As urbanization continues at unprecedented rates while loss of biodiversity and green spaces seem to follow the trend, environmental stewardship in urban areas becomes increasingly important.
Citizen groups can be important actors in urban environmental stewardship, and can have profound effects in influencing decision makers to better protect green spaces or water in cities.
Research shows that the social structure of these groups can in turn influence their function and performance. However, most studies conducted so far have been set in European and North American cities where growth is slow and public institutions are present and relatively effective. This does not fully capture the conditions that are relevant for the groups that are operating in "developing" countries – where the most rapid urbanization is taking place and many of the challenges associated with it can and will be found.
"We were not able to find any studies examining the structures of and conditions for these groups in the global South," says centre PhD student Johan Enqvist.
"Many of the biggest issues connected to urbanization and urban ecosystem management, for example access to clean water, will be particularly challenging in countries where poverty is widespread and people resettle in large numbers. Gaining insight into urban environmental stewardship is therefore an important part of ensuring good governance of urban ecosystems."
In the face of rapid change
The development and activities of citizen networks is in other words important to follow also in coming years. Bangalore used to be known as the "Garden city" of India for its many trees, parks, lakes and village groves. In the past few decades however, the city has changed a lot, partly related to the successful IT sector that has turned Bangalore into "India's Silicon Valley". As one of the fastest growing cities in the world many of the formerly green areas have now been converted for other uses.
“Considering the challenges in rapidly developing countries, we need to explore more thoroughly the potential of citizen groups and networks in environmental stewardship – particularly in rapidly urbanizing cities"
Johan Enqvist, lead author
In a recently published study Johan Enqvist, together with centre colleagues Maria Tengö and Örjan Bodin examine the structure and impact of a citizen network operating in Bangalore in India. Through interviews and social network analysis the authors examine how the network is structured and how this matters for the function it has for environmental management in the city.
"While staying in Bangalore I have realized that many citizens are questioning some of the big changes now taking place because of the harmful impacts to their city, and that there is an engagement for change that will be interesting and important to follow," says Johan Enqvist, who is focusing his PhD research on citizen involvement in environmental stewardship in Bangalore.
A bridging platform and a watchdog
The authors found that the citizen network provides a platform for engaging in management of the urban environment and ecosystems, and that it also plays a part in monitoring both the local authorities and the urban ecosystems.
The network creates opportunities for stakeholders to connect and discuss what kinds of changes are needed and desired. Cooperation and repetitions of campaigns in different neighborhoods can produce new visions of what the city should or could be like. This means that citizens get a chance to question development agendas set by actors with more conventional power, and present alternative paths forward.
"This emerging awareness may be a seed to grow a genuinely sustainable urbanization for Bangalore,” says Enqvist.
There are other good examples as well of what citizen networks can accomplish. One of them can be found in the case of Kaikondarahalli lake, where a group of citizens successfully got local government on their side to start the process to restore the degraded lake.
Enqvist, J., M. Tengo, O. Bodin. 2014. Citizen networks in the Garden City: Protecting urban ecosystems in rapid urbanization. Landscape and Urban Planning. 130: 24-35
Johan Enqvist 's research focuses on relationships and interactions in urban social-ecological systems and test ways to apply network analysis to ecological, social-ecological and social links.
Maria Tengö has a PhD in Natural Research Management from Stockholm University. Her research concerns emergent and self-organized governance of local ecosystems and the implications it has for resilience and transformation.
Örjan Bodin's research describes and models social, ecological and coupled social and ecological systems as complex and intricate webs of interactions between, and among, different ecological and/or social components.