it possible to update our concepts of Nature to include these small but meaningful conditions? Can cities be understood not as the opposite of nature but as the wellspring of a more integrated notion of ecology? As we move toward a new phase of urban ecology research and embrace a new ethic of urban environmentalism, we might do well to take stock of the many messy ecosystems right under our noses in the city.
Daniel Phillips is a landscape architect and urban ecologist. He graduated from Otis College of Art and Design with a degree in Environmental Design (2008). He is a regular contributor to The Nature of Cities, and a former Fulbright-Nehru scholar. Daniel is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Michigan’s School of Environment and Sustainability.