A picture of scuba divers sitting around a table with papers while underwater

Upside Down Nature: Musings of a Terrestrial Urban Ecologist ‘At Sea’

Pippin Anderson, Cape Town. 
26 November 2022

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
Aside from the huge number of swanky resorts and their reputation as a honeymoon destination, the Maldives is probably best known for their less fortunate status as the nation most under threat from climate change.

I recently had the great pleasure and privilege of a holiday on a boat in the Maldives. I had never sailed before, and am by no means an ocean-going character (indeed I took a year of swimming lessons in anticipation of this holiday), so the whole experience of being at sea was wonderfully novel to me and got me thinking about nature in all sorts of new ways. The Maldives is tiny, ranking the smallest country in Asia, and made up of over 1000 islands spread out over the Indian Ocean.

A picture of land and water from an airplane window
A bird’s eye view of the Maldives. Photo: Pippin Anderson

Their population is small, at around 533 900 people all living on a cumulative 298 km2 (115mi2) of land. Aside from the huge number of swanky resorts and their reputation as a honeymoon destination, the Maldives is probably best known for their less fortunate status as the nation most under threat from climate change. If scientific projections are correct the nation will be inundated by 2100. Their cabinet famously held an underwater meeting ahead of the 2009 U.N. Climate Summit in Copenhagen as a symbolic cry for help.

A picture of scuba divers sitting around a table with papers while underwater
A cabinet meeting held underwater prior to the 2012 UN Climate meeting in Copenhagen sought to draw attention to the plight of the Maldives who are predicted to be underwater by 2100. (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-maldives-environment/maldives-sends-climate-sos-with-undersea-cabinet-idUSTRE59G0P120091017) Photo: Mohammed Seeneen

What I found revelatory about my trip however was far more basic and straightforward. It is that in the Maldives, and no doubt numerous other coastal and island places, urban nature for them is mostly underwater. Not only is the bulk of daily experienced nature underwater, but with climate change and associated sea-level rise, there is more of this nature encroaching all the time.

Many of the islands are so small that you can stand on the beach where you land and look down the main street right through to the ocean on the other side.

A picture of a bright blue house surrounded by trees with an alley next to it leading to the beach
Photo: Pippin Anderson
A picture of a colorful alleyway leading to the beach
From the beach, you can sometimes see right through town to the sea on the other side. Photo: Pippin Anderson

The proximity of the sea and life in the sea is astoundingly ever-present. And the beaches are littered with shells and in a few strides into the water you are surrounded by sea life. Roads are often compact sand, and when it rains, or the tide is high, this sand is wet giving the uneasy sensation of almost being underwater all the time.

A picture of a sandy alleyway with concrete buildings on either side
When the sandy roads are wet, from rain or a high tide, you get a giddy feeling that with just a little more water you could swim through the town. Photo: Pippin Anderson

It felt unclear to me where the sea ended, and the land began. It’s not to say there is no terrestrial nature. Indeed, there seems to be a concerted effort on the part of residents to grow what greenery they can, but this feels incidental compared to the vast nature presented by the surrounding sea.

A picture of a residential building with balconies each full of plants
Balconies full of greenery and life in the capital city Male. Photo: Pippin Anderson

While I might take a walk to my local greenbelt, or visit the neighbourhood park, it would seem to me any equivalent outing in the Maldives would involve a beach or the sea. I was delighted by an urban park that demonstrated exactly this, where a portion of the sea had been cordoned off at the end of a block and shaded gazebos set up on the sand for mothers who looked on while small children splashed about in the water.

A picture of a beach with people sitting at a shaded table with a building in the distance
A portion of cordoned off sea forms a park in the city of Male. Photo: Pippin Anderson

Another city park has paths set among stretches of beach sand in the manner of paths crossing a public lawn.

A picture of a sandy park with trees, walking paths, and benches next to a building
This city park, in Male, uses beach sand in the way other cities might use lawn. Nature in the Maldives is set against a backdrop of sand and sea and this in turn occupies their urban nature spaces. Photo: Pippin Anderson

Almost all nature in the Maldives is sea, sand, and ocean-related and this infuses many of their urban public park spaces.

So, what must it feel like when this nature, the nature you grow up with, the nature that fills your childhood parks, the nature you love, starts to encroach on your city? I try and imagine the terrestrial equivalent. I guess it would be living in a city and the trees and lawns start to creep closer to your house. Grass runners inching their way up the steps towards your front door. Saplings sprouting in your living room. It’s hard to imagine. But for the Maldivians this is reality. Climate change will almost certainly bring nature even closer, threatening their cities, towns, and lives.

The Sinamale bridge, and airport expansion, both being constructed by the Chinese, are among a number of large engineering projects that also appear to be shoring up the islands in anticipation of sea level rise. It’s an expensive project—as island building always is—and it’s hard to know how viable it really is. There is a lovely piece of urban nature-based graffiti beautifully and cleverly painted onto a street in Hulhumale, the airport island just next to the capital of Male, which depicts dolphins breaking through the street, with a wooden bridge across the divided, broken, and submerged tarmac.

A picture of street graffiti depicting dolphins jumping out of a ravine
A magnificent piece of urban nature-based graffiti painted onto a road speaks of the mounting concern around sea level rise. Photo: Pippin Anderson

This piece of art seems to suggest nature is revered, and loved, but also is a clear statement of panic and concern over sea level rise. The piece is striking. It says to the viewer the sea is just beneath us, and it’s about to get a whole lot closer.

I do acknowledge these musings are undoubtedly naïve. The brief insights gained are enough to let me know my reading of these landscapes is grossly limited. I can cast my eye across a public park or a nature reserve and have some sense of diversity and system health, but in this nature, I am at a loss. I am sure the sea presents textures and colours that are easily understood by locals and lost on me. I cannot imagine what living with this kind of nature must mean for one’s everyday life, but its beauty is readily evident, and the nature is breathtaking.

A picture of a scarf clotheslined on a rail overlooking the sea
Looking out across the natural vistas of the Maldives. Landscapes unlike any I have encountered or imagined before. Photo: Pippin Anderson

While I cannot claim an understanding of these seascapes, the experience has shifted my terrestrial thinking and turned me on my head. I look at my terrestrial landscapes now with greater depth. I think I see the air and the soil now in ways I did not before. I see my landscapes as immersed, embedded, upside down, fluid, and connected; less separate entities and more clines.

Pippin Anderson
Cape Town

On The Nature of Cities

Pippin Anderson

About the Writer:
Pippin Anderson

Pippin Anderson, a lecturer at the University of Cape Town, is an African urban ecologist who enjoys the untidiness of cities where society and nature must thrive together. FULL BIO

Pippin Anderson

Pippin Anderson

Department of Environmental and Geographical Science and
The African Centre for Cities
University of Cape Town, South Africa

Pippin Anderson works at the University of Cape Town in South Africa where she is lecturer and director of graduate studies in the Department of Environmental and Geographical Science and urban ecology researcher at the African Centre for Cities. With a Masters degree in Conservation Biology and a PhD in Plant Ecology, Pippin has always had an interest in peopled-landscapes. In the last few years she has turned her interests to urban ecosystems and this informs her current teaching and research. Pippin lives in a dense suburb close to the city centre in Cape Town, yet from her roof (she goes up there for purposes of sanity) she can see Table Mountain National Park. She loves this dichotomy where city and nature must coexist, with their different temporal and spatial scales, and each so variably imagined by the population of the City. She enjoys grappling with the messiness of the ecology of human dominated landscapes.

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