On the Aesthetics of Urban Nature

Vijaylakshmi Suman

The vision of a world-class city comes with socially produced aesthetic criteria. It draws a distinction between the beautiful and the ugly, the visible and the invisible, the legal and the illegal as a process for the making of world-class urban improvements. According to such an aesthetic mode of governance, development projects in metropolitan cities are declared planned if they look “world-class”, and on the contrary, if the settlements do not appear as aesthetically pleasing, they are labelled as unplanned and illegal (Ghertner, 2015; Sharan 2002). In addition to the urban infrastructural planning, nature in the city is also shaped according to an imagination of a world-class city. For instance, in Delhi, the river Yamuna is seen as an obstruction in the imagination of making Delhi a world-class city. Since ‘urban nature’ is often imagined as manicured parks, the Yamuna is perceived as wilderness with grasses, crops and water (Baviskar, 2020).

In an urban landscape, the process of ecological restoration also emphasises much on aesthetics and recreational benefits, which can tend to undermine the important aspects of ecological and provisioning services. A recent article by Sen et al., (2021) draws attention to the restoration and management of urban water commons, especially in the cities of the Global South. The urban areas of the Global South are heterogeneous, and where the social composition is complex and unequal. Most times, in official documents, projects which get recorded as ecological restoration are aimed at creating an upper class enclosed space to be used mostly for recreational purposes. However, such a limited vision of restoration often undermine the local community and their sources of livelihood as their needs and concern are not addressed. The lack of social and ecological factors from the restoration plan creates issues pertaining to social and environmental justice. It is imperative to include diverse human needs and usage for a successful ecological process, considering the role they play in balancing the conservation of nature and environmental equity. However, in practice, emphasis on the inclusion of local stakeholders and communities remain only as an official record and is never realised. The projects plan often envisions the creation of urban green spaces as recreational opportunities for certain civic groups, mostly the elite neighbourhood.

Image: An urban wetland. Source: Wikimedia

In the context of city planning, which also include managing and conserving urban nature, the vision with which it is executed do incorporate the aesthetics element. On a larger scale, the consequences of such an imagination of nature in the city leaves out certain sections of the city or social groups from accessing these spaces, as their regular usage of the space is not appropriate anymore and seen as a nuisance. These new rules of aesthetics exclude certain group of people from accessing nature, which further creates concern over environmental justice. This may require management bodies to look at the issue by being more inclusive rather than just preparing a restoration plan for the urban space.    


  • Baviskar, A. (2020). The River. In Uncivil City: Ecology, Equity, and The Commons In Delhi. Sage.
  • Ghertner, D. A. (2015). Rule by aesthetics: World-class city making in Delhi. Oxford University Press.
  • Sen, A., Unnikrishnan, H., & Nagendra, H. (2021). Restoration of urban water commons: Navigating social-ecological fault lines and inequities. Ecological Restoration, 39(1-2), 120-129.
  • Sharan, A. (2002). Claims on cleanliness: Environment and justice in contemporary Delhi. The cities of everyday life.

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