Protecting Biodiver(city)

Fulbright-Nehru Research Scholar Daniel Phillips moved from Los Angeles to Bengaluru for a year to study city ecology and urban infrastructure.

Daniel Phillips grew up building mud forts and catching bullfrogs in the outdoors of California. But when he got older and began reading about urban planning issues, he found himself interested in the built environment.

Phillips attended the Otis College of Art and Design in California, from which he graduated in 2008. While there, he met Kim Karlsrud, his future wife and creative partner. They co-founded Commonstudio, a creative collaborative practice. “Design isn’t just a profession, but a call to action,” says Phillips.

Today, he has married his twin passions for cities and nature in a career at the intersection of these worlds. Phillips is a landscape architect and urban ecologist. His passions also brought him to India in 2016-17, as a Fulbright-Nehru Research Scholar.

For the Fulbright-Nehru Student Research grant, he and Karlsrud lived in Bengaluru for a year. Phillips examined city ecology in collaboration with Jana Urban Space Foundation (Jana USP) and the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), nonprofit organizations involved in shaping India’s urban future.

“As an American designer interested in the future of cities, I was fascinated by Bengaluru because it remains one of the fastest-growing urban agglomerations in the world, and as such is marked by a number of ‘wicked’ challenges, which render its future livability increasingly uncertain,” says Phillips.

For his Fulbright-Nehru project, titled “Biodiver(city) in Bangalore: Exploring Models for Collaborative Urban Resilience,” Phillips worked with a transdisciplinary team to come up with the concept for new forms of wastewater infrastructure retrofits, called Provisional Green Infrastructure (PGI). He likens the efforts to “urban acupuncture,” because it draws upon “natural principles of water filtration to lower the concentration of harmful contamination in urban wastewater.” To prove the approach’s viability, he organized a series of experiments in small-scale studies at labs and in the field. The findings were published in the “Water Science & Technology” journal.

“Based on the success of this initial experiment, I returned to Bengaluru to help orchestrate a larger field-based study using live urban wastewater,” says Phillips. The ultimate goal is to implement larger versions of this work citywide.

“In addition to contributing new knowledge to the field of green infrastructure,” he adds, “we also believe the approaches we are developing for Bengaluru will be broadly applicable to many other South Asian megacities dealing with similar issues of urban watershed contamination.”

But Phillips recognizes that his position as an American requires reflection on his part.

“Throughout the course of this research, I have had to confront my role as a cultural outsider, and as someone from a comparatively privileged class, race and gender,” he says. “Rather than impose my own values onto this context, I’ve yielded to new ways of thinking.”

Most of the collaborators on the project are Indian women, Phillips notes. “I am honored to continue to engage with them as interdisciplinary collaborators, colleagues and co-authors. I look forward to opportunities to host them in the United States with the same warmth they hosted me during my sojourn in India,” he says.

Inspired by his experiences, Phillips is completing a Ph.D. at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability.

“We are in an era of fast-paced global changes that will challenge our capacities to collectively adapt,” he says. “We can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, but we can try to be smart about how we move forward.”

To that end, he recommends that everyone begin evaluating their part in the environment.

“If we only think of nature as an ever-diminishing resource comprised of pristine and unpeopled places, we are doomed to failure and depression,” he says. “If we define it as something more intimate—something we interact with every day, even in our urban lives, something we can create and manage—it totally changes our perspective.”


Candice Yacono is a magazine and newspaper writer based in southern California.