Nagendra, Harini and Elinor Ostrom. 2014. “Applying the social-ecological system framework to the diagnosis of urban lake commons in Bangalore, India.” Ecology and Society 19:2: 67.
Abstract: The south Indian city of Bangalore provides a challenging yet representative context within which to examine issues of governance of urban social-ecological commons. The city was once famous for its numerous large water bodies, which have witnessed tremendous encroachment and pollution in recent years. These water bodies, called tanks or lakes, were typically managed by adjacent village communities but are now administered by a number of government departments involved with aspects of lake management, with multiple overlapping jurisdictions. The public’s perceptions of lakes has also changed with urbanization, transitioning from community spaces valued for water and cultural services to urban recreational spaces used largely by joggers and walkers. We focus on a set of seven lakes located in the urbanizing peripheral areas of southeast Bangalore. Some water bodies have been restored and managed effectively by newly forged collaborations between citizens and local government. Others are extremely polluted, and some have completely dried up and have been encroached. We use a social-ecological system (SES) framework to investigate why some locations have been successful in negotiating changes in governance from community-based systems to state management following urbanization, whereas other lakes have deteriorated. We use seven second-tier SES variables that were associated with self-organization in previous research: size of resource system, number of actors, leadership, social capital, importance of resource, existence of operational-choice rules, and existence of informal mechanisms for monitoring. We also include three third-tier variables previously identified as important in urban lake commons in Bangalore: scale and type of pre-existing pollution, exclusion of socioeconomic groups from the planning process, and networking with government organizations. We use this subset of 10 variables to examine social outcomes of the lakes, which we define as the extent of collective action by residents working together for lake restoration and ecological outcomes based on the ecological condition of the lakes. Collective action was low in only one of seven lakes, which challenges the presumption that citizens will not organize efforts to cope with common-pool problems. However, only two of seven lakes were highly successful in regard to both the extent of collective action and the level of ecological performance. While one lake was small and the other moderate in size, these two cases shared similar ranking in all other variables. Both lakes were polluted at a relatively low level compared with the other lakes, and in both cases, the leaders of local groups were able to network with government officials to clean up the lakes. Unfortunately, the challenge of cleaning up urban lakes after many decades of pollution is very difficult without effective interaction with various governmental units. Our analysis illustrates the usefulness of the SES framework in examining the combination of variables that makes a collective difference in affecting the outcomes of collective action and ecological performance. Our findings illustrate the need for polycentric arrangements in urban areas, whereby local residents are able to organize in diverse ways that reflect their own problems and capabilities, but can also work jointly with larger-scale governments to solve technical problems requiring changes in major engineering works as well as acquiring good scientific information. Such arrangements can reduce transaction costs for city governments by actively engaging local communities in processes that include coordination of collective activities, design of inclusive and locally suited ecological and social restoration goals, and planning and enforcement of regulations limiting access and withdrawal. At a time when many city governments are facing financial and administrative challenges that limit their ability to regulate and maintain urban commons, models of public-community partnerships could provide more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable institutional alternatives. This is an aspect that needs significant further consideration because the attention of most urban planners and scholars has remained on privatization while studies of successful instances of cooperative action in the urban context remain few and far between.